By Eden Zorne
Ah, Society. The Society that determines where we fit into it, how we fit into it, and whether or not we will be in the midst of it, happily enjoying every minute of our short lives, or on the outskirts, peeking in briefly, but never fully integrated into it. In truth, Society isn’t built for everybody. Society is constantly evolving, seemingly bettering itself, trying to include as many people as possible, but for many people—neurodivergent people—like myself, it is never enough. We won’t ever truly fit into Society and be able to express ourselves in a way that everyone else will understand or sympathize with. Expressing oneself as a neurodivergent individual is difficult, exhausting, and draining both physically and mentally. I know that Society wasn’t made for me and that my expression of self is sometimes so far removed from the norm that it will be shunted aside and ignored, but I have to try. We have to try as a neurodivergent community. Society has to try to understand us, it’s only fair.
So, how does it feel being a neurodivergent, specifically autistic, person in a “normal” Society? Truth be told, this is one of the hardest topics for me to talk about so I’m going to turn to what I’ve always found comfort in, something that’s easier to approach: literature. This winter break, I read The Idiot by Dostoyevsky for one of my literature classes, and I, well, I hated it. I didn’t understand why I hated it, it was everything a Dostoyevsky novel should be—dark, tragic, somewhat humorous, and unmistakably Russian. It wasn’t until I started analyzing the message of it that I understood why I hated it. It painted a perfect picture of myself and the Society that I unwillingly live in.
In the novel, Prince Myshkin returns to Russian high society after living in Switzerland having his epilepsy treated for many years. Upon returning to Russia, to Society, he is constantly called an idiot, looked down upon, talked down to, used as a laughingstock, taken advantage of, and ridiculed by other characters in the novel, even those who are kind to him, when, in reality, he isn’t an idiot at all. He just doesn’t fit into Society as he’s “supposed” to because he talks differently and has no guile. He’s in truth very intelligent, especially emotionally, and is a genuinely good person. His deviation from the societal norms causes everyone around him to chalk it up to him being an idiot and ignore his heart of gold. I realized that in my experience of Society, I am Myshkin, and I have been Myshkin my whole life. I realized that this was why I hated the novel; I didn’t want to face the truth.
I’ve never fit in with Society’s concept of how I should behave and exist. As an autistic person, I had no concept of social graces, of how I was supposed to act. And that led to my ostracization from others the instant I stepped foot into kindergarten and lasted until I left public school 13 years later. For 13 years, I was the Myshkin of small town California—a guileless idiot forever destined to be the laughingstock of “normal” people blessed with a concept of how to behave in the expected way. I think I hit the nail on the head when the day before I started grade 10, I cried myself to sleep thinking that it was like I was on a stage, supposed to be acting in a performance alongside everyone else, except I was the only one who didn’t receive a script and who didn’t know the lines.
At the end of the novel, when Myshkin returns to Switzerland, having been driven mad, only one person remains close to him, goes to visit him, checks in on him. Likewise, when I left California for Toronto, only one person from there besides my family and family friends stayed in my life. Everyone else simply disappeared, and it was like I ceased to exist in their minds. At least, I can only hope that’s what happened. It’s much better than the alternative of them reflecting back on their school lives and thinking ha, remember that idiot?
Throughout my experience with Society, my self-expression has been stifled, oppressed. It doesn’t fit with everyone else’s, so why should it be valued the same? Rather than finding myself through the same avenues as my peers, I found myself in literature, in poetry, in prose. I saw reflections of my soul there, reflections that the rest of Society couldn’t hope to understand, because they fit in, they were perfectly following Society’s expectations. Writing has always been easier than speaking. When speaking, it’s so easy to have your own words turned back against you or misconstrued because you didn’t catch on to some minute detail that was important to keep your presence in Society favorable. When writing, you can edit time and time again, without worrying about the tone of your voice being taken too seriously, about making eye contact, or about making the right facial expressions.
In my opinion, artistic expression is a godsend for neurodivergent people living in a Society that wasn’t created for them. It allows us to express ourselves through societally different means. And, funnily enough, Society values the artist, the author, the sculptor, the composer. The very types of people that don’t necessarily fit within its rigid boundaries. Society isn’t made for everyone, but those outside society are often the ones producing potent insights about it. Ironic, isn’t it?