I’m standing on the cold ground of Nohr. It’s the kind of place where you get a crawling feeling, like you know something is wrong. It’s the kind of place where you can’t deny the echoes of cruel history around you. The war has been going on for years. Across from me is the border of Hoshido, the peaceful land that believes in a good future for all, and values a kind solution to the world’s problems. But I live with the Nohrians, the people who are feared, whose tales of hostility are spread through every land. Nohr invaded Hoshido, and is responsible for a pernicious and relentless set of battles in this war.
I am horrified by the knowledge that my people are responsible for such destruction. But my heart won’t let me leave. This country is my home, where I found my true family, and only I know that there are other Nohrians who value a tranquil future. I want to change this place to make it a peaceful place, a place that does not abuse its power. I want to stop the senseless fighting against the Hoshidans. I can’t abandon my homeland, but the process of staying in the hopeless effort of changing things while the other side sees only a nation of villains is taxing, and some days I doubt that I can truly prove that any part of this world is good.
This was the path I chose.
These are the thoughts that occupy my mind as I stand on the line between supporting gifted education and other neurodiversity groups, just as I felt when choosing my side in the video game Fire Emblem: Fates.
Identity and identification
The search for identity is often talked about as the defining journey of one’s teenage years. What is seldom talked about, however, is the search to understand one’s own neurodiversity. People rarely notice that the journey to understanding oneself differs greatly from the typical teenagers when having a brain that varies from the norm. Often, diagnosis is talked about as though it is a savior for people — and identifying kids is pushed as if to help them live the best life they can.
However, this is not always the case: instead, my diagnosis crushed my self-esteem. I received a label as a young child, given to me without any discussion of who I was or what I really felt. Treatments and IEP plans were thrown around without telling me what they meant, or even acknowledging directly to me that they existed. While I had a good idea of who I was, it was overwhelming to process what these labels meant in a world where adults forced descriptions of what it meant to be me that I now had to accept. They never really felt as if they fit.
I was diagnosed with autism at seven, given therapy and services, and spent most of my time moving through different types of therapy and special schools to see if anything would help me improve as a person. All of this was discussed behind my back, leaving me to guess what jarring facts hid behind the illusions of immediate reality. I grew up shaken by insecurity, but my shame was not always understood by my peers going through similar things beside me. While most of the other people I knew going through this were worried about, “Am I getting what I need? Are people judging me or stigmatizing me? Can people understand how I’m different?” I was stressing over an entirely different set of questions: “What does it MEAN to have this label? Why am I the kind of kid who has an IEP, therapy, and services? If I’m autistic, am I allowed to feel like I fit in with neurotypical people and like the same things as them, or am I automatically defined as different?”
I doubted myself for a while, I felt choked – like everything I did HAD to be done “autistically.” It was supposed to be Hoshido, it was supposed to be beautiful and peaceful, full of the resources to live a bright and fulfilling life. These fellow autistics were the heroes of the story, the long-lost family that had finally discovered me, and they were supposed to love me.
Maybe that’s why it hurt more when it felt wrong. There was always something in me telling me this label was not right. As a result of all of my research about autism, I had concluded that if I was passionate or focused on something, that was my autism, and I should celebrate that to take the credit from my accomplishments. If I was tapping my foot, I had to develop a passionate identity around ‘stimming,’ I couldn’t simply move in peace. If I liked or disliked something, it was different; it had to be.
But was it, really?
Self-evaluation through research is powerful for some, but in many cases it can miss the subtle details. Many different conditions can present similarly, and researching on your own often fails to truly examine the root of each problem. It is easy to read traits on paper about a disorder you do not really understand and identify them in yourself. Social anxiety, for example, can easily be interpreted as autism, but can also be caused by traumatic experiences (Jeanelle 2019). In my case, I struggle with social interaction because of self-doubt from all of the social skills training I have received. When it comes to me, treating me like I am autistic and implying I need help with interaction only makes it worse.
Also, once one is very deep into research, they can easily become clouded by the view of the diagnosis. One begins to identify even natural, normalized experiences — creating a routine simply to soothe anxiety, or acting differently around different groups to fit their social norms — as an expression of their diagnosis. Furthermore, if someone who may have autism is convinced to believe they isolate socially and struggle with interaction, they can miss isolation as a warning sign of severe depression (Jeanelle 2019). This happened to me recently: I began to isolate myself from my family because I was convinced by the diagnosis alone that I was different and misunderstood by them, despite enjoying many years of happy times spent laughing and playing games together.
I questioned many things about my diagnosis through my research. I can read through a list of traits of autism, and any that I have are extremely mild. In fact, they are things that many people do. I’ve only read stories of people struggling with things I cannot relate to. I’ve been given unnecessary help, from speech therapy to extended time accommodations I never used. I never truly fit in amongst my autistic peers. While self-evaluation can be detrimental when you are misinformed, knowing the truth in your heart and having the capacity to question can lead to a powerful journey of self-discovery.
I want to be explicit: I do not want to invalidate the autism community or blame them for my experiences in any way. If you are autistic, I believe your struggles and story are equally valid and valuable, even if I happened to have a negative experience with the diagnosis. Autistic people are not bad people and there is nothing wrong with them, they have their own beautiful stories and deserve to be understood.
It took advice from a professional to help see through this. A person with a clear view of the world is sometimes necessary to wipe away the identity you have painted for yourself, explaining that certain behaviors can be caused by other roots. Once a diagnosis is found that truly explains someone’s experience, the results can be freeing. In the case of autism, accepting that social difficulties are not a lifelong condition but rather fueled by traumatic fear can lead to rapid improvement by actually addressing the trauma (Jeanelle 2019).
Then I discovered giftedness — evidently, I was simply an introvert that thought about deep topics, and that I never learned to make friends in first grade because nobody else played complex games. My emotional issues were actually expressions of high sensitivity and heightened awareness and idealism around rules. I needed more challenging work. I needed someone to listen to me, or maybe a counselor to talk to. My prior diagnosis blew the level of my problems out of proportion. Giftedness felt right. The people in the gifted community understood me, who I was, the way I thought, what I needed. This was my family, my people, the place where I finally felt I had a home.
But still, none understood the shame I felt about being different.
In therapy, a label can have huge implications and connotations. Some therapists are extremely careful about what labels they use, because it may create extra “baggage.” This is especially true when working with highly sensitive individuals, which of course includes many gifted people. Some psychologists prefer to use labels like “overexcitability” and “intensity” because they feel more organic, and are obscure enough to carry less baggage (Mannisto 2020). The diagnosis of depression only made me more depressed; being diagnosed with autism made me doubt my social skills more. Being prescribed medication only added another layer of shame that these feelings of who I was were “prescribed.”
What bothers me the most is that therapists never told me I was receiving treatment or accommodations for my mental differences; they just told me to feel good about myself as if nothing meaningful were going on. Teachers at a specialized school did not acknowledge that their school is specialized for certain students. Yet I was aware of the reasons why I was there — in order to help me process the shame, people needed to acknowledge that these things exist. I hated being “a person with depression.” I hated being a person on medicine. I hated myself in a cycle to try and out-shame the diagnosis and treatments until the shame is so great that they can’t turn it into therapy anymore.
Questions like these circulate in my head all of the time; let me be clear that my focus is the meaning of the diagnosis, not the actual traits I exhibit; What are my feelings, and what is just medication? Can I BE loved by my family if I’m technically different from them? Am I allowed to succeed and be capable and be a part of the larger world? Am I allowed to want more outside of therapy in my life? Can having a friend really resolve my feelings as a person? Do I even have feelings, or is it just “I didn’t take my antidepressants today?” Is it my fault, or because of environmental experiences that I can clearly attribute it to?
All labels carry stereotypes
Even the gifted label can carry a great amount of weight. I soon discovered my Nohrain home had a dark past, and the roots of fear and self-questioning were watered yet again. There are stereotypes about giftedness that relate the experience to only an IQ test. It reaches a very limited population, and many people feel alone in gifted communities because of the limited population. Giftedness tends to drive people away from therapy (Mannisto 2020). This makes sense: if a gifted child struggles with the same thing as a non-gifted child, one receives a different diagnosis and explanation than the other.
As a Nohrian, you live with stereotypes. You know you’re on the side where all of the villains live, even if you and your family are fighting for a peaceful solution from within. Autistic people are often misunderstood, searching for a community where they fit in and an environment in which they thrive. We in the gifted community want the same things, but others are not aware of this when they hear about giftedness. An undeniably reasonable reaction from anyone reading about this topic is calling you elitist. To the outsider, it can appear you are demanding a “better” academic program or insisting you suffered for being “smarter.” To a group of people already cast out and stigmatized, it is even more triggering to say, “your diagnosis traumatized me.”
I must learn to delicately temper my pain, as to not let its wild, raging sword strike the Hoshidans I love and with whom I seek peace. I am still uncertain in my support of gifted education because I am aware that it has a stigma of being an expression of privilege, or an ableist form of division. Giftedness is not on the list of causes for those passionate about social justice, or only discussed as a pressuring label that forces people under high expectations.
It cannot be denied by any Nohrian the horrors of their nation, leaving many to turn to Hoshido, and thrive in a place of plentiful resources and peace. Nohr is a nation with few resources and many enemies, one destined to topple its king no matter which path you choose. My old friends are the Hoshidans, a people of sunlight and easy good, who want to make a better place in this world like the rest of us. How could you possibly run away from them? As a Nohrian, then, how can you prove that you, too, want peace? I hope that our kingdoms can form a new nation together in the middle ground, but the war is too intense to be listened to by the armies of the other side. I have positioned myself as a double agent, putting on a mask of autism, rather than masking my “autism,” to support the other side. I cannot let my heart abandon them, and I cannot simply live with the flawed history of Nohr.
Why do I stay, then, knowing this?
Because the essays of gifted people have given me some guidance in the confusion around my identity. It is here that I finally felt loved and recognized, where I found opportunities to grow. And I would not have discovered my true self without this. I always knew who I was at my core, but in trying to identify myself with the bullet-point list of traits connected to a label, I lost understanding of who I really was and what I was really capable of.
Shame is a key factor in processing these labels. It burns. It is a drowning feeling of pain that nobody understands. It feels impossible to like yourself, it hurts to imagine you – or anyone you know – liking who you are. It can hold you back from interacting with others, a cage of brutal anxiety, and stifle the truth of your personality (Mannisto 2020). It is easy to associate shame with everything you do when you have learned to understand every one of your actions with the baggage of a disorder, triggered by the tension of how some part of you knows this is an overwhelming amount of attention to these behaviors that doesn’t quite fit.
Eventually, we all need to learn to be proud of ourselves and embrace the gifts of our differences. Yet, nobody truly understands the depth of shame associated with simply hearing a label. I think a large part of the problem comes from trying to accept something about yourself that was forced upon you, not discovered by yourself through introspection. You force yourself to identify with the chapters of someone else’s story, struggling to understand what this new thing means. You can see the root of the problem compared to other things about yourself, and are filled with questions and confusion about what it really means. You read stories online that are different from your own, yet close enough to force them to be the same, and struggle to digest who you really are.
I am not a diagnosis
I can always describe myself qualitatively, knowing what I feel and why I feel it. But I still cannot understand my diagnosis. I was diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and anxiety as a child, though the ODD was quickly deemed a misdiagnosis. I have recently been told I might have OCD. So I question – were my responses to rules a part of my gifted idealism and anxiety? Were they autism and clinging to routine? Were they ODD?
Is my nervousness in social situations from a lack of experience and trauma from stigmatized therapy? Is it social anxiety? Is it autism? Is it giftedness?
Is my fear of offending people and constant research a part of anxiety? Is it because of therapy and being raised with perfectionistic thought patterns and never processing activism through productive conversation, in combination with my giftedness with high intensity and awareness? Is it OCD?
What am I? I don’t know, but I want anyone out there who is confused within themselves in the same way, who is crumbling under the weight of what it means to be different, to know that there is someone else out there that understands the painful, lonely hole you are trapped in. You are not alone, and you will find that when the labels and the system aren’t clear, you should still trust in yourself and who you know you are. Because the labels can describe you, they can be used to explain you, but a three-letter acronym ending in D isn’t going to physically change you.
As Azura said, let things flow, even if you’ll end up standing on the border of Nohr but wanting to run back to Hoshido, like me. Truth will be truth, and you will be you, and things shall always be as they really are despite the outside perceptions. So maybe we cannot really know the answers, as humans trying to interpret the world into our own language and labels — scientists have taken a long time to study simple things like weather — but they will always be there as they are, regardless of social constructs around them.
Understanding yourself is an important piece in your search for identity. You may also find these posts helpful in your own quest: Self-concept and the courage to be gifted explores how every experience is burned deep into the gifted psyche, and even minor traumas can plant seeds of negativity. In The intrinsic intensities of the gifted child, you will find resources for understanding how intensities can set the inner world and life experience of a gifted child apart from the neurotypical norm.
And if you are intrigued by our author’s discoveries in the lands of Nohr and Hoshido, visit the Fire Emblem: Fates fan page to choose your path.