Neurodivergence, war and social justice

To be pro-neurodiversity is to be anti-war (1)

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Jun 3, 2021

Tiimo member

June 3, 2021
Anna Fay Hermanson and Muhammed Fares
Lead on partnerships & Community outreach (Anna) and Journalist (Muhammed)

Content warning for discussions of trauma, death, war and ableism

Where is the place for survivors and victims of war in neurodiversity advocacy and neuroinclusion? Is the neurodiversity movement actively anti-war? Those of us working towards neuroinclusion need to ask ourselves this, make space, and then build a movement that is explicitly anti-war, and, ultimately, build a world free from all kinds of oppression. Just over one year after Eyad al Halak, a 32 year old Autistic Palestinian was shot by the Israeli police at a check-point in Jerusalem, we reflect upon these questions in efforts to contribute to this conversation and extend our solidarity.

Are the tens of millions of refugees and war survivors globally included in the conversation about neurodivergence? In writing this piece, we struggled to find a single article about this particular intersection, illuminating just how very little knowledge, conversation and advocacy there is around how neurodivergent people are specifically impacted by war, as well as how acquired neurodivergences, like PTSD and brain damage, are resultant from war and conflict.

While there is certainly no easy way to begin, this blog post is a part of affirming our intent to participate in changing this. This piece is also another chance for us to position ourselves as firmly pro-social justice, and thus against structural violence of all forms: racism, colonization, anti-semitism, Islamophobia, transphobia, misogyny and all other systems of domination. We hope that you - our community - will continue to hold us accountable, demand action, and will find us open to dialogue and discussion, but not tolerant of hate or erasure.

If you would like to write a story or share your experience related to any of the abovementioned themes, please reach out to us at hello@tiimo.dk or DM us on Instagram with a brief idea of your story angle.

The Neurodiversity Movement, Trauma and Executive Dysfunction

Neurodiversity refers to the diversity in human brain structure, chemistry, and functioning. It is both a scientific fact and an important characterization of human difference. If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance you’re a part of the neurodiversity movement, but for those of you who aren’t (yet!), the neurodiversity movement is, ‘a social justice movement that seeks civil rights, equality, respect, and full societal inclusion for the neurodivergent’ (Dr. Nick Walker, the academic and researcher behind Neurocosmopolitanism). That is, it is a movement that seeks full inclusion and respect of people whose brains function differently from the neurotypical majority.

PTSD and C-PTSD are now considered by many to be within the umbrella of neurodivergence, but fall under the category of acquired neurodivergence. That is, a kind of neurological difference that is related to an event or series of events, and not the result of innate, primarily genetic difference(s) as with Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia or other kinds of neurological difference.

The inclusion of PTSD under the banner of neurodivergence makes sense, particularly given that it is now widely accepted that trauma changes the brain. The precise mechanisms of this are complex and can vary, but some reasons being that trauma can lead to an overactive amygdala (the part of our brain that manages the fight or flight response), lessened or changed connectivity between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain that orchestrates executive function), as well as decreased activity in certain parts of the prefrontal cortex. This can lead to significant challenges with executive functioning, emotional regulation, working memory and more 2.

Understanding this helps further explain how certain challenges of daily life with PTSD and C-PTSD are related to some kinds of innate neurodivergence, for example, in that executive dysfunction, sensory sensitivity, and anxiety all are commonly co-occurring. It’s also important to understand that PTSD itself is commonly co-occurring amongst neurodivergent folk, in part because ableism can be extremely traumatizing3, and also because, as this piece seeks to emphasize, neurodivergent people are oppressed people with intersecting identities everywhere.

PTSD, War Trauma and Executive Function

Though it may sound overly simplistic, for refugees and survivors of violent conflict, executive dysfunction is a huge challenge long after the immediate conflict is over, even if an individual person has left the conflict zone.

In looking for answers about how war and neurodivergence are entwined we had the privilege of speaking to three individuals about their experiences as survivors of war, now making their homes as refugees in Scandinavian countries. These people are our friends, community members, and neighbors.

Everyone we spoke to talked about the difficulties they face in daily life: from sleeping, to getting enough nourishing food, to finding work, to getting a driver’s license, maintaining friendships and performing in the way they had expected themselves to before fleeing their home countries. The inability to cope in daily life was related to anxiety and not being able to be fully present in the moment - both common experiences of people with PTSD. While the words ‘executive function’ were not used in testimonies, the ability to plan, prioritize, and initiate and follow-through tasks in daily life, as well as emotional regulation, are deeply related to executive functioning, and the inability to perform them to executive dysfunction.

One respondent said: ‘I’m in Sweden now - and I see attacks on Palestianians living in Gaza and my whole family is there and I am alone here. If we look at the attacks of the past weeks (May 2021) my life has completely stopped in Sweden… Just yesterday I slept for the first time. The ceasefire was on a Friday (it’s Monday). I feel scared, helpless, powerless, and also guilty… You are here. Your family is there. You have a good environment here, a peaceful environment, but you can’t enjoy it because your mind is there, your heart is there.’

An interviewee who fled Syria during the civil war in 2012 said ‘You cannot focus on one thing. Because you physically live here, emotionally you are there. And now during war - you can’t focus on anything else. You can’t... you literally can’t.’

Anxiety, hyper-vigilance and fear were also described by everyone we spoke to. ‘I sleep with one eye open and one eye closed - just waiting for a call from my family. Death is very close to you. It eats you. It devours your bones. You are paralyzed.’

These answers also highlight the fact that while a person may have left the conflict area, survivors of violent conflict continue to be deeply impacted by threats to their community and families that there is nothing ‘post' about it - the trauma is ongoing.

Furthermore, all those we spoke to said that the immense challenges of being refugees in societies that were physically peaceful (ie. weren’t conflict zones) were exacerbated by not feeling acceptance, understanding, or that they had a place in the countries where they sought asylum. The participants we spoke to identified Islamophobia and racism - that meant difficulty finding community and finding work - specifically as forces that made going about daily life difficult in Sweden and Denmark, asserting that experiencing these struggles - alongside PTSD, depression, and anxiety - presented further barriers to coping in daily life. In this sense, other kinds of threats were ongoing, but outside of the realm of physical violence.

War, health care and accomodations

The focus on the well-being of war survivors in this article so far is incredibly important, but we also need to acknowledge that living within a war zone makes accessing adequate healthcare, accommodations and support for neurodivergent people extremely challenging or impossible4.

The Syrian civil war alone has left at least 400,000 people dead, 1 million injured, 6.6 million internally displaced and created 4.8 million refugees currently in other countries5. Around 7.5 million Syrian children and adolescents are currently in need of mental health support due to conflict, with more than half showing signs of mental and emotional distress, according to UNHCR.

Health outcomes in Gaza are also (as with most conflict zones) dismal and are exacerbated by the brutal blockade of health resources (see for eg. The Lancet, Doctors Without Borders). One of the respondents from Gaza described that sometimes, in his darkest moments during the bombardment in May 2021, he hoped that his family would be killed and not injured should their home be struck by a missile, citing the extremely limited access to healthcare, medicine, and surgery as almost guaranteeing immense suffering without an end in sight in the case of a serious or permanent injury.

As a group of medical workers asserted in a solidarity statement with Palestine last week: ‘the structural and political conditions Palestinians endure under the occupation and ongoing siege are key determinants of health.’ The fact is that structural and physical violence are determinants of health outcomes of all kinds, for people in war zones and everywhere. The inverse of this is, of course, that peace is a protective factor of health of all kinds. We believe (and science will back us up) that acceptance, understanding, respect and community are also protective physical and mental health factors.



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Solidarity with people surviving violence

Today we are thinking about neurodivergent people in Palestine and Syria, Kashmir and South Sudan, Somalia, Myanmar, Ethiopia and Yemen. We’re thinking about the neurodivergent people there, and we’re also thinking about the war survivors everywhere who are now neurodivergent, but perhaps don’t have a place or don’t see themselves in the mainstream neurodivergent community. We’re also thinking about how structural violence and oppression - like racism and colonization - further traumatize all people and how these forces intersect with ableism, meaning particularly harmful environments for BIPOC neurodivergents everywhere.

We also want to assert that these people are us. One of our co-founders is neurodivergent and the child of people who fled war and state repression. Refugees, asylum seekers, survivors: they are already a part of our community, they are not outside of us, and we all need to include their stories and needs in our conversations.

When we asked the participant from Gaza about how he thought everyday people survived under the siege he said ‘it’s the solidarity. It’s the help from neighbors and community and culture... It’s also because they have no other choice.’

We will fight to include you in our advocacy, our communities, and, ultimately, work with the goal of ending war and violent conflict of all kinds. Because we understand that to be pro-neurodiversity and struggle towards neuroinclusion requires being against violence - physical, psychological and structural.

Footnotes

  1. This phrasing is a reference to Jen White-Johnson’s statement ‘To be be pro-neurodiversity is to be anti-racist’. Please follow and support Jen White-Johnson’s work here.
  2. For a summary look here.
  3. The Trauma Geek is a public educator who provides tremendous insight, both personal and academic, into this convergence. Learn more on their website.
  4. This is not even to go into other connections between neurodivergence and war trauma, or the specificities of particular cases. Some of these thoughts that came of whilst writing this piece are: the way disabled people being disproportionately affected by war (see UNHCR for example); to the way war, siege and violent conflict necessarily affect people with sensory sensitivities differently; to the way some disabled veterans are used by corrupt political actors in order to manipulate public perspectives on war or collusion between international aid administrators, health care and military, as is happening in Syria with mental health specifically. These are all topics for future pieces.
  5. See, for example,Human Rights Watch, and Handicap International.

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