I recently read a good article in the Guardian about adults who are diagnosed with autism. The timing of the article was perfect, since I’ve been thinking a lot about late ADHD diagnoses lately (see here and here). And the stories in it resonated with me because the people described diagnosis as a revelatory “suddenly my life makes sense” moment that will be familiar to those who were diagnosed with ADHD as adults.

It’s interesting that all of us with mental health conditions, learning disabilities and any kind of non-typical neuropsychiatric wiring all have something in common at the core of our experience.

I may not know what it’s like to have the actual symptoms of dyslexia, for example, but I know what it’s like to grow up with a brain that works differently, to not be able to do some things other people take for granted, and to become ashamed and confused about that.

UnityRecognizing this shared experience is important not just because it makes us more able to empathize with each other and less alone, but also because we share some of the same path forward and the same struggle.

I like to talk about spreading ADHD awareness, but the solution to ADHD stigma isn’t just educating people about what the symptoms of ADHD are. It’s more general than that. It’s about cultivating a society-wide attitude that people deserve to work and live in whatever way fits with their brains. That’s true for people with ADHD, autism, dyslexia or depression. If we promote this kind of neuro-acceptance as a general value, ADHD awareness as a specific goal will follow.

In fact, let me go one layer further.

When you get down to it, the problem isn’t even stigma against mental illness as such. It’s stigma against people who are different.

As humans, we have a lot of things going for us, but we also have an ugly streak in us: a tendency to distrust and exclude people who are different – people who think different, look different, and love different than us.

In a way, just like there’s something in common between the experience of having ADHD and the experience of having autism, there’s something in common between the experience of being pulled over by the police because you’re black, the experience of not being allowed to get married because you’re gay, and the experience of being fired from your job for having ADHD. (There are also obvious differences, but that’s not what I’m interested in right now.)

In all three cases, there’s a set of (often unconsciously learned) biases and judgments against people who are different than the majority: people with a certain skin color are dangerous, people with a certain sexual preference are deviant, and people with brains that work a certain way are lazy troublemakers.

Some of the solution to these problems is probably shared too. To the extent that we’re able to create a society where we see our common humanity above these more superficial differences, it’ll be better for all of us, including those of us with ADHD.

That’s why people with any mental health condition have a vested interest in standing up to discrimination in all its forms. Stigma against mental health conditions feeds off some of the same types of thinking as racism, homophobia, etc. It’s not a coincidence that the Nazis’ gassing technology was developed in the years before the Holocaust as part of Aktion T4, an extermination program that targeted those with physical and especially mental illnesses and disabilities.

So how do we actually create this society where people recognize that those who are different than them really aren’t all that different in the ways that matter? I have no idea, but here’s something all of us with mental health conditions can do: realize that when it comes to fighting stigma, no amount of educating people about our symptoms is going to work unless we also spread the attitude of appreciating each other’s differences and recognizing what we all have in common.

Image: Flickr/stu mayhew under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0