ADHD Adulting Mental Health Neurodiversity

What is internalized ableism? Neurodivergent people need to know.

internalized ableism neurodivergent

While the neurodiversity movement has been able to finally get some traction in the mainstream media, it has yet to have a significant impact on how people with disabilities are treated. This is due in part to the fact that neurodiversity is still misunderstood by many, and also because of how deeply entrenched ableism against neurodivergent people is within our society. Some even believe that neurodiversity is a form of ableism because it promotes the idea that people are disabled by their neurological differences, instead of ableism being defined as privilege and power over those who do not fit into society’s expectations.

I came up against this belief within myself. As a late-diagnosed adult ADHDer, I went through so many stages of grief. One of them was confronting all the ways that I have internalized ableism–and making the commitment to continue doing so.

It means acknowledging and asserting that I cannot thrive in a world that wasn’t made with me in mind. I had to, and continue to, do the hard work in reminding myself that I deserve ease and flexibility, like the trees whose branches live where the wind blows.

What is Neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity” is a term that describes the wide range of human brains and minds, and the ways they are neurologically different from each other. Neurodiversity includes people who have neurological differences such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.

We can also understand neurodiversity as a social movement that seeks to end the stigma surrounding neurological differences by encouraging people with disabilities and other atypical brain wiring to embrace their conditions instead of trying (and failing) to “fix” them by adjusting their speech, behavior, or values to be more normative.

So, what is “internalized ableism”?

internalized ableism neurodivergent
Photo by Kat Smith

Internalized ableism is the way that an individual absorbs and applies the beliefs and moral judgments of the dominant ableist culture, at a subconscious level. In other words, it’s how we absorb and apply the beliefs our society has about disability to ourselves and others we see ourselves in.

The dominant culture teaches us that people are judged according to their perceived abilities: if you don’t meet someone else’s expectations of what they deem as “normal,” then they will judge you accordingly. This is internalized by those who are made disabled by institutionalized ableism rooted in anti-blackness (as well as by those who are not), who then pass these judgments onto others made disabled.

This is still a form of oppression, because the dominant culture has set up standards for “normal” that are impossible for people to achieve–including the dominant culture themselves. For example, it’s not possible for everyone to never become ill or need care. Still, many disabled people who need care are considered “abnormal” and unfit for society. We consistently see this in our everyday lives. And, if it wasn’t apparent before, we even saw how disabled people were not considered in the response to Covid-19, or its aftermath as ableds and neuro-conforming people wanted to go back to being comfortable.

This is an example of internalized ableism: the idea that ableds and neuro-conforming people are better than disabled people who are in need of care and accommodations. This is how society covertly treats disabled people as less important and less valuable human beings than ableds, which is a form of dehumanization.

This dehumanization is further perpetuated by neuro-conforming people. They are considered to be more valuable in our society since they at least try to be ‘normal’, enabling ableds to have the power to make decisions about what’s right or wrong based on neurotypical experiences.

Recognizing that you and others have been conditioned to believe in the superiority of one group over another can help us overcome prejudice.

The first step in overcoming internalized ableism is recognizing that it is a form of oppression. Consider the judgements you may make depending on how someone looks or acts. We all judge, including when we recognize how someone is perpetuating ableism. But, being mindful of when and what we’re judging helps us unpack where internalized ableism is hiding in our subconscious.

It’s also important to recognize that we are not alone. There are lots of other people who have been affected by internalized ableism, and there are even more resources available to help us deal with and unpack it. In fact, many disability rights activists talk about their own experiences with this phenomenon, which can provide great insight into how they overcame their own struggles (and maybe even give you some ideas). The practice of thinking about how internalized ableism shows up in our everyday lives, and reaching out to others who practice unpacking this type of oppression will grow to make it easier for yourself when dealing with similar issues later on down the road. We might never fully overcome internalized ableism because it is very sneaky and finds it’s way back in. But, we can at least build our resistance muscles to make it harder each time it tries to take root.

We talked about what internalized ableism is, and why recognizing it is important. But, how do you know if you may have internalized ableism?

Examples of internalized ableism range from acting as if “autistic behaviors” are shameful, like stimming–which is something everyone engages in to some degree–to choosing more mainstream  ways to live because it’s supposedly something to aspire to.

Think about the following questions: Do you feel shame or embarrassment when other people see your neurodivergent behaviors? When you are out in public, do you try to control your behavior so that it won’t be seen as weird or different? If so, then there’s a chance that some of what you’re doing is internalized ableism.

I want to stress that these feelings of shame and guilt are the result of the ways we have been mistreated. In an act of survival, we police ourselves to protect ourselves from the ridicule of the people around us. It’s in these moments where we notice that we’re lowering our voices because we’re tired of being told how loud we are, or where we stop rocking back and forth while we think just so people don’t think something is wrong with you that we can choose to continue rocking or speaking at our normal volume.

Often, internalized ableism leads to self-blame for having disability-related needs, or for making other people “work too hard” in order to accommodate those needs.

If you are disabled and need help with something that others without disabilities don’t need help with, it can be easy to feel like your disability is the problem. You might think people are reacting negatively to you because of your disability rather than their own biases and assumptions about what it means to be disabled; this can lead you to blame yourself and try harder not to “bother” anyone else by asking for accommodations or support.

This type of thinking is harmful not only because it reinforces negative stereotypes about what it means to be disabled (e.g., that we should never ask anyone else for anything, or that we’re undeserving of care) but also because it puts unnecessary pressure on people with disabilities. We are forced to believe that we should always be able to take care of ourselves without asking anyone else for assistance. But, the truth is that we are all interdependent. We have always needed each other, while simultaneously needing our autonomy. Maybe when we’re allowed to be seen as complex human beings instead of being forced to be completely independent without the ability or access to care, or completely infantilized where we cannot do anything for ourselves–maybe we will remember that unpacking ableism is everyone’s responsibility.

The Takeaway

As neurodivergent people and as allies, we need to be aware of our internalized ableism. If we don’t identify it and work on it, we may subconsciously pass along harmful views about disability to others through our words, actions, or even parenting. We can also become frustrated and discouraged by our own struggles with self-blame or by feeling like a burden on the people around us when working through accommodations. But we must remember, and even promote, the inevitable need for care and how each and every person is worthy of it.

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