If you’d like to listen to or watch our interview with Sonny Jane, the episode is available on YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Podcasts.
- Sonny Jane Wise, an Australian lived experience educator, delves into their personal journey of recognizing and embracing their neurodivergence.
- Sonny underscores the need to challenge and dismantle neuronormativity, emphasizing its roots in white supremacy culture, colonialism, and capitalism.
- Sonny introduces their neurodiversity affirming practice principles, emphasizing the need to reject dominant societal norms and prioritize lived experiences in advocacy.
- They reflect on the challenges of navigating and fulfilling needs in a system not designed for neurodivergent folks, offering insights on managing shame and building supportive communities.
Beaux: Hi and welcome to Brainstorm Changemakers by Tiimo. In this series, we're talking to experts, activists, and movers who are shaking things up in the neurodivergent space. My name is Beaux; my pronouns are they/them and I'm the Inclusion and Belonging Lead at Timo, a Danish inclusion company that helps folks take charge of their daily lives. Today I have with me Sonny Jane Wise!
Sonny is an Australian lived experience educator and the author of the Neurodiversity Friendly Workbook of DBT Skills and ‘We're All Neurodiverse’. With over 100,000 followers online, Sonny continues to challenge neuronormativity and empower individuals and professionals to adopt a neurodiversity-affirming practice. Hi, Sonny, we are so happy to have you! I would love as we start off by hearing when and how you realized you’re neurodivergent.
Sonny Jane: So obviously I was diagnosed with Autism and ADHD when I was like seven, eight years old, like so in the nineties. Say no more. But I really realized I was neurodivergent, as in specifically neurodivergent and not disordered, until I discovered the term neurodivergent. And that wasn't really until I was introduced to the neurodiversity movement and the neurodivergent community.
And that would have been about 2019, 2020 was when I first discovered what neurodivergent means and that it was exactly what I wanted in understanding myself.
Beaux: Okay, so yeah, a whole lot of years in this kind of in-between phase. So I'm wondering what the process was of accepting and celebrating your neurodivergent identity from the nineties to 2019.
Sonny Jane: Yeah. So I was diagnosed with Autism and ADHD when I was seven or eight years old. So that would have been about, we're going to do some math here, 1999. Yeah, 1999-2000. And back then there was a really deficit understanding of ADHD and Autism. And so I literally just grew up thinking that there was something wrong with me.
I believed that I needed to be fixed, that I needed to be changed, and everything about me, like every Autistic trait of mine, was bad. It was a deficit. It wasn't a good thing. And obviously, you know, growing up feeling that way and believing those things, that shapes how you see yourself and what you deserve, how you deserve to be treated, what you can do, and what you can't do.
And so obviously, I had a really hard time with all of that. And when I discovered the neurodivergent community or, you know, the neurodiversity movement, it felt like I had an explanation for understanding myself and who I was and my differences that wasn't blaming me or pathologizing me or labeling me as disordered or broken. It was like a new way of understanding my needs and differences that made me feel better about myself, but also allowed me to realize that there was nothing wrong with me.
And to be honest, I feel like that's one of the most empowering things that you can do, is realizing that there's nothing wrong with you.
Beaux: Absolutely. I kind of had a similar process of realizing, yeah, that it's not a bad word. I don't know. It was just like, there is just so much. Yeah. Like you said, pathologizing. And it was really affirming to find a community that kind of, like, reframed and reclaimed some of those terms. So, yeah, you've thrown around the terms neurodiversity and neurodivergence. And I'm really curious as to what, how you define the difference between the two.
Sonny Jane: Yeah. Well, neurodivergent means someone that diverges from dominant societal norms. In other words, someone whose functioning or mind diverges from neuronormativity. This idea that there is one right way to function and anyone who functions in a different way from neuronormativity that falls outside of neuronormativity, whether it's the way you communicate, the way you feel, the way you learn, the way you pay attention, your sense of self, you know how you perceive or measure time.
All of those things are what make someone neurodivergent, diverging from neuronormativity. Well, on the other hand, neurodiversity is just basically a term to describe the diversity of people. The diversity of our minds. It’s acknowledging that there is no one right or normal brain, that there's actually no such thing as ‘normal’, because obviously no is a social construct.
Neurodiversity says that there's no such thing as a normal or right brain. You can line up like fifty, a hundred brains in a room and you will not get one brain that is exactly like another brain. So therefore, how can there be a standard brain?
Beaux: Yes, absolutely. I'm also wondering, you know, the DSM or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual defines neurodivergence pretty differently and nd I'm wondering, you know, how your definition kind of differs from that and the medical model of disability and neurodivergence.
Sonny Jane: Well, the DSM, I think one of the most important things to understand about neurodivergent is that it is a term that is an alternative to ‘disorder’. It exists in opposition to disorder. So instead of saying that someone has a disorder, we say that they're neurodivergent. They don't have a disorder. Then there's nothing wrong with them. They don't have deficits. They're neurodivergent. And I think that's why neurodivergent can be really empowering because within the DSM, it frames a disorder as an illness or a disease just because you might function in a different way. And yeah, if that makes sense.
Beaux: Totally. Yeah. And you also created the first graphic really symbolizing all that fits under that umbrella term of neurodivergent. You know, what kind of prompted you to create this to dream about this visual?
Sonny Jane: So obviously being an ADHD’er, I'm like, I like to go hard and fast. You know, when I like something, I go full steam ahead like no half attempt. So when I learned about the neurodiversity movement, I learned about neurodivergence and all that I was looking at different graphics and I could not find one that included mental health conditions. All the neurodivergent graphics were talking about Autism and ADHD and learning disabilities, which is like awesome, all well and good. But there was a significant part of the neurodivergent umbrella that was missing. And for me that was that meant that people were being excluded from identifying as neurodivergent all because of misinformation. And I, you know, I think for me, being an Autistic ADHD’er with bipolar and PD, I am quite possibly a system, OCD, ARFID, you know, things that are known as mental health conditions. And that meant that I had to see part of myself as neurodivergent and the other part as part of me is disordered. And that doesn't seem right. That seems illogical. That part of me is neurodivergent and part of me is disordered. That didn't make sense. And so I'm so passionate about making sure that people with mental health conditions are included, can identify as neurodivergent. And so that is why I created the umbrella. And I feel like it's probably like one of the best graphics I've ever created in my entire life.
Beaux: And it's a gorgeous graphic. I really love it. So, you know, you talked a bit about how there is no norm and no standard brain. But if the umbrella of neurodivergence is so expansive, what is there such a thing? As? You know, neurotypical does not even exist?
Sonny Jane: Yeah. So I've asked myself the question whether neurotypical people actually exist. And I think the best way that I can explain it is that a neurotypical brain does not exist because as we know, there is no one standard brain, so there is no neurotypical brain. However, there are people who function in a way that fits in or aligns with neuronormativity. There are people whose functioning, whether they are the way they pay attention, the way they think, the way they learn, the way they communicate that, you know, meets the standards or expectations of neuronormativity. There are people whose functioning isn't a disadvantage because of neuronormativity and those are the people that would be neurotypical, similar to cisgender people, obviously, we know there are cisgender people, they exist. And so there are, you know, neurotypical people. There are just people whose functioning does align with neuronormativity. One thing is, though, I do believe that there is probably many neurotypical people whose majority of their functioning may fit in with neuronormativity, but the chances are there's probably a neurotypical person who, you know, they may learn or communicate in neuronormative ways, but they may feel in non-neuronormative ways.
There may be a neurotypical person who may communicate and pay attention in neuronormative ways, but then they may, you know, hear voices. And so I feel like that's kind of really important because it also shows that neurodivergent people can also fit in or align with neuronormativity, just depending on how they diverge. I don't think it's, you know, as black and white.
So we really should remove the focus from neurotypical people and focus on neuronormativity because at the end of the day, neuronormativity harms neurodivergent people and neurotypical people.
Beaux: Yes. Yes. Just for our audience at home, could you just define neuronormativity for them?
Sonny Jane: Yeah. So neuronormativity is basically a set of standard expectations and norms that center a particular way of functioning as the right way of functioning. So the way we communicate, the way we learn, the way we feel, the way we express emotions, the way we think, whether we have a single sense of self or multiple selves. That's all neuronormativity.
Beaux: Okay. Yes, perfect. You also talked about how, you know, a lot of conversations around neurodivergence kind of center Autism, ADHD, learning disabilities. So how can we make sure that our neuroinclusion work is reflective of all the identities underneath that umbrella?
Sonny Jane: I think in order to make sure that we center all neurodivergent people and not just Autism or ADHD or learning differences, we need to move away from medical diagnosis and instead understand neurodivergence in the sense of neurodivergent differences. So sensory differences, executive functioning differences, plurality, emotional intensity, perception of time, hearing voices. Because when we do that, then we can actually focus on what does accommodating people look like, What does including people look like? It doesn't matter if they have a diagnosis or not. It's about our differences. And our needs and the different ways that we function. So instead of, you know, just talking about Autism or ADHD, we talk about sensory differences because sensory differences are so common amongst so many neurodivergent people, not just Autism and ADHD. And it's the same for executive functioning differences. I would say almost every single neurodivergent person experiences executive functioning differences in one way or another. So if we switch the focus to talking about common experiences and common traits, then that will be able to include more people.
Beaux: Yes amazing. Absolutely. I'm also wondering, you know, a lot of the mainstream neurodiversity movement does center folks that are, you know, thin, white and high masking. And so how can we move beyond those, you know, ideas of what's palatable and center all types of neurodivergent voices?
Sonny Jane: In order to center neurodivergent individuals who may not fit into society as much as high masking people, I think we really need to challenge and unpack neuronormativity, because often, those who are thin and white or high masking, it's those individuals who can fit into society. It's those individuals who are closer to neuronormativity than the individuals who, you know, may not have such palatable or acceptable traits. And that's why, obviously, I talk about neuronormativity so much is because in order for us to make room for all the different ways that we function, in order for us to challenge our stigma and our stereotypes and biases, we need to challenge neuronormativity and explore where these thoughts or beliefs or ideas of what is acceptable or not come from. And then, obviously, we can make more room for individuals who are never going to be able to mask. We need to do that.
Beaux: Yes, absolutely. You know, you're talking about your gorgeous umbrella graphic. You have also developed another amazing resource, which is your neurodiversity affirming practice principles. I would love to hear what those core principles are and how you dreamt those up.
Sonny Jane: Yeah, I've been delivering workshops on neurodiversity affirming practice for a couple of years now and obviously I love neurodiversity in practice. I'm really passionate about it and I think it is a significant paradigm shift in how we view and understand neurodivergence and differences and needs as well as distress and trauma. And so I found that at the end of the day, we are at the beginning of the neurodiversity movement. Neurodiversity wasn't introduced until the nineties. I don't think it really became popular or thought out until 2010 onwards. It became mainstream within media and everyday life until I would say probably 2018, 2019. So we're at the beginning and, you know, I like to say that, you know, if we're going to do something, we got to do it right from the beginning. And so I thought that we need principles, we need a set, we need a framework to guide future professionals and people. Because if we don't have that framework, then we might end up reinforce thing here in normativity. We might end up reinforcing and perpetuating even more harm. And and I think, you know, the principles of neurodiversity affirming practice are a guide for individuals and mental health professionals and service providers to actually be neurodiversity affirming.
Beaux: Yes. Yes. So for the sake of time, you know, I'd love to dive into three of the principles that you have. So if we start off with just rejecting neuronormativity, since we've talked about that so much today, could you tell me a bit more about what it actually means to reject neuronormativity?
Sonny Jane: To reject neuro normativity is to reject that there is one right way to function, that there is one right way to learn, that there is one right way to think or pay attention or communicate or play .It's rejecting the idea that we need to change an individual. And you know that, you know, there are multiple ways that we can reject neuronormativity that we might not even think about. It can be as simple as rejecting the idea that there are good emotions or bad emotions. It's rejecting the idea that being blunt is rude. It's rejecting the idea that, you know, independence is the ideal way to, you know, live or that spoken communication is the superior form of communication. To reject neuronormativity is to examine every assumption or expectation that we've ever had.
Beaux: Yes. And, you know, neuronormativity, that term really makes me think of heteronormativity as well. And I'm just wondering how those intersect and inform each other, because they obviously do.
Sonny Jane: Neuronormativity and cis heteronormativity are obviously really, really similar. Just like neuronormativity, cis heteronormativity centers one right way to gender or to be, to have a sexuality. Cis heteronormativity reinforces that there is one right way to be a human, and that is being straight and cis, which honestly, I can't think of a worse time. But that’s fine. We’ll edit that out it’s okay.
Okay, so cis heteronormativity, you know, is basically the idea that there is one right gender, there is one right sexuality, cisgender and heterosexuality just for people who are unaware, and that is reinforced throughout society through expectations and norms and standards. It's as simple as having a form and there's only two genders.That is an example of gender normativity, cis normativity reinforced within society that we don't even think about. And neuronormativity is centered the same way in ways that we don't even realize.
Beaux: Yes. Yeah, it's like the gender form that has usually like male and female or male, female, and other. Like what is other? What is that?
Sonny Jane: Aren’t even genders.
Beaux: I’m also, so, another principle that I'd love to center is lived experience advocacy. You are obviously the lived experience educator, and I'm wondering what the importance of prioritizing and centering lived experience is in advocacy work?
Sonny Jane: Yeah, centering lived experience within neurodiversity affirming practice is really important because for so long, like decades and decades, it is the psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, and social workers that are seen as the experts.Those are the people that people listen to. And that's what we want to challenge, that we want to basically recognize that it is the individuals who are the experts of their own experiences. It is the individuals who know their own lives and it is individuals. It is lived experience, and the individuals with that lived experience that have to be centered within the neurodiversity movement and within neurodiversity affirming practice.
Beaux: Okay. Yeah. And also, you know, as the third little principle, I'm wondering what adapting systems and environments can look like.
Sonny Jane: So adapting systems and environments is basically not defaulting to changing an individual. Now, obviously, within neurodiversity affirming practice, it is totally okay if an individual, you know, wants to or has a concern or a goal that is about changing something because it's up to the individual.
But adapting systems and environments is acknowledging that we don't want to default and automatically assume that we need to change an individual. It's about recognizing that it's not always the individual that has to change. It's the systems and environments around them that need to change. It's the systems and environments that reinforce neuronormativity that we want to change and adapt.
Beaux: Yes, you know, for the folks who do have to, you know, participate in capitalism and in these systems, how can they get their needs met and recognize that the system is flawed while still, you know, living in it and getting the support that they need?
Sonny Jane: I think, you know, getting our needs met and acknowledging that the system is flawed, and we still have to participate in it requires reframing expectations and unpacking shame. So, you know, it's at the end of the day, we do live in a capitalist society, so we have to work. Many people have to work 9 to 5 jobs because they may have children or a mortgage to pay, you know, in this economy. Absolutely. And so that's okay. You know, if people need to do that, they need to do that because at the end of the day, you know, I think, you know, we deserve to choose how we work with our brains and how we live our lives.
And what our goals are. And for some of us that is working a 9 to 5 job to pay the bills. But we don't have to. I think a lot of what we need to do is unpack the shame that we might feel when we struggle. And I think we need to acknowledge that. Yeah, like I need to work, but if I struggle, that doesn't mean I'm broken, that doesn't mean I'm disordered, it doesn't mean there's anything wrong with me.
So I feel like we need to identify, you know, the systems and the barriers and identify neuronormative expectations and standards and norms just so we can make sure that when, you know, we happen to struggle with, you know, transitioning tasks or paying attention for 6 hours, that we recognize it's not our fault that we don't blame ourselves.
Beaux: Absolutely. Yeah. I'm also, you know, wondering—bit of an unplanned question—but how you take care of yourself, you know, when you experience that shame or you're struggling. What are some things you do to take care of yourself in those moments?
Sonny Jane: Great question. Well, I like to surround myself with people who are challenging neuronormativity. I like to. I have built myself a community where they, you know, I'm allowed to be late and it's not rude. I’m allowed to be blunt and it’s not rude. I'm allowed to talk fast and interrupt in a conversation and no one thinks less of me for it. And that really helps to, I guess, offset the shame and blame I might get from society.
And obviously as well, I guess I've done a lot of research into neuronormativity, and so every time I feel bad about something, I'm like, "No, no, no, no, no, no. That's a society thing. It's not me."
Beaux: Yes, absolutely. You know, and as we slowly close out, I'm wondering how, you know, a business like Tiimo, for example, that works with neurodivergent folks can implement and use those neurodiversity affirming practices.
(interview continues below)