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  • Writer's pictureDr Shungu Hilda M’gadzah

Let’s not embrace positivity so much that we deny the experiences and suffering of those around us.

Don’t gloss over the pain and suffering of those around you.


“There’s a tendency to glorify neurodiversity and autism, and for some, to deny disability. Don’t do that.” (John Elder Robison.)

It’s so important that we recognise not only the positives and what neurodiversity brings but we must also acknowledge the challenges that many face every day.

In reading this twitter post, I found myself wondering whether sometimes we focus so much on positivity and our ability to cope (whether this be in terms of neurodiversity or whether it be in terms of our experiences as Black people or disabled people or women or LGBTQ+ or trans people) that we leave little room to focus on the everyday challenges and the associated real pain of our existence and lived experiences.

Sometimes I wonder whether masking takes on the function not only of a coping strategy (whether it be for autistic children within schools or neurodiverse adults within the workplace) but also that it communicates an early awareness and unwritten rule about what those around us can tolerate and cope with.

[Or indeed whether it be masking done by those who are intolerant of differences and hold racist views].

I guess sometimes we spend so much time protecting others from our emotions and from the pain we are experiencing.

Sometimes we learn very quickly that we are expected to bottle things up and hide how we are truly feeling. We learn in which spaces it’s safe to unmask and to be our true selves and we learn in which environments and spaces we have to mask, cope and where we are expected to just get on with it and manage.

The masking therefore is a way of saving up our emotions and pain for where we feel safe. For some neurodivergent children that is within their home. This often results in some of the experiences which parents with autistic children have where children behave one way in school and in another way within the home.

As parents and as professionals working with autistic children and young people (and also as employers seeking to support neurodivergent employees) we have a duty to identify strengths as well as needs/challenges. And once we’ve done this we have a responsibility to do all we can to remove the barriers that may exist (whether that is barriers to learning or barriers to real inclusion).

We need to do what we can- not only to remove barriers but also to support autistic children, young people and adults to be fully included in society and within the workplace.

Our ability to succeed in our efforts starts with opening our eyes and to recognising the challenges that different groups face whether it be through neurodivergence or whether it be through being a member of a marginalised group.

In short we need to do whatever we can to ease some of “the pain” that individuals may suffer or experience through their everyday challenges and existence. We can only do this by recognising”the personal costs” that individuals experience.

As fellow human beings we need to do what little we can to to help them “overpower the crushing loneliness”… whilst recognising that this may not get them “past the sadness that is so often a part of their life” (John Elder Robison.)

I remember hearing an interview last year about an LGBTQ footballer who was reported to have come out of the closet. I discussed this in my book.

Someone who was interviewed about this footballer explained that the term coming out of the closet is a misnomer and that people are actually inviting you into the closest to show you who they really are and in doing so they’re basically saying I trust you and I feel safe enough to show you my true self.

This raises the question, what can we do to help children and adults to show up as their true and authentic selves and to feel safe enough to invite us into their safe spaces to share their pain and loneliness?

Interestingly it would seem that whilst social media as an often criticised platform and one which does not allow for that face-to-face contact or indeed “real connections” it has felt safe enough for John to let us into his world.

Not only has it done this but this twitter post but John has also caused me to reflect on the work and support I provide to children, families and adults when they are faced with the challenges and barriers to their very existence. The work I provide both as an educational psychologist and as an anti-racism and Diversity Equity and Inclusion consultant.

I think sometimes as educational psychologist we can work so hard to focus on the positives and that sometimes we fail to see and recognise the true lived experiences – and often this includes the loneliness and the pain of those we’re working with. John’s post is a reminder that was whilst focusing on the positives we must not deny the family’s or individual’s experiences and for many this includes the suffering and the pain they are faced with on a daily basis.

It has reminded me that we must not gloss over the challenges and barriers and for us to recognise that sometimes all we can do is listen. We cannot take away the pain but through listening we can be there.

We must not deny the lived experiences of many in their every day challenges. This reminds me of the UK Government’s Commission on race and ethnic disparities report published in 2021 with its focus on “negative narratives” and “victim mentality” – attempts in my view to silence the pain and experiences of black people. (I wrote about this at length within my book.)

The Six Stages Anti-racism Framework reminds us that the first step in achieving change is by recognising where we are in our journey in terms of understanding issues of diversity, discrimination and exclusion.

We need to be prepared and ready to listen to the experiences of those who are different and this means sitting through the discomfort which we may experience when we hear their stories. We must not seek to invalidate their experiences or seek to deny them. (See my recent blog on denial)

Indeed sometimes we must not seek to do anything but to merely be there to listen to their stories and to say I see you and I hear you and I recognise that life is not easy for you. I recognise the loneliness and the pain that your disability or your experience as a black person or a person of colour brings.

As your parent or as your teacher or as your employer, all I can say is I am going to do whatever I can to remove some of the barriers and some of the challenges which you may face. My starting point will be to think about what I would do if I was walking in the shoes of a loving parent and what I would want for you. I will do all I can to remove any barriers or challenges your face. But I realise that I may not be able to remove all of the pain or the suffering that you go through in those quiet moments. Simply know that I am here for you.

We have a duty as empathetic compassionate human beings to create safe spaces where children and adults can talk about the loneliness they feel and the pain they experience through the challenges that they face.

We have to be able to do this even if we find it difficult to listen to their experiences and even if sometimes we find it difficult to listen because it brings up feelings of guilt In the ways that we have behaved in the past or are behaving the present. We have to do so without trying to change the subject or talking about ourselves or feeling sorry for ourselves.

Next time you take a moment to ask someone how they are or you’re working with a family and you ask them how they are coping, remember to truly listen in order to understand what life is like for them on a daily basis – in order to understand some of the suffering and pain they may be experiencing.

Don’t be in a rush to pivot to positives or to pivot to how they are coping and how you can make things better. Just take the time to listen and imagine what it would be like if you were walking in their shoes.

I was recently interviewed for a story on ChatGPT.

The question that many are asking is what will set us apart from the machines and what will we have to offer as human beings. As AI and machines start to take over not only in areas of automated skills but also in our decision-making and millions stand to lose their jobs there are many who are worrying that we could lose control and our civilisation could be taken over. As I said within my response in the article when and not if these programs go ahead this could present a real opportunity -an opportunity for us to step up as human beings.

I truly believe that as we move into this new chapter of civilisation and our increased relationships with AI and machines, being empathetic and compassionate human beings is what will set us apart from AI programs such as ChatGPT.

Thank you John for your post it has given me pause for reflection.

Services offered by Inclusion Psychologists Ltd

Check out my other blogs:

If racism was a virus …

Check out my book:

Third letter to White educational psychologists

How can we create a workplace where 'masks of tolerance' do not exist?

Black special needs kids failed by schools: Blog and my comment in Voice Newspaper article

Become a change maker in fighting workplace discrimination

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