|[Image description: Close up of a black t-shirt with a blue
and green combined brain/planet earth illustration, with the
word “NEURODIVERSITY” under it. Worn by a
partially visible teen boy with beige skin and gray shorts.]
My son chooses his outfits each day with care and deliberation, and an eye for specific color combinations. One of his favorite shirts is a Neurodiversity tee, which ranks second only to the Catbus tee in terms of “if it is not clean there will be much sadness and reiteration of sadness so please just make sure it is clean.”
For those unfamiliar with Neurodiversity, it is a pride-tinged term used by folks in the autism and autistic communities to describe themselves:
“The idea of neurodiversity was developed by autistic people in
opposition to the pathologizing model. According to them autistic people
are not disordered. They have a different sort of order. Their brains
are differently wired. They think differently. They do not want to be
cured. They want to be understood. This is not to deny that autistic people often face real difficulties.”
Not everyone knows what neurodiversity means, so wearing a Neurodiversity tee might not make people treat my son differently than they otherwise would when we are out and about. But then he is not a person whose autism is subtle, so in our experience people usually instantly understand he might need a bit of accommodation, and they are cool about it. We are fortunate, and I do not take that good fortune for granted.
But when my son wears this shirt, it can be a magical connecting magnet. As it was this weekend while we hiked in a local nature preserve.
We hiked the first half mile of the trail with a stated intention of “sitting on the bench.” Then we sat on the bench, basking in the glow of Goal Unlocked. As we sat, we were approached by a woman and a man who noticed the tee. The man told me the exact length of the trail, which I had not known, and then said directly to my son, “you’ve got a brain on your shirt!” Most strangers don’t talk to my son directly, or if they do, use overly loud or sing-song voices. This man did neither. Nor did he deploy any expectant, anxiety-provoking pauses.
We got up and started hiking again, as a group. My youngest daughter and I talked with the woman, trading enthusiastic facts about the emerging local flowers (Indian paintbrushes), other plants that grow in the park despite the gnarly serpentine soils, serpentinite being our state rock, and how wonderful trilobites and ammonites are. She asked if I was a teacher, my daughter told her “no, we’re nerds!” She told us she was a mathematical artist. The man walked ahead, my son walked alongside, we said hello to some friendly dogs and their people, the oak-dappled sunlight that surrounded us was neither to bright nor too dim, and life was good.
I don’t know if the two other adults were autistic, if they recognized the Neurodiversity tee and knew what it meant and that we might be OK people to approach. All that seemed possible, maybe even probable. They were certainly fantastic company. We parted ways, expressing the wish that we might see each other on the trail again. And I hope we do, because I so love meeting friendly folks who love nature and science facts and art and hiking, and who treat my kids like people.
We talk a lot in the TPGA FB forum about the ethics and practical aspects of publicly identifying one’s self as autistic, in making that decision for another person, whether it’s even a useful thing to do, whether it could have prevented the arrests of autistic people like Tario Anderson or Neli Latson or Philip. I don’t have an answer, other than that we need to work with local police and authorities to better recognize autistic and neurodiverse traits during law enforcement encounters. But it’s possible that making more people aware of what neurodiversity means and wearing neurodiversity gear helps, is a step, could make a difference. Those actions certainly wouldn’t hurt.