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Bethany Corcoran

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Gravity Wells and Neurodiversity

Using astrophysics as an analogy for neurodiversity.

Bethany Corcoran

8-Minute Read

A representation of a gravity well, image shamelessly stolen from via DuckDuckGo.

Recently a friend asked me about neurodiversity, specifically if I thought if it applied to them. Immediately I thought of gravity wells, as one does, and went on a ramble. Note, I am not a professional in this field! But I am neurodiverse myself.

I was diagnosed with High Functioning Autism nearly a decade ago in my 20s, and earlier this year I was diagnised with Combined ADHD. The two have kinda felt increasingly interlaced to me, especially after learning during the diagnosis process that the current DSM does consider them comorbid and a new term, AuDHD, describing a diagnosis of both, has been coined. I’m sure there are other types of neurodiversity that are outside of Autism and ADHD but I’m mainly thinking of what applies to me, and was up for discussion with my friend, in the context of this post.

And so, here follows my largely unedited ramble.

The Ramble

Gravity Wells

So, there’s this concept in astrophyics (bear with me) called a gravity well, see the header image.

Imagine the sun is at the middle of this, it’s at the deep part of the gravity well. Other things spin around that like water circling down a drain. Except they find a balance between their speed around the sun, and being pulled down the gravity well which is how we stay in orbit. Looking up the term “neurodiversity” it seems it was originally coined specifically around ASD but has come to contain a whole bunch of things including ADHD. But I’m increasingly coming to see it as one big joined collective that have differing symptoms. (Again mainly thinking of ASD and ADHD here! - me)

Some people are more affected by it - deeper in the gravity well. Some aren’t - they’re further out, less affected by the gravity of neurodiversity but still affected by its pull. A kid who “shows signs of being neurodiverse” is affected by the gravity well. But they’re thrust into a world that expects them to not be affected by gravity whilst also spinning fairly far in the gravity well. I’m also affected by the same gravity well, but in different ways. obviously I’m also older and have learned a bunch of coping mechanisms, but despite being in the same gravity well I’m very different. And some of that will be how the gravity affects me differently and some will be how I’ve learned to cope with it.

Childhood Memories

Something I talked about with my therapist recently is how much of my memory of my childhood is missing. Despite that though my earliest memory is from when I was 2, which is pretty young. That is, my memory isn’t bad, it just has gaps due to trauma. And therapist was saying such early memories contain really key “learnings”. In this memory, I was lost at some sort of outdoor museum and happily wandering around by myself, having wandered away from my mum. Eventually I think there was some sort of call for me to go to the front gate because my mum was waiting for me? But in any case I ended up at the main gate. My mum was so relieved to see me, she hugged me and started crying a bunch causing me to cry. The key learning from this? My actions have significant impacts on those around me, and it is good to behave so I don’t upset anyone. And if we consider that a fork in the road, the butterfly effect, however you want to think of it - you can see how that lesson can be key in developing a mindset versus how a very similar person doesn’t have that in their core memories may have developed. I’m quite insular and restrained, whereas common signs of ADHD include things like acting out, being very impulsive, etc. I am those things as well but because of that very early lesson I effectively learned from the get-go to not do those things or I might upset people. Or put another way: At 2 years old I was learning how to “mask”.

An Approximation

Anyway, the gravity well.

The lines on that diagram are quite helpful for this analogy. This diagram is, in truth, a poor approximation of a phenomenon (the universe isn’t a 2d plain) but it’s helpful to get the concept across. Now imagine that medical research has determined that a certain line on that diagram is where you quite literally “draw the line” on whether a diagnosis is applicable. It’s pretty arbitrary. Things above that line are still affected by that gravity well. It’s entirely valid that they are affected by that gravity well. So why have we decided it’s not classed as affected by that gravity well? And that’s not to mention the nurture side of things - what happens if coping mechanisms, learned behaviours etc. cause an image to be more representative of being above a line when actually things are below that same line? Also, carrying on the space analogy a little, orbits aren’t perfectly circular - look at things like comets as a more exaggerated example, they fly close to the sun then go really far away. How do you determine that?

So, then.

Looking at some examples, there may be some people who very clearly “fit the expectation”. But particularly in the context of kids who are still learning how to be human, who’s to say that their desire to eat food a certain way isn’t borne out of a way to enjoy food, or because of hypersensitivity to different textures like one ADHD person I know? Or a child being really concerned about “fitting in” is because of common social presures that we all face (some more than others) and learning how to handle them, or perhaps in my case where I was aware of just how “different” I was and didn’t understand why, so tried harder to “not be different”. Are these things signs that these people are affected by the gravity well and are masking its effects? Where are these things rooted from? The memory of being lost in the museum was from when I was 2, so long ago that my mum was surprised I remembered it at all, and yet I only unpicked it with my therapist over 30 years later.

So many of these things are built up from layers and layers of learned behaviour that it can be incredibly difficult to unpick. Heck it took me something like 2 years between my first “wait, between that ASD description and that ADHD description on this particular thing, I resonate more with the ADHD description…” and “I accept that I likely have ADHD”. And that was when I already knew I was affected by the neurodiversity gravity well! Going through a diagnosis process over a few hours, after learning to mask and without having unpicked things beforehand, is just seeing things as they are presented. Who’s to say that, for instance, a creature who walks well on a planet with a certain amount of gravity is doing so because it suits their physiology, or because they’ve figured out ways to do so within their existing physiology?

Did you ever get the “fraud voice”? A voice telling you, no, of course you can’t possibly be this or that, you’re just odd.

Of course!

In this gravity well analogy - “everyone in the world is unaffected by this gravity well except people who are beyond a certain point, so obviously you’re not affected by this gravity well too.” The secret is that gravity is everywhere, and comes from everything. Something a million light years away is still affecting us even if just a tiny amount. We are all affected by the gravity well, as a species. We’re not clones. Variation between individual creatures is the basis for why sexual reproduction has been necessary for survival, and why the vast majority of species we see on the planet evolved to use it. (Edit: I am not a biologist either, don’t @ me if there are actually more asexual reproducing things on this planet)

That’s not to say some people are not more affected by the gravity well than others, and that someone so affected is not valid for feeling that pull more than others. Their existence as a being within this universe makes them valid and valuable by definition.

But well, pre-Internet era, we as a society were not able to recognise the extent of the gravity well to cause such diversity amongst us, because everyone just agreed “everyone in the world is unaffected by this gravity well except people who are beyond a certain point”. And that’s the environment many of us grew up in. And so, like the me from 2 years old who learned to force myself not to run away and to do what I’m told so I don’t make people upset, that is the environment many of us have been forced to adapt within.

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