One time, I was talking in therapy about how, whenever I feel lonely, I imagine talking to someone and the conversation going perfectly. I have an idealized version of how the relationships in my life (of every kind) should turn out and replay imaginary scenes of successful social interactions in my head as a source of comfort.
When I told my therapist this, he said, “Do you think that has something to do with the NVLD?”
I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach, as I always do whenever someone mentions my nonverbal learning disability. To protect myself from the blow of his reminder, I said, “It’s not like I never have successful social interactions in real life. I’m capable of having conversations with people.”
He replied, “I wasn’t saying that. I was just thinking about how scripts for social interactions are common for people with NVLD.”
“Well, it’s not like that for me. Not all the time, at least.”
I wanted to scream that I could be normal, that I wasn’t entirely socially inept. Because after all, being socially inept seemed like a sentence for a lifetime barren of purpose and full of loneliness.
My therapist asked me why I always seemed to get so defensive whenever people brought up my NVLD. Being well-learned in human behavior, he had noticed a pattern in my reactions.
One time, when he was out of town and I saw a backup, I had a breakdown in the other therapist’s office when she suggested that the reason why I assumed she was angry with me was that my NVLD made it hard for me to mentalize what other people are thinking. I don’t like to talk about my NVLD in depth. And when I do, I bring up the problems with visual-spatial awareness, executive function, and coordination that it causes. Not the social skills deficits. I don’t like people pointing out how hard it is for me to interact with other people without breaking a rule of social etiquette, or at least feeling like I have. My NVLD has always been a major source of shame for me.
You might not even know what NVLD is, which is understandable because it’s kind of like the hipster of the neurodivergent community. That is, it’s not mainstream and not everyone has heard of it. It’s not even in the DSM, although many psychologists agree that it is a real diagnosis. They agree that having average to above average verbal skills paired with a significant discrepancy in visual-spatial, motor, and social skills is a real learning disability called NVLD. I was diagnosed with it in 6th grade, but I haven’t exactly come to terms with the fact that I have it.
I love people. I feel like my life has the most meaning when I’m making others smile. But this NVLD diagnosis has made me feel like a defective human being who will never be able to have a meaningful life. Now, it’s not like I didn’t know I struggled with social situations until I got diagnosed. Throughout my entire life, I’ve always felt odd. I never truly felt like I knew how to fit in with other people or the proper way to behave. There’s been a persistent feeling of otherness in my life like everyone was trying to shove me into a neat little box that I just couldn’t fit into. One root of this is being bisexual, but I’ve found a great deal of support in the LGBTQ+ community and am able to proudly talk about that part of who I am. Yet, another major root of feeling like an oddity is my NVLD and ADHD. Internally, I haven’t quite found peace with it. I’ve found peace with having mental illnesses like OCD and depression, but not with being neurodivergent.
Though the definitions are blurred, having ADHD and NVLD might put me somewhere on the autism spectrum. And I’m going to be real here, there’s a part of me, a part that I’m very ashamed of, that doesn’t want that to be true. Yes, it sickens me to say as much. Being on the autism spectrum is not wrong. I know that. But internalized ableism has a funny way of creeping into your psyche and telling you that it’s wrong to be who you are. It tells you that being on the spectrum puts you in a certain box of who you are and who everyone expects you to be. Which is ironic, because, you know, it’s a spectrum. I tried to distance myself from my neurodivergent-ness, which isn’t fair. I wouldn’t dream of judging anyone else for being neurodivergent. If there’s one thing I pride myself on, it’s my nonjudgemental attitude towards other people. For all of the many neurodivergent people I know, I’m in awe of their differences that make them into the beautiful person they are.
Yet I can’t offer that unconditional kindness and acceptance towards myself. Why? I hate myself for being different because society has told me that it’s wrong. It feels like I spend every day of my life trying to change myself to fit in with other people. I so desperately want to be able to understand social situations and process the world the same way everyone else does.
But what does that even mean? What does acting like “everyone else” mean? Isn’t everyone on this planet a unique individual with their own special way of behaving and seeing this world? And I certainly have a unique way of seeing the world. Yes, my tendency to process everything verbally sometimes gets me into trouble. For example, I try to conceptualize emotions by putting them into words instead of just feeling them. But my verbal skills also give me an affinity with words, which has proven to be a gift. My ADHD often gets in the way of productivity, and it also gives me a sense of creativity and zest for life that I wouldn’t have otherwise.
Having NVLD and ADHD has sometimes felt like a death sentence. I want to form meaningful connections with other people and feel like the differences in how I process social situations can get in the way of that. But what could be meaningful about following every rule of social interaction in the rulebook and behaving the same way that everyone thinks they should? Isn’t marching to the beat of your own drum the best way to create something new and meaningful?
Yes, it can be hard to find people I feel comfortable being myself around. But that oftentimes roots from my anxiety and the lesson that has been instilled in me that unless you behave perfectly in social situations, everyone will reject you and it’ll be your fault. But you know what? I may have my quirks and be somewhere on the autism spectrum, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. I have ADHD and NVLD and don’t have the neurotypical ideal of social skills. Does that mean there’s something wrong with me? Absolutely not! I’m learning to love and accept myself, and right now I’m focusing on loving my so-called “awkwardness” and “social defects.” My social interactions may not have followed society’s script of how interpersonal relationships are supposed to go, but I’ve already had lots of meaningful interactions with people. And I’m going to continue having more because I’m working on not being afraid of being myself.
It’s not an easy process. But the best people to be around are those who unapologetically love themselves and embrace all their quirks, and through this self-acceptance, they accept others and encourage them to be themselves. I don’t want to be perfect. I want to be joyful and loud and passionate and creative and awkward and quirky and loving and myself. NVLD and ADHD included.
Nora is an aspiring writer with NVLD.