Neurodivergent “Chameleons”: People with Hidden Limitations

The average person might believe that it’s easy to identify neurodiverse individuals. Often, people immediately associate neurodiversity with individuals who consistently struggle with reading due to dyslexia, those on the higher end of the autism spectrum, or individuals with ADHD who may have difficulty comprehending instructions. Some may also believe that neurodiverse individuals require assistance to grasp basic human functions, be it walking, speaking or distinguishing between colors and numbers.

But what about those of us who are neurodivergent chameleons, who are different enough to notice it themselves, but others can’t see it at all? What about abuse victims, whose minds are rewired from the trauma they experienced to compute the world differently? What about people who have both?

These issues plague my life. As an individual with bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, hypersensitivity, chronic depression, manic depression, and a form of autism, life is strange and difficult. I feel others’ emotions and energies daily, and they can overrule my own, to the point that I hate living on campus.

I often feel “normal” emotions  to the extremes: extreme sadness to the point of constant breakdowns, extreme anger that makes me feel the need to destroy something physically, or extreme happiness where I feel drugged, even though I’m completely sober. Add to the mix the emotions of a few hundred students, staff and faculty members, and I am distraught all the time.

To make things worse, I come from an abusive, hypocritical Christian family. Many times, when in public, we seemed like the perfect Christian family that cared about our community and friends. Behind closed doors, there was gossiping, backstabbing and judgemental attitudes towards people whose actions made them human. This behavior was also used against each member of our family, to the point that I can no longer trust anyone I am related to.

Additionally, from verbal emotional abuse to physical abuse, I was traumatized daily for 15 years by the people I have called family. People who were supposed to show love instead wanted to dictate my life or bully me. Through this, I was used to console them regarding other issues that caused remorse, guilt, or impacted their decision-making skills. In a way, I became a parent or a therapist for them to rationalize themselves through. 

In this household, I was told when I was nine that I would be “locked up in a padded cell” for all of the mental issues I had. I was also told at that time that if I ever “served the devil,” I could be killed for my disobedience.

Because of this and other controlling tactics, I was led to believe that I was insane or so fragile that I needed constant help and support. My sister was also treated the same way, to the point we were pitted against each other constantly. She has ADHD, and we clash because of our character differences. I’m a quiet and deeply brooding person with intense emotions and random energetic outbursts; she is loud and constantly chaotic and outgoing. I listened and did what I was told; she rebelled and asked questions. 

To this day, I do not understand the bonds of a family on any scale, and I probably never will. But what helps me to get through school and heal are three Maryville College departments. The Student Counseling Center on campus helps me deal with my neurodiversity and trauma. TimelyCare also helps with both, as well as assisting me in obtaining the official documentation for my needs. Finally, the Office of Disability Resources and Accessibility, run by Debbie Stietenroth and Kelly Fitzgerald, has offered resources and help to me. I have had several meetings with the latter this semester, and Fitzgerald has helped me to understand that I am both accepted and welcomed here for all that I am.

She told me that the goal of DRA is to remove barriers for all students with a disability, whether it’s physical, mental or emotional. They strive to give specific, personal accommodations for students based on their needs. The process is the same regardless of disabilities, and everything is tailored to those needs.

The first step is to establish eligible students who are enrolled at MC and what their needs are. While documentation is normally required to identify those needs, the department understands that some individuals may have barriers that inhibit them from getting it. These barriers include not having health care based on their backgrounds and/or gender roles, to even being denied documentation because they are queer and/or students of color.

The second step is to understand what other types of barriers exist for the student on the mental, emotional and physical level. Because this is an interactive process, there are several meetings held between the DRA staff and the students to clearly define what accommodations should be given. These meetings involve the exploration of a student’s response to different environments, including classrooms, residence halls, and the outdoors.

The third and last step is finding successful ways to accommodate the student and how best to help them succeed. If desired by the student, the professors of their classes are emailed letters that state what they need in order to learn effectively, from listening devices to seating arrangements. While the courses do not change based on this information, the goal is to give students better access to the most comfortable learning environment possible in the courses they take.

With the support of these three departments, I am learning to become whole again and seeing my neurodiversity as an advantage instead of a weakness, and my trauma as a strength.

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