First published in The Hindu, 30 Dec 2023

Most parents hope that their kids “fit in,” be it with a peer group or the larger community. This desire to be accepted extends into adulthood, so much so that we might say it’s a fundamental human need. As every person is unique, we all have to make minor adjustments to our personalities and peculiarities, especially in social settings, so that we get along with others. But as our social worlds generally operate according to norms set by neurotypical people, “fitting in” for neurodivergent people is both challenging and fraught.

In an article in Psyche, Jack Ori, describes his difficulties of adjusting and getting by in a world fashioned by neurotypical norms and practices. Though highly intelligent, Ori, who is autistic, struggles with quotidian aspects of life, especially in the social sphere. Like many autistic people, he found comfort in certain objects. He had a habit of carrying a bunch of pens and pencils tied together with a rubber band. And, he’d feel extremely discomfited if the rubber band broke or was missing, making him an easy prey for bullies in high school.

The world of work was also beset by obstacles. He underperformed not because of his incapacity to do a job but because of his unease with “small talk” and other social niceties. He was forced to change jobs often even as he tried to fit in.

Ori, who was diagnosed formally only at age 38, says that the diagnosis helped him understand his oddities and frustrations better. However, he did not wish to use his condition as an “excuse for failure.” Having worked as a special education teacher, he had a ringside view of how parents of children with disabilities sometimes didn’t bother correcting misbehaviours that bother others, using the condition as an excuse. According to Ori, even if a child was capable of altering certain annoying behaviors, at least to some degree, their parents didn’t work towards it.

Likewise, Ori didn’t identify with an autistic woman who didn’t want to acquire social skills. Rather than changing herself, she wanted others to make modifications to deal with her poor social skills. But Ori recognized that the woman had a point. For neurodiverse people, it’s often unclear where to draw the line between adapting versus submerging your identity.

He confesses that many neurodivergent people engage in ‘masking,’ which entails concealing aspects of who you are in order to “fit in with your neurotypical peers.” For example, do you endure “small talk” even if it leaves you exhausted? Do you dispense with fidgeting with rubber bands though you find the habit calming? Ori feels that there’s no hard and fast rule.

In his bestselling book, Far from the Tree, writer Andrew Solomon unpacks the complexities of neurodiversity. “Many conditions are both illness and identity,” writes Solomon, “but we can see one only when we obscure the other.” However, such binary thinking is limiting and reductive.

Like Ori, we need to alter our lenses so that we appreciate both the challenges and the richness that neurodiversity engenders. In Solomon’s book, Temple Grandin, the writer who has autism, avers that we should help neurodiverse people attain skills they’re capable of. However, this should not be at the cost of neglecting their strengths. She sagely reminds us that genius and giftedness also constitute neurodiversity.

So, while neurodivergent people may be open to adapting, when it doesn’t cause inconvenience or harm to them, the onus shouldn’t be entirely on them. As Emily Reynolds writes in a blog post of the British Psychological Society, neurotypical people need to acknowledge that diverse communication styles exist and that neurotypical norms are not necessarily the ‘default’ for everyone. Further, neurotypical people may also try to understand the needs of others and provide safe, nonjudgmental and inclusive spaces for neurodiverse people to exhibit their authentic selves.

(The writer is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know & blogs at