The first time I remember feeling different from others was in primary school. I was about 6 years old, and the local firefighters had just wrapped up their visit to our school (a highly anticipated event). We were to spend the remainder of the day drawing and coloring. The day couldn’t get any better!
I gazed at my teacher for instructions, but as the words left her mouth, they floated into a pink twisty cloud before they evaporated into thin air, as they always seemed to do.
I asked, “Miss, can we draw anything?”
“Yes, of course,” she said. “And make it as big and colorful as you want.”
So off I went. I was determined to use every crayon we had. As I drew, a thought entered my head: Why weren’t my classmates using all the colors like I was? I mean, that’s what the teacher had told us. It was an unequivocal, clear instruction. They’re silly. They didn’t listen. I sniggered to myself, so proud of my listening skills as I continued to draw.
When I finished, I confidently marched up to the teacher to show her my drawing. The reaction on her face wasn’t what I was expecting. “Oh, that’s very nice, but why have you drawn a set of balloons?” she asked.
All of a sudden, my stomach curled inwards. I felt heat rising from my neck, up through my cheeks, almost in perfect time to the rising chorus of laughs throughout the room.
“Oh no, she drew some balloons!” a student said. As I dared myself to gaze around the class, I noticed, to my horror, drawing after drawing of fire engines. Of course, some kids had only managed to draw a couple of wheels or the beginnings of a fireman, but there was no doubt that each and every kid in that class had followed what the teacher had asked them to do. Except me.
And so began my introduction to feeling like the one who never quite got it.
My life has been peppered with times when my brain didn’t process information in the same way that my peers’ brains had. In those moments, I was often brought back to the acute vulnerability I felt as a child.
But since becoming a learning differences specialist, I have been fortunate to learn a lot more about brain differences. I understand that we all process and learn differently — we are not robots designed to perfectly compute every piece of information we receive in the same manner. I also understand that differences in cognitive processing can affect areas like attention, memory, focus, and problem-solving, and impact so many areas of life, especially for neurodivergent individuals.
I know and appreciate the fact that intelligence is multifaceted and complex, and that we all exhibit unique strengths across different domains of intelligence. That intelligence can’t be reduced to a single type. Some people may excel in logical reasoning, while others may have exceptional artistic or interpersonal skills. Traditional tools that measure intelligence, such as IQ tests, only capture a limited aspect of human intelligence and may not reflect an individual’s full range of abilities.
With all we know about the brain, and with a greater understanding and acceptance of differences in functioning, I look at words like ‘stupid,’ ‘lazy,’ and ‘slow’— words that should have never had a place in our vocabulary to start — with such disdain and confusion. With such diversity in brain processing and functioning, how could these terms have ever applied?
Today, I am much more self-assured and comfortable about exposing my ‘vulnerabilities.’ If I am simply not getting what’s going on in a meeting, I raise my hand and say that I don’t understand, or I ask if the talking point can be explained in a more visual way. If that’s not possible, I explain that I will take some time to process the information and will follow up (missing word here) if I still have questions.
Being open about the way my brain processes the world, I’ve noticed, encourages others to reveal their own differences. It creates a different dynamic in the room, where the energy is open and honest. It’s a dynamic I strive for all children — especially neurodivergent youth —to experience. With one in five people being neurodivergent, children need ample opportunity to witness and embrace the rich diversity of human brain function. That’s how they can develop the confidence to accept and embrace their own brains, differences and all, without shame.
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