Brain Glitching Under The Neurotypical Gaze
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In today’s round-up:
why all those ADHD Wife videos make me sad
how to critique any viral pop psych video based on a brain scan study
some professional skepticism on the idea of “dopamine hijacking”
Greetings my little escargatoire,
My computer freaked out and I had to wipe it last week, which set me back extra far (beyond the regular ways in which I am already always behind). Unfortunately I had forgotten to back it up for a while because somebody (me) moved the little dongle thing I need to connect my external hard drives, which made plugging it in impossible for reasons I cannot explain, IYKYK. I write everything in cloud-based autosaving apps for this reason, but I did lose some video projects I was working on, RIP. Let my failure be a reminder to back up your shit today!
The world inside my laptop has now time-machined back to July, which sort of feels like the last few months of my own brain just got deleted. I off-load a lot of my thoughts, ideas, and memories into this thing, and I have become increasingly reliant on my notes app to function. I am a much different person on the page than in conversation, for the simple fact that I have a laggy working memory. A video that came that across my FYP yesterday called How Conversations Go With My ADHD Daughter reminded me of this.
It’s a parent’s POV of their daughter asking for the Amazon Prime password, but she can’t quite get the words out. “I am glitching,” she says, doing a robot dance to turn her lag into a joke. When apparently they can’t remember the password either (bc what is a “working” memory, really?), her dad gives her a two-factor authentication code, which she only remembers with great effort. There’s this kooky background music underneath the whole thing, like the kind they use on the autistic dating show Love On The Spectrum that frames the subject of the video as an adorable curiosity.
To be fair, these parents do respond with patience, but the account is full of videos riffing on the “my ADHD daughter” POV — watch how weird my ADHD daughter is in the grocery store! Look at how long it takes her to say words!
Watching this TikTok made me painfully aware of the neurotypical gaze I have twisted myself into knots trying to appease. It was a weird dissonant feeling, to see my daily experience where the words won’t come out, where the mind goes blank mid-sentence and needs more processing time, being presented to the world as a joke. And it can be really funny — laughing at my own brain glitches is my main coping mechanism — but a deprecating joke hits different when you don’t get to tell it yourself.
There’s a genre of videos like these, shot from the perspective of a non-ADHD family member, that have always bothered me. They’re usually of the “my ADHD wife” variety — men making fun of their wives’ forgetfulness and mess-making in what always comes off to me as just good old-fashioned sexism. Some of these ADHD wives may be okay with this, or find their husband’s tired squirrel jokes funny, but that doesn’t really negate the fact that the videos themselves frame ADHD from the outside-in. And, as the Queen Mother has said, “It’s my darkness, not yours. Get your own darkness.”
There is a reason me and the ADHD Daughter turn our working memory glitches into a little clown routine. First of all, nobody kills the court jester, but on a deeper level, maybe it’s because we can feel what Remi Yergeau has theorized in Authoring Autism, that the ability to turn language into convincing verbal rhetoric is a sort of ticket to personhood.
The professor Johnathan Flowers talks about how hard academia, and especially, his field of philosophy, can be with ADHD. It’s assumed that the right way to study philosophy is solitary, linear and deeply vertical, where the student sits in a room alone and plunges down into one text for a very long time. This is really not conducive to infograzers, or anyone who tends to move through ideas in a more lateral way. The problems compound at conferences, where Flowers is expected to publicly debate other academics:
If we take philosophy to be a mode of intellectual combat, in many circumstances, I would be engaging interlocutors unarmed, as I could not deploy my working memory to recall specific thinkers or specific texts in the moment. To conference with ADHD is to live in constant fear that, at a critical moment, your recall will fail you and the lie that is your success in philosophy will be revealed for what it is.
I don’t know what grad school is like, but I feel this same fear all the time — that people who like my writing will hear me speak and “the lie will be revealed.” Of course, it’s not a lie — it’s a spiky cognitive profile — but in a media culture where interviews and panel discussions reign, the ability to speak quickly, convincingly, and with accurate spontaneous recall is how you get accepted into the intelligentsia.
But even looking at it this way — doing the whole, I’m still smart, I promise! routine of the “gifted” child — is giving a eugenic tool like the Stanford-Binet IQ test far too much validity. The “tradition of ranking children,” as Minna Salami writes, is based in what she calls Europatriarchal knowledge, which views “the cognitive skills of reasoning, quantification, and deductive inquiry” as the only valid ways of knowing. This is the well from which the neurotypical gaze springs.
The scholar Catherine McDermott has applied this riff on the male gaze in cinema to autistic characters on TV, writing:
“A crucial facet of the neurotypical gaze is that while it may look at autism, it rarely sees anything but itself.”
In other words, the humor of a video like “My ADHD Daughter” comes from watching her transgress unspoken social norms that the audience is meant to implicitly understand. Brain glitches “fall outside the zone of intelligibility” to the neurotypical gaze, and according to McDermott, “can potentially render an individual illegible.” But the ADHD Daughter isn’t illegible to me, and maybe this is why the video made me feel sad.
Within a few seconds, I understood what she was trying to ask, and watching her be forced to struggle through it for entertainment value started to feel cruel. I thought about the conversations I have with my (also ADHD) partner — we skip words and gesture instead, we throw the closest phrase to what we mean into the air between us and, because we know each other so well, interpret each other’s brain glitches easily. They never stand there and let me suffer through an attempt to put the right language together. They just finish my sentence instead.
Anatomy of A Pop Psych Short: Postural Sway Brain
Marta texted me this video the other day in which an influencer tells us that dodging an object in your path while walking is actually a sign of ADHD caused by “the volume of gray matter in the right posterior cerebellum”. She knows this shit is like catnip for me, and I could not resist doing a classic Sluggish Social Media Fact Check.