December 12, 2023

The Gift of Losing your Keys: A Story of Neurodiversity

Finding a good fit between our unique qualities and our environments helps us thrive.

Have you ever lived with a roommate, or maybe your partner, who just can’t seem to keep their things straight? At first you might think they’re just forgetful, but then you start to notice a pattern. Locking themselves out of the house, leaving their car keys in the ignition, forgetting to turn off the stove, missing meetings, forgetting to pay bills, not listening to you when you’re talking, forgetting to clean the kitchen, and impulse buying are all common occurrences. At first you take offense, assuming they’re irresponsible or not being mindful of you, but as you continue to live together, you start to see that they’re actually incredibly mindful, creative and capable in their own way (just not in your way). You then start to notice that your roommate is distressed by her forgetfulness and seems to experience a lot of shame for not being able to keep her life in order. She shares with you that she can’t stop ruminating about certain things, and sometimes experiences anxiety. She wishes that she didn’t feel so restless all the time. Rather than coming down on her for the disorder she sometimes causes, or the seeming disregard for what you say, you’re trying to learn to embrace her strengths. You admire her creativity that enables her to offer something uniquely wonderful to the world around her, plus she makes you laugh with her spontaneity, so you feel grateful to be a part of it.

What you soon discover is that your roommate has ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). While she’s been high functioning most of her life, she contends with what it means to be neurodiverse in a society where distinct social norms make it challenging for her to thrive. While many children receive ADHD diagnoses, she’s contending with what it means to receive a diagnosis as an adult, which is a far rarer occurrence, especially for females. She wrestles with how her anxiety, depression and social struggles went unnoticed for years. She finally feels seen by her diagnosis but still doesn’t know how to contend with this new awareness into how her brain works. The good news is, she now knows she’s not alone. She learns that women are typically underdiagnosed because ADHD was initially thought to be a male diagnosis. She’s learning to embrace the beauty in diversity and is actively trying to celebrate her uniqueness as a gift to be shared with the world rather than something she must find a cure for.

Diversity is an Asset

The term neurodiversity was first used when Australian sociologist Judy Singer coined the term in 1998. Drawing from the idea of biodiversity, Singer saw how ecologically, variety increases resilience and sustainability in an environment. The term neurodiversity is used to capture how there is an immense amount of variation when it comes to how the human brain functions, and there is differentiation that leads to people functioning differently from one another. We are all neurodiverse, but this term is commonly used to identify people with brains that are outside the boundaries of what the common person thinks of as “normal.” Anyone who has autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, or ADHD (just to name a few of the “conditions” that fall under the umbrella of neurodiversity) can attest to the challenges they face accepting the diversity of their brains in a non-neurodiverse inclusive culture. This is why, together, we must embrace neurodiversity, challenging the socio-political status quo and celebrating the strengths of those whose brains function in different, but beautifully diverse, ways. After all, we see all throughout our ecosystem that there is beauty and increased resiliency in diversity.

Diversity in Thriving 

To embrace neurodiversity as a strength, developmental psychologists are moving towards a paradigm of thriving where individual and communal thriving are one in the same: the individual thrives when others are thriving too. This paradigm of thriving presumes that we are well when we are contributing to the well-being of others and ourselves. This is what it means to be a reciprocating self: we are constantly changing and adapting in complex, integrated, and diverse ways that not only benefit the self, but the greater whole that the self is immersed in. To thrive is to live in relationship with others, which means we have to change the way we have stigmatized those whose brains function differently from our own if we are truly to embrace what it means to thrive psychologically and theologically. 

What can you do to help?

We need to start asking ourselves what accommodations can be made to support those whose brains work differently. Next time your roommate, your partner, your child, or someone you love leaves her keys in the ignition, you have the opportunity to reframe this potentially embarrassing or shameful moment into a moment of connection. Remind your roommate where she left her spare and consider making a note for her to put in her wallet about where it is so she can access it herself if it happens again. This can help her to create an environment where it is easier to remember where things belong because every item has a specific place. By empowering her to solve the problem on her own in the future, you can help reduce the shame she may feel in the moment. This is why goodness of fit matters—when the psychological tendencies of your loved one fit with her environment, these traits can enable her to thrive. Her traits aren’t the issue, it’s the way her traits are interacting with the environment without specific systems in place that are inhibiting her ability to thrive. It’s not all on the neurodiverse person—the responsibility falls on all of us. Below, you can find several suggestions if you are struggling with how to embrace your ADHD diagnosis or have a family member or friend who could use some practical support. 

For example, my roommate thrives where she is engaged in a creative outlet that is celebrated and affirmed by those she’s close to. She’s found joy in baking beautifully decorated baked goods. Not only does it keep her focused and engaged, it allows her to share her creativity with those around her. We live out our purpose as the beloved by embodying what it means to live with and for one another. She is growing and thriving as a result of being able to live as a reciprocating self in her environment. This, sadly, isn’t the case for many in the neurodiverse community, but we have the opportunity to help each other thrive. When we are all actively seeking to thrive, it doesn’t just benefit us—it benefits everyone.

So how can you help support ADHD?

Below are some practices that may be helpful for you or someone close to you who falls into the neurodiverse range. These are just a few practices, and it is important to remember that our brains are diverse and what works for one person may not work for someone else.

  1. Consider making a communal calendar: Keep track of your plans, appointments, and deadlines all in one spot. Consider putting it on the fridge or somewhere else where it is highly visible and others can potentially help you stay on track.
  2. Make a list: Write down the things you need to remember to do before you leave the house everyday. Leave the list in a visible area that you’ll see as you walk out the door. When someone tells you something you need to do, like a supervisor or your roommate, write it down right away.
  3. Work on time management: People with ADHD can make impulsive decisions that prevent them from tending to their day-to-day responsibilities. Consider creating margin in your schedule and asking for support from colleagues and friends who can help you stay on top of your priorities. 
  4. Take breaks: Set a timer for the task at hand. Consider creating a reward to incentivize you to get it done. For example, if you need to respond to 40 emails by the end of the day, set a timer for 30 minutes and get through as many as you can. Take a break at the end. Going for a walk or getting a brief bout of exercise does wonderful things for people with ADHD because their brains are constantly craving dopamine, which is what stimulates feelings of pleasure in our bodies. 
  5. Relationships: Share openly and honestly with the people closest to you. Take time to help them understand how your brain functions so that they are able to better support you in all you do. 
  6. Ask for help: Therapy is a wonderful tool that can help those in the neurodiverse community better understand themselves and their purpose. Therapy can help challenge societal stigmas and embrace a way of living that accommodates the beauty of their diverse way of thinking.
  1. Leidenhag, J. & King, P. E. (2023). Neurodiversity and Thriving: A Case Study in Theology-Informed Psychology, Studies in Christian Ethics, 36:4.
  2. Crosby, G., & Lippert, T. K. (2016). Transforming adhd : simple, effective attention & action regulation skills to help you focus & succeed. New Harbinger Publications. 
  3. Attoe, D., & Climie, E.A. (2023). Miss Diagnosis: A Systematic Review of ADHD in Adult Women. Journal of Attention Disorders, 27:7, 645-657
  4. Pamela E. King, Justin L. Barrett, Tyler S. Greenway, Sarah A. Schnitker & James L. Furrow (2017): Mind the gap: evolutionary psychological perspectives on human thriving, The Journal of Positive Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2017.1291855.
Shaya Aguilar Thrive Fellow / Writer


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