Neurodivergent People and the Abuse of Language

by Jack Bragen

To quote a highly educated, knowledgeable, authoritative religious man whom I know (I can’t give you his name, but he exists), “Words are weapons!” He’d said this to me in an outraged, loud, almost yelling, tone. He was unhappy with something I wrote. I had asserted that words didn’t count for much. That was more than twenty years ago, and now I know better.

Words can be weapons. Think of the words directed at people either intended to directly do damage to the mind and soul, to undermine self-worth, or as a prelude to physical abuse or outright attack. Words have an effect. They can’t be dismissed. 

When Donald Trump refers to neurodivergent people as “crazies,” it does damage. You could say, “Consider the source.” But if you did say that, keep in mind, the speaker was in the highest, most powerful office on Earth, and may very well return to that office. 

President Trump, please don’t call us “crazies.” 

Minorities often seek a compassionate use of language to be used when referring to their demographic. One of many possible terminologies for mental health consumers is “neurodivergent.” It seems to be a nondiscriminatory use of language. It says we are different, but it does not imply sickness, impairment, or that we are less than human. Neurodivergent doesn’t rule out being treated with respect. 

The “patients’ rights movement” is organized opposition to psychiatric oppression. Beyond medical settings, neurodivergent people should be seen as a minority group, one in which people are subject to unfair practices in hiring and are victims of other forms of discrimination. 

It remains socially accepted to ridicule and hate neurodivergent people. This must change. And while you’re at it, stop accusing us of things we did not do. Sometimes people do this just because neurodivergent people are easy to target. A person who has a weak consciousness will find it easier to blame someone who has a harder time fighting back.  

As a neurodivergent man, I have been accused of wrongdoing, of things that I simply did not do. In some instances where I couldn’t vindicate myself, the best I was able to manage was a draw, meaning I didn’t have a clear victory over my accuser, but in which I avoided dire consequences that could have been caused by a false accusation that was leveled. 

Many years ago, a woman accused me of stealing her TV remote control while I was setting up her new TV. She wanted to search my apartment for the remote control. I refused. My line was, “I’m not a liar and I’m not a thief. I have a right not to have my apartment searched.” About a week later, she came to my door to apologize. She had found the remote control when she moved her sofa. I was unable to fully accept the apology and to pretend that everything was suddenly OK. 

I’ve seen how some Black people get angry when they are subject to white people’s bigotry. I feel a similar outrage when people think badly of me due to my neurodivergent condition. I feel outrage on the inside, but it is not always apparent to others, because the way I  feel and show my anger has been compromised. Because of the amount I’ve been bullied, I have a psychological wall that presents a barrier to expressing anger. Then, when it reaches rage, it can boil over. 

For some men and some women, anger is a refuge of self-protection when being too nice doesn’t work, or when they feel under siege. However, for me, it has not been safe to get angry, and this is the opposite of how it is with many people. I grew up physically smaller than most kids, and this may have something to do with it. I’ve been physically attacked when I got angry. For other kids growing up, they were expected to be angry, and used it to defend their social standing. And this difference could be part of the reason I became ill upon reaching adulthood. 

In more recent decades, I’ve been able to express myself when those around me were bent out of shape, because of the extent of my vocal tones. This is not the same thing as being a great verbal strategist, or a great manipulator, or being able to win an argument. Rather, it is getting mad so that it can be used against me. Some have known how to provoke, and I don’t doubt it was intentional. It is not the sign of a well-adjusted person. When I’m dealing with a manipulator, I need to get some distance, for my own sake. Gautama Buddha is quoted as saying, “You won’t be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger.”

We with mental differences often have a very hard time speaking up for ourselves. The reflex to verbally and otherwise defend ourselves and counterattack, including being perpetually prepared to dish out verbal retorts, could be impaired by our mental health condition and by the medications we are mandated to take. These medications often shut down large parts of mental function. And since we may look different and act differently compared to a well-put-together person, people may automatically believe something is wrong with us, leading to suspicion. 

When we are accused of something, and if we don’t adequately speak out for ourselves, and if we fail to defend ourselves with a good amount of presentable outrage, many people will shovel on more abuse, until we’re covered in it. The innocent and the guilty are expected to be heated and skilled in defending themselves.

Mentally divergent people are largely controlled by the mental health treatment systems. The systems are partly intended to insulate mainstream society by keeping mentally ill people apart from the mainstream, where we might often be seen as nuisances. This is a form of segregation. It is also supervision. Neurodivergent people within the mental health treatment systems are taught that we can’t think for ourselves. The outcome is that we learn to believe we are incomplete. 

In recent years I’ve been forced by circumstances to have increased reliance on treatment systems because life in the Bay Area has become increasingly demanding and I’ve needed more help. 

When neurodivergent people are called “clients,” it is a bigoted use of language. This is because it categorizes us as something less than “staff.” Yet it is the standard terminology of every mental health venue where I have received treatment. When “clients” are accused of something, we are presumed guilty until we prove otherwise. In general, we are presumed liars. And when we boast about something we can do or that we are, we are labeled as having “delusions of grandeur.” 

When I was 20 and believed myself intelligent, I was told that I had delusions of grandeur about my intelligence. When mental health professionals speak to us that way, it is worse than an insult because they are invoking clinical authority to reinforce a slam. And I am slammed in other ways, with people invoking whatever levels of authority they might have, to add weight to the accusation.

I have been accused of things I did not do. This is because a mentally ill man is a convenient scapegoat. You can get many proper people on board without much effort. I’ve been subject to this, and it is a method of weaponizing positions of power and sometimes even court systems. When you have professional victims, and when they are good at enumerating, documenting, and detailing supposed wrongs of the accused, you have a good package to sadistically attack someone.  

I refer above to “professional victims” because it seems some people play victim to gain sympathy and attention and to be able to accuse someone, lending them a feeling of power for getting someone punished. 

The mentally ill man is often silenced by the effects of their condition, by the effects of medication, and by a lifetime of being subjugated and slammed. This doesn’t even go into the fact of poverty, which is the norm for someone who can’t access professional employment. 

There is no mechanism of help for the wrongly accused. I have heard a public defender say, “You don’t want me as your attorney.” Public defenders get their paychecks from the same lopsided system as the district attorney. A public defender could lack an incentive for defending. 

Words are weapons. And the criminal justice and civil justice systems are all about words. Words are used to ruin innocent people’s lives.

If we neurodivergent people found ourselves to be able to organize and stand together in the same way as other marginalized communities have, we would have a chance at justice. But this is not on the horizon because we are impaired by mental disability, impaired by medications, and impaired by a controlling mental health treatment system. And often, anything we say will be presumed wrong until proven otherwise. 

This must change. 

Jack Bragen is a writer who lives in Martinez, California.