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  • Writer's pictureNick Serro



“ALL I CAN DO IS BE ME– whoever that is…”


Neurodivergence and identity… where do we even begin?

At risk– not even at risk, just in direct dialectical contradiction– there are two opposing ways to look at the relationship between these two concepts.

On one hand, the idea of “neurodivergence as an identity” is sure to sound many different alarms for people. The ugly ramifications of the “TikTok Mental Health Misinformation Phenomenon” would surely have many readers immediately rolling their eyes at the concept of neurodivergence being an identity, and many may see this as a limiting, debilitating, or just plain incorrect self-perception. To some degree, I am on the same page.

As someone who works with a variety of neurodivergent conditions, I can vouch that at least from the perspective of a therapist, no client is glamorizing, romanticizing, nor boasting about the existence of their neurodivergence in fact most people are saying quite the opposite. The experience I have had and seen shows a very different mentality than some would assume after watching misguided and self-misdiagnosed individuals talk about conditions which they do not have, or at the least do not understand. If the interpretation of this statement leads to an obsessive or “trendy” perseveration on how one is different from others, becomes an excuse for behaviors without accountability or is othering or attacking to outside groups, we are seeing a negative interpretation of the statement that “neurodivergence is an identity”. This may be semantically correct, but fails to encompass what is being discussed today in a detrimental way.


Because on the other hand, neurodivergence IS an identity, plain and simple. Perhaps the most crucial baseline belief I have as a therapist is just that understanding that some brains work very differently than others, and identifying where each individual falls on this spectrum typically helps tremendously as far as feelings around self-acceptance, self-understanding, and being self-assured. Discerning the nuance between being proactive about operating differently and demanding others treat you differently is more difficult than what may be expected, and many outside perspectives may conflate the two. 

There is a way to bridge the gap-- but as we see in most advocacy situations, the challenge is never quite as simple as it may seem.


Identity is derived from the changes and differences that someone might experience due to condition, but it is critical to recognize that the identity of being a neurodivergent person is more specifically indicating that they are not neurotypical rather than one specific condition.

There is one very easy and pragmatic way to view this concept, and that would be in parallel to how we see ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Someone who identifies as a southerner from the Deep South of the US may be of a variety of racial backgrounds, may have significantly different individual views on what that means compared to other “southerners”, but also has identity roots in the overall culture and experiences that they grew up around which, broadly, may be important for them to maintain and connect to throughout life. They may prefer foods associated with the region, they may show it in their speech by using words such as “y’all”, and they are more likely to be familiar and therefore comfortable with activities and traditions we see in the south. 

CRUCIALLY– this does not mean this person can only live in the south, this does not mean that this person demands that even in California or Tokyo they be treated per the norms they expect in the south, nor does this mean that “Southerner” is an all-encompassing definition of the individual or assumptions could be made based on their upbringing. What it DOES imply is that this person could very likely carry parts of their identity and INTEGRATE them into other cultures. If this person moved to California, we would still expect them to find added comfort in things which remind them of their roots, we would still expect them to hold some parts of their initial identity despite them being foreign or even clashing with differing cultures, and we would NOT (respectably) expect them to completely change to what they thought the environment wanted from them. 

And as could be assumed, we also can see where this difference can also cause major conflict without the actual issue being identified correctly, or at all. Someone coming from a very friendly community may find the sharp and direct norms of a foreign one as rude or disrespectful, while the locals of the brash community may perceive the newcomer as timid or withdrawn. Certain cultures may be more oppressive or accommodating to certain populations, and ultimately most situations are at least to some degree completely out of our control. The importance of an individual identity can often be downplayed or otherwise unaccounted for when the dominant culture does not align. 

This is more or less the ultimate issue surrounding the expanded risks of being a neurodivergent person and presenting identity in full: constantly living in a culture dominated by neurotypical norms leaves very little room for expression that does not run the inherent risk of judgment, criticism, or resistance. 


One way to try and further look at the perhaps unclear breakdown of why “being yourself” has extra challenges added to it would be to separate it into the risks and rewards. My approach is motivational interviewing, after all, and this would be an accurate display of the main strategy concept. 


First and foremost, it’s clear to indicate that masking full self is probably the most common state to see someone who is living with high functioning neurodivergence in, in some cases whether they know it or not. 

The pros of masking identity are probably the most clear: in many situations we want to go through life looking “normal”. We may be extra sensitive to criticism, or perhaps being noticed in a way that stands out will create great anxiety, and therefore we can often feel safer by masking even at the expense of presenting organically. We can learn how to follow the culture or norms of a situation in order to better understand and communicate within the environment, and most simply put, this is just the easiest way to interact with other people. 

Masking may also be seen as a bit of a “gambit” so to speak— and this can be seen in many generalized human interactions. We are likely to act differently in a job interview than while working, a first date than years into a relationship, and similar comparisons— and we may mask to get through certain situations knowing they could lead to new ones where we can then present as ourselves. In counter to the worry that individualistic focus leads to limiting experiences and detrimentally large boundaries, understanding WHY we are avoiding something is actually a boon to decision making, as we can actually determine if the full picture of something may actually be worth the outcome rather than either avoiding everything or continuing to put ourselves through negative experiences. 


But of course there is also a very obvious con to not being yourself in full; you’re not being yourself in full. While it might be crystal clear to a neurotypical person when is appropriate to mask without losing any sense of identity, this is where it’s a truly unfortunate correlation of people who are neurodivergent to have higher risk for confusion around social rules, issues with self esteem and issues with self awareness. Mix them all together, and there are many reasons why someone might notice an added layer of concern when it comes to presenting someone's true identity.  

People pleasing is a large vulnerability at all levels of neurodivergence as well— while not necessarily fully negative and in fact, very positive in certain situations, it also creates further difficulty in understanding needs and wants, may lead to negative relationship patterns, and creates a larger risk of being taken advantage of or similar issues derived from being overly trusting. On the opposing end of that spectrum, the concept known as learned helplessness may form-- if an individual is continously told their limits and what they can and cannot do without actually trying and experiencing a result, they may develop hopelessness, lack of autonomy, and aversion to growth in future experiences.

Perhaps less discussed (but in my opinion most important) is also the lack of expression that can sometimes be completely ignored, even by the individual themselves. A very direct physical example would be stimming in autism: many are told to sit still because that is the expected behavior, few may realize this means that the energy that cannot be released is now going inward rather than outward, and that may very well make everything else much more difficult due to trying to fit the norm. 

A complex version of this occurs in far less visible aspects of masking, and oftentimes the person themselves may not even realize. 


The pros of presenting identity are very obvious, we want to be ourselves and enjoy life to the fullest. Simple enough! A person who feels comfortable in situations where they can show full self expression is often very magnetic, enjoyable to be around, and is likely enjoying life themselves. 

When we present ourselves in genuine wholeness, we also attract people who will appreciate us for who we are, rather than what we are masking. While it is true that certain traits or interests may be more niche or specified and therefore may be harder to connect with, this is also increasingly true for all people as technology continues to advance to a point where it can connect and offer more and more opportunities for specific identities to form– and sometimes clash. A more generalized example of how masking to fit in can present issues that are not readily apparent might be a college student who doesn’t really like to drink but makes many ‘drinking buddies’ throughout college... only to find that there is nothing they have in common afterwards, makes them question whether the relatonships were ever real, and become aversive when worried if this could happen when making friends in the future. A parallel to this scenario can happen when a neurodivergent person learns how to present themselves in a neurotypical way without recognizing the differences in their internal experiences.

Presenting as one’s self may feel like a daunting prospect when we do not feel confident or in the majority, but perhaps ironically, this is almost a negative self fulfilling prophecy cycle when it comes to self expression. Even if we become extremely skilled and competent at something which we do not fully feel connected with, we may still find ourselves thinking there is something missing, incomplete, or just generally unsatisfying about the experience. This may be due to presenting in a way that others are appreciative of, but not fully ourselves or even at the expense of how we would prefer to present. While this is particularly true in our younger years of identity formation, many people with undiagnosed neurodivergence may still be feeling similarly later than others. Someone who is fully presenting what they do believe in and feel represents them is going to add an intangible and irreplaceable sense of being their true selves, which may very well also create the best response from others.

If done correctly, full manifestation of self is likely a goal of most every human on earth. While this may seem like information we started getting told in Kindergarten, there are a few additional barriers that may make it more difficult for neurodivergent individuals. 


While all of these pieces of advice may be things that people with high functioning neurodivergence have heard literally thousands and thousands of times throughout life, the resistance likely comes from the other comments we have also heard thousands and thousands of times over life. While certain things may be safe to present– I’ll tell you in a room of men if I am hyperfocused talking on sports as opposed to animals, the conversation will go much longer and I’ll be seen much differently– most people who are neurodivergent also may feel embarrassed or ashamed of their true self due to their interests being labeled as ‘weird’, ‘strange’, ‘annoying’, or similar. Much like many issues around neurodivergence, guilt, shame and criticism all loom large as eternal risks. 

Given this, we can see where some people may just feel uncomfortable or unsafe being themselves. If they are at risk of criticism or even abuse for their behaviors, it is obviously going to be safer to hide them. Even further, the uncomfortability of not making a decision which lines up with the social expectations may make a person second guess or feel their opinions are wrong or not worthy of being shared, and will therefore ‘settle’ for something which feels safer or more attainable. While this may be a forced hand in many cases, it is still very important to highlight and may form as a reactive pattern which becomes far more defensive than critically thinking.

And finally, being outside of the norm is just, by definition, a fast way to lead to increased conflict and judgment. Making decisions for what is good for us is not always the most socially accepted one, and it takes very strong self awareness and integrity to uphold an identity which contrasts the socially acceptable expectation. Perhaps looking at the effect seen in the notorious Milgram Experiments around following authority blindly… we can see that even when the decision is a clearly immoral one, we are seemingly more influenced by what the culture around us expects rather than our internal views on a situation. This can be seen in examples we have used before– if someone’s special interest is math and they get good grades, they are seen as a ‘genius’ or ‘protege’. If someone’s special interest is Quinten Tarantino movies, they might be seen as ‘obsessive’ or ‘a movie nerd’, maybe even 'concerning' if there are overly judgmental takes based on the graphic nature of his films. The only difference between the two is simply social perception; the underlying mechanism and roots are the exact same. 

Ultimately, masking in some form is an inevitable part of any human’s life which can have great value. The ideal end result of this focus on whether to mask or not as a neurodivergent person is actually more about getting a better understanding of how we DO want to interact rather than having an absolutist view of one side or another. Whichever of these 4 areas seem to be most appealing may come down to why we make decisions on how we present ourselves, but an understanding of their interactions may help make for better decisions. 


This will continue to be built upon as we go along in the series, but here is an initial overview of how one may actually start to rewire their own self image to allow more opportunities to present themselves as an identity that may make more sense-- even if it may be less comfortable at first.


First, an individual must identify ways they do not fit in. It is crucial to indicate that someone can very well be neurodivergent and not be affected by the lack of identity presentation, but many may be overlooking areas that could be improved or have been masked to a point where they do not connect much anymore. The largest barrier to this may be the fear itself of recognizing they do not fit in-- this is obviously a daunting thing to face for anyone, but further a person may have made their entire identity around hiding parts of themselves which contrast the expectations of their culture.


Acceptance must come before any actual changes occur, and acceptance may take years, or even a lifetime. It is not linear, and we may be extremely positively accepting in one area of identity and completely unaccepting of another. But as is the case with any condition, acceptance that this is how we are, we face barriers due to it, and we can only do so much to change it is the hardest and most crucial initial step to actually making improvements and positive changes in life.


Once we have accepted our differences in full, then we can begin to challenge ourselves to see what we could show more, what may be done in defense and can therefore be eased off, and decide whether this function is actually serving us in a way that we feel best suits our life. I like to use a personal example of the fact that many neurodivergent people can become skeptical and contrarian: while the acceptance must come from understanding that we developed this way for good reason and should always keep the essence of these ways, it is not until full acceptance that we can start to actualize and feel comfortable around overcorrection, and challenge whether we actually oppose something or may just be being contrarian out of safety, which may lead to missing out on opportunities for no good reason. 


After ample assessment, we then may begin to experiment to see how we feel about changing our presentation. Some things will work, some will not, and those things may be exactly what we expected or completely the opposite. Experimentation is sort of like the ‘brainstorm’ period of identity formation– we are not fully operating off of a preconceived and established strategy, but we are taking risks and seeing where we may be able to make actual changes. Ultimately this phase is also showing progress in our trust in others as well-- and this is not only restorative to self image in social scenarios, but is also likely building relationships with the people we are showing more trust in.


And finally, we can integrate what works for us back into a way that ensures we are not reducing our quality of life, but rather enriching it by combining both what is expected and safe with what we would like to share more of but felt hesitant around showing before. This may look very similar to our initial presentation, just with added boundaries and perhaps newfound boldness around things we were once timid with, and may look like complete transformation. The endgoal of integration is really just to find ways that bridge communication and interaction in a way which still respects the predominant social boundaries yet allows for flexibility to express and be understood more when it comes to others around us.


Determine what PRESENTATION is safest in a situation by situation breakdown

A crucial caveat to all this could be given to any person in a foreign situation where norms are unknown: there are still times and places where presenting identity may pose a threat or harm, and it is crucial to be able to read when and where we may feel that it is safest to hide our traits. There may also be other considerations outside of safety– ie if we usually talk loud and brashly, we would not want to do so “just to express ourselves” around someone that we know is sensitive and overstimulated by loud and irreverent speech if we want to have a conversation. On a more serious note, it is also very important to recognize individuals who may actually become a danger should we express our identity in certain ways.

Understand the social rules to know how to engage, but uphold your own personality

We likely want to know how to mask or what a scripted encounter may look like-- the incumbent strategy for most individuals with high functioning neurodivergence is not wrong, but rather just incomplete. It is when we add full self understanding and awareness to this expectation that we can then pick and choose when we respond to certain situations and still feel comfortable upholding our own boundaries simultaneously. A good example of this is a high schooler who just wants to go to a party to socialize with friends but has parents worried about them drinking out of peer pressure. It may be tricky, but it is possible for that person to both go along with the norms of a situation without it affecting them while still upholding their own boundaries.

Hoping THAT the world will JUST change is a limiting perspective 

And in perhaps a curveball of an ending here, there ultimately still has to be respect to reality. We live in a world which is very unaccommodating and perhaps even oppressing in some ways on neurodivergence, and therefore identity presentation might be the only way that we do feel ourselves in this world. To counter the fictional nagging voices I have probably made up in my head of what most may critique back at this writing: THIS ARGUMENT IN NO WAY SUGGESTS, DEMANDS, OR EXPECTS any part of society to change in a way that accommodates neurodivergent people– the purpose of this entire series is actually to highlight the ways that NEUROTYPICAL culture seems to suggest, demand and expect neurodivergent individuals to be just like them. 


The end result of someone who has effectively integrated their own self understanding of where and how they operate differently will be very apparent; why do we not see this much more often?

For one, identity formation seems to be a difficult challenge for most all humans, there is a reason that media genres such as "coming of age" and "self discovery" are and always will be interesting as representations of humanity. The nuance of the situation at hand here can be seen in the ambivalence of how others might perceive neurodivergent identities becoming far more limiting than others may expect-- even just writing this chapter, I many times felt a sense of my opinion on this being wrong, not worthy, or especially vulnerable to misinterpretations. If this article was arguing something like "5 ways to eat healthy" or "the benefits of meditation", I probably wouldn't have those feelings-- DESPITE the fact that in earnest, I feel much more strongly internally about the validity of this opinion than I would about either of the hypothetical article topics.

We all struggle with self acceeptance, and it is difficult for most people to present themselves in full, especially in our youth and even early adulthood. It is especially crucial to recognize that when it comes to neurodivergence... the task may unfortunately be even more daunting.




For the next section, we will begin to discuss the many different facets around acceptance of neurodivergeence, whether discussing the individual themselves, the people around them, and just society at large.



At Connected Roots, our three core pillars are connection, grounding, and confidence. 

We share dedication to creating nonjudgmental and safe spaces where clients can 

express themselves authentically and reach their goals.

For more information on Connected Roots or Nick Serro, please visit our website or contact us at 720-593-1062.

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