Culture clashes

…when you are “neurotypical” and are raising a child who is neurodivergent, it is like raising them in a different culture.

As parents, we try to do what we believe is the best for our kids. Some of us read lots of books, some consult with psychologists, some with school staff, or go to workshops (maybe watch parenting videos too?). We try.

When we are raising a child in a different culture, it gets more complicated than usual. Maybe manners are different. Like how you interact with people when you enter a room. Do you say hi to everyone? or each person? Kiss, hug, look them in the eye or not? In Mexico we kiss everyone on the cheek (normally the right one, by the by, all need to go in the same direction to avoid… uh… accidents). But in Italy is on both cheeks, Switzerland it’s three kisses, US… none.

I would argue that when you are “neurotypical” and are raising a child who is neurodivergent, it is like raising them in a different culture. Their culture is different from yours. Only, they don’t need society to instill those manners or behaviors in them, they are born knowing that culture and behaving consequently.

If you have lived abroad or immersed in a different culture, you’ll agree with me that there are tons of behaviors, customs and phrases that don’t make sense to you. You can *understand* that it is important for *them,* but you won’t *feel* it in the same way. People from Germany and other “orderly” countries can suffer in Mexico because there seems to be chaos all the time. People say they will come to your birthday party but won’t show up. Or they come two hours later and won’t realize they need to apologize. They say “maybe” when they mean no.

So… imagine you’re a Mexican raising a German. It can be very, very frustrating, especially since you’re Mexican, and you had another child who behaves like a proper Mexican and you don’t understand why this one is behaving like a German.

Your neurodivergent child comes in a nice neurodivergence package. Unfortunately, some parents don’t realize this (they don’t know about neurodivergence or they have been told their child is “neurotypical,” aka not having any neurodivergence). These parents then keep trying to raise the child as “neurotypical” but they will invariably become frustrated, because the child cannot understand the reasoning behind the manners or behaviors their parents are trying to instill in them. Or can understand the reasoning but don’t really “feel” it and will commit faux pas after faux pas.

Now, there are parents who DO know their child is neurodivergent. Then the options are basically to educate them as if they were “neurotypical,” which will lead to frustrations like those experienced by parents who aren’t aware of their child’s neurology. Or they could raise them keeping in consideration that they are neurodivergent. A third option is to keep in consideration that they are neurodivergent BUT try to have them adapt to “neurotypical” ways, manners and behaviors.

There are many therapies that try to “help” achieve an “optimal outcome” that means that the child will be “indistinguishable from peers.” This, arguably, would lead to societal acceptance, better treatment from peers, a good job, better grades and better quality of life.

But… it does not. What is achieved with “indistinguishability” is actually what neurodivergent people call masking. Basically, it means playing a role all day in front of others, fearing that being themselves will lead to societal rejection, poor treatment from peers, bad grades, no job and low quality of life. The person inside doesn’t change. It’s only what is shown to others that is portrayed differently.

Does masking lead to societal acceptance? Hmm. Probably some, but not enough to be worth it. Masking is hard work, and it would require to keep in mind all types of situations. You’re bound to mess up sometimes (just as one does in a different culture). The more time you spend with someone, the more likely they’ll detect a crack on your façade.

What about treatment from peers, romantic relationships, raising your children? I’d believe it’s the same as above. Plus, the added stresses from any relationship would put a strain, and masking can become even more difficult (again, I’m drawing from my experience in other cultures, or even different types of society—imagine living for a week with a family with a very different socioeconomic status from yours, pretending you’re “one of them.”) Child rearing is extremely stressful as it is, and you’ll have different perspectives on how, why and when to discipline your children than your partner’s. This is specially draining if your partner doesn’t have your same neurology.

Bad grades? Actually, probably your grades in college would suffer if instead of playing to your strengths by studying what you like and are good at, you study whatever you think society is demanding of you. Or if you don’t study in the way that makes you learn better, because you’re trying to study like the rest. And masking would imply that you don’t request necessary accommodations, which will take a toll on your academic performance.

Job? Are you kidding me? People who were diagnosed as adults say they suffered because they were not receiving accommodations, peers were not patient with them, they could not keep a job. People who mask have reported similar situations.

Better quality of life… imagine living in a lie. Pretending to be religious in a super conservative society. Gay in a homophobic one. “Neurotypical” in an ableist one. People who mask have seen that their self-worth is hurt; they suffer from depression and anxiety. It has been studied in girls and is believed to be a main cause of late diagnosis, which in turn cause these girls to receive services and help later on in life than otherwise. As Kieran writes, masking is not adapting to change. Masking is tiring and causes anxiety. Ryan Boren links masking to burnout.

If you were masking, you would always be wary of new people. What if they like you, you become friends, and then you lower your guard, they see the real you, get freaked out and you never see them again. You’re never able to relax with a friend. It’s like being undercover, always in danger of being discovered.

When we train (or drill) our kids to become “indistinguishable from peers,” we are teaching them to mask (or camouflage, as it is also called). We’re leading them in the wrong direction. We’re leading them to low self-esteem and exhaustion. They don’t deserve that. They deserve to love themselves as they are, and to be loved without masks. Maybe they’ll have fewer friends. So what? Those few will be real friends. They’ll be able to relax and actually enjoy being with them.

We should teach our children how to interact with “neurotypicals,” for sure. But never at the expense of their individuality and dignity. “Neurotypicality” should be shown as just another culture and not as the correct and best way of being. Because it simply isn’t.

Otomi Dolls
Since I mentioned Mexico… shown are two dolls made by Otomi women in my home state of Queretaro. On the left is a boy, wearing a whitish hat, his black hair is showing a little bit and he is smiling. On the right is a girl, her hair is black and long, braided with ribbons. She’s also smiling.

Author: Florencia Ardon

I'm the mom of two amazing neurodivergent children, and have been married to a great guy, their dad, for over a decade and a half. I work at a university as a student advisor, and love reading and hiking. /// Soy madre de dos niños increíbles, neurodivergentes, esposa desde hace más de una década. Soy asesora de estudiantes en una universidad. Me encanta leer y caminar.

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