Okay now that we’ve got the title out of the way, a much easier way to say “people without mental illnesses” is “neurotypical people” and a much easier way to say “people with mental illnesses” is “neurodivergent people.” Those labels do cover more than mental illnesses, such as developmental abnormalities, and really any condition where the brain functions differently than quote unquote normal people, but the important part here is that they’re being used increasingly as a broad term to cover many groups of people including those with and without mental illnesses. These labels also help us talk about people with different types of brains without stigmatizing neurodivergent people (believe me, despite being one of the more comfortable people around saying “I have multiple mental illnesses,” it lightens the burden of fear quite a bit to say “I’m neurodivergent”). If that’s still a little confusing, or if you’d like to learn more about that terminology, here are some places you can do that.
Now, as I alluded to, I myself am neurodivergent: I struggle with pretty severe Depression, Social Anxiety, Borderline Personality, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Being neurodivergent has been an “official” part of my life since my first year of high school (meaning that’s when I was first diagnosed, though I can trace symptoms back as far as fourth grade), and while I was still able to make it through college, after graduation it became increasingly difficult to deal with. So the last year or so I’ve been in and out of psychiatric hospitals and intensive psychiatric care programs, and just when I thought I was all better (somewhat foolishly) and was working a job I absolutely loved, I had to go on “extended medical leave” because the stress or something was causing me to have another breakdown. I don’t give you this little “about the author” sob story so you can pity me. I don’t even know you, I can promise you your pity isn’t going to help me. I tell you all this essentially to say, “hey, I know what the hell I’m talking about.” So without further ado, here are the Top Ten things Neurotypical People Need to Stop Saying to Neurodivergent People:
10.) “You must be so brave!”
Upon telling people even a brief version of what I’ve been through or even skipping that and just mentioning my diagnoses, this is one of the most profoundly annoying/seems so nice but is actually really patronizing things I’ve heard. Look, I get it. Phrases like this feel like they’re coming from a good place when you hear them. Especially if you’re someone who’s never been through something even close to what you’re hearing, this might seem like just a kind, sweet, and harmless thing to say. In fact it might kind of annoy you that it’s on this list, but believe me, from our side, it feels weird and it’s nearly impossible to respond to. It turns us into kind of inanimate objects of your attention as Katie Rose explains in her wonderful column on this sentiment.
But what it comes down to for me is much more mundane, and also something she questions in a different way in the beginning of her column, is this: why am I brave? what exactly is it that makes just living my life, or trying to, a courageous act? I’m not saying there are never acts of bravery that directly relate to someone’s neurodivergence: sometimes it’s picking up the phone instead of picking up a knife, others it’s trying to make friends even though you’re positive the entire world hates you, etc. The problem here, though, is that if you just have the knowledge that someone struggles with their mental health, or is diagnosed with a mental illness, for you to say “you’re so brave” is like me saying to someone with straight red hair “oh wow you must be so brave, to have that hair in this world. Wow.”
Now obviously that’s an absurd comparison, but that’s because it’s an absurd premise! I’m just living. Just like you. Maybe differently, maybe some things are more difficult, but there is no reason for you to call my entire existence a gallant feat of heroism. That implication makes it seem like what you’re thinking is “wow I figured everyone with a mental illness would be dead by this age.” Which I know you’re (probably) not intending to say in any way whatsoever, so don’t say this! So we’ve got it right? (1) Makes us super uncomfortable, (2) totally patronizing, (3) completely diminishes our actual real existence in the same world as you.
So instead, say something like: this kind of depends on the situation, but if someone is just telling you their diagnosis, it’s okay to just say “oh okay, I didn’t know that” or to just acknowledge it and continue the conversation. The other person probably isn’t looking for accolades, they most likely brought it up as a part of the conversation, so most of the time you don’t have to disrupt the conversation to respond to it.
9.) “I totally know what you mean, I get (sad/worried/obsessed with things/etc) too. It’s the worst.”
I’m sorry, no. Wait, wait, wait, actually I take that back I’m not sorry. And no, you do not know what it’s like to be neurodivergent if you’re not neurodivergent. More specifically, getting sad is NOT the same as getting depressed (actually Inside Out, yes the Disney movie about emotions, does an excellent job of highlighting the difference). Being worried every now and then is not the same as living with an anxiety disorder (apologies for using the word disorder). And let me tell you something about OCD. You don’t know what it’s like to have OCD just because in grade school you liked to have your pencils and markers and notebooks lined up perfectly. You don’t know what it’s like to have OCD because you’re “so totally obsessed with this new show.” That’s not how it works.
Let me tell you something about my obsessions: they’re absolutely, downright terrifying. I was confused when I was first diagnosed and my therapist said that the themes of my intrusive thoughts were my obsessions. I, like most of the country, thought obsession meant that you loved something way too much, or at least you were incredibly interested in it. Let me be the first to tell you that that is not the kind of Obsessions that come with my OCD. I hate my obsessions. I loathe my obsessions. I would do anything in this world to get them out of my head. So no, you don’t know what it’s like to have OCD because you’ve watched every episode of “That 70’s Show” fifteen times and are meticulous about the details in it. Not. The. Same. (Disclaimer that OCD, as with many neurodivergences, is a spectrum and manifests in many different ways, but my point still stands).
And despite my almost scorched-earth approach to this one, I do understand what you’re getting at when you say something like this. You’re trying to level with us. You’re trying to find some common ground to walk on. Unfortunately this approach just doesn’t work. Aside from minimizing our problems, which happens all too often already, it puts us in a position where we either have to suck up how hurt and uncomfortable we feel and put on a smile and nod, or embrace the role of educator, which is not only something we shouldn’t have to do in our daily lives, it’s something that will probably end up making you upset with us because “all you were trying to do was connect with us.” The best thing to do instead of saying something like this: educate yourself. You don’t have to become an expert in every possible neurodivergence, I mean I’m not and I live with several of them, but at least give yourself a baseline education about some different types of neurodivergence.
So instead, say something like: as always, depends on the situation, but let’s say they’re using this as an example of how difficult things have been (in the last few months, or just in general in their lives) just validate what they’re saying like “that must be incredibly difficult for you” or depending on the person/situation “I’m sorry it’s been so tough, I’m here if you need to talk.”
8.) “Wow, it’s so amazing that you’ve come this far considering… you know…”
You know… what? That according to your view of me I shouldn’t accomplish anything? Again, this is one of those things that you probably say whole heartedly as a complement. And it does make sense. Neurodivergent people have more barriers to success than neurotypical people. That may be all you’re saying or implying. But here’s the thing: we know. We know that it’s been difficult because we’re the ones that have to go through it. Not only that, but when you say something like this, it can have so many connotations that you may or may not intend. To an autistic person it might say “considering I think you’re stupid and incapable of things that come easy to me.” To someone with depression it may say “considering I thought you’d be dead by now.” To someone with schizophrenia it might say “considering I thought you were just a dangerous and disorganized person that can’t do anything productive.”
All of these things are based on the stigmas of the individual neurodivergences. Every neurodivergence has a specific stigma along with the stigma that comes with being neurodivergent. So when you say something like this, even if you fill in the blanks and speak more specifically, you’re leaving all that stigma that we are very aware of out there as kind of an unsaid part of your statement. Also, a statement like this, while you may think it puts you in the category of people who don’t think neurodivergent people are incapable of accomplishments, is really putting you in the category of people who do. Look at the words you’re saying: “it’s amazing you’ve come this far.” That right there says your baseline expectation for neurodivergent people is lower than it is for neurotypical people.
So instead, say something like: If all they’ve done is told you their diagnosis, there’s really no call for you to say anything along these lines. As I’ve said before, just continue the conversation. Now, if they’re saying like “I have Autism and this school is just not set up for people like me” then it’s a little more open. You could say something like “Oh I can imagine, would you mind telling me some of the specific ways you’ve seen that?” or “You know I’ve never really thought about that but now that you mention it, it’s amazing this school isn’t more accommodating” or other things to that effect. Speak honestly, just be sure you’re validating what they’re saying and if you have significant gaps in knowledge in that area, be up front about it.
7.) “Oooooh you mean like [insert character] from [insert TV Show/Movie]?” or “You mean like [insert real person]”
This is one that could be much farther up the list depending on the character you reference and the specific neurodivergence the person you’re talking to has. For example if I tell you I have Borderline Personality Disorder and you say “oh we studied that in my Psych class, isn’t that like Annie Wilkes in Misery?” I’m probably not gonna be too fuckin happy about that. You literally just compared me to the villain in a Stephen King movie; not to mention one of the most iconically creepy and unsettling movie villains of all time. And while you may think “oh I would never make that obvious of a mistake,” there are not that many positive representations of people with Borderline in the media. I mean take a look at this wikipedia list of movies with Borderline or at least “thought to be Borderline” characters and tell me how many characters are ones you’d like to identify with? Maybe one or two out the dozens of examples?
And it’s the same with many heavily stigmatized neurodivergences: schizophrenia, autism spectrum, bipolar, etc. The media has not exactly been good to neurodivergent people, so if you’re comparing us to a character, there’s a very high chance that that comparison is incredibly insulting just because of the character you chose. Now that being said, even with more positive examples, it’s still not a great thing to say. I do emphasize the word more in that sentence. Take Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory for example. He is typically thought to be on the Autism Spectrum, and I’ve seen a lot of autistic people who identify with him to a point. However if you’ve seen an episode of the big bang theory, you know that the characteristics that make it very likely that he falls on the Autism Spectrum, are also characteristics that the show makes fun of at pretty much every stop. So even if you don’t see any problems with a character reference or a reference to a real person, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any problems with it.
Aside from that, even if it was a pristine example of perfect representation (which really doesn’t happen), you’re still kind of reducing the person you’re talking to, and an entire group of people to one example that you saw on TV. It can feel quite reductive and frustrating from our perspective. We get it. You’re trying to connect the dots in your head so you can get a better idea of what we’re talking about. But there’s no need to say it out loud. Not only that but a better way to get that baseline of understanding that you might be reaching for is just to educate yourself on that particular neurodivergence. Particularly because the way Borderline manifests for me is way different than the way it manifests for some friends of mine, and we in no way make up all of the ways Borderline can manifest. It’s a complex neurodivergence, as are most neurodivergences. So one example that you know of is probably not going to be a good way to get a baseline of that particular neurodivergence. That, and most neurodivergent people have heard this so many times that hearing it again is nothing but annoying, frustrating, and tiring.
So instead, say something like: “Now, I’m not incredibly familiar with that, I’d be happy to do some research on my own, but if you wouldn’t mind too much, do you think you could give me a quick rundown on what exactly it is?” (there’s no shame in admitting you don’t know something. I for one would be much happier with someone telling me they’re not familiar with a particular disorder, than to pretend to know something they don’t).
6.) “Oh but you seem so normal!!!”
For most people that say or have said this, this is probably one of those things that just kind of slips out of your mouth without you thinking about it. Well, here’s my advice here: think about it. We all say things without thinking from time to time. Most of the time if that’s the case, we’re careful not to make the same mistake twice. If this is something you say repeatedly, then it’s not just slipping out of your mouth. Also, if you’ve said it or even thought it once, I would implore you to reevaluate what you actually think of neurodivergent people. You may think “oh it was just a thought I had in a conversation once” or “oh it was just something I said to a friend about another person.” Those are excuses. Plain and simple, that’s what they are. Because even if you didn’t say it; even if it was just a thought, it betrays what you think of neurodivergent people. Saying or thinking “you seem so normal” means that the belief you hold is that neurodivergent people shouldn’t seem “normal,” and further than that it means that you think we aren’t “normal.”
Really it’s an insidious thing. It’s easy for people to make excuses about and convince themselves that it’s not a bad thing to think or say, but it betrays a core belief that there’s some group of so called “normal people” that you’re in, and people who aren’t in that group are lesser than you. It also is basically saying, “Oh I always thought people like you would be easy to spot because of how weird you act.” Whatever it’s communicating to the person you’re speaking with, it’s not good. It is also not a compliment to (most) neurodivergent people that we “pass” as neurotypical. There’s disadvantages on both sides of the “I can pass as a neurotypical” fence, but generally when people are hiding their neurodivergences, it’s to stay safe, to avoid discrimination, or to simply feel accepted. There’s a rabbit hole that I’m going to avoid going down here, actually there’s a few, but the main point is this: saying “you seem so normal” is not a compliment, it’s not a fun thing to hear, and it places a lot of the judgement on you and how you see the world. Don’t say it.
5.) “Oh have you tried exercising?” / “I heard yoga and meditation are both really good for that” / “I was watching a TV special and it said that if you get the powder of this Chinese root and put it green tea for two weeks, your problems will be gone!”
Alright maybe I was exaggerating a little bit with the third one (though maybe not?), but this is one of the most common things that neurotypicals say to neurodivergent people, and believe me, it does get really, really tiring. There’s different forms for different disorders, although this one is typically used for the neurodivergences that the general public has a bit more knowledge on, such as depression or anxiety or to some extent ADD and ADHD. Again, we, or at least I, completely understand that your heart’s in the right place: you’re just trying to help. No insidious or harmful intentions with this one typically.
Unfortunately it’s not really about the intentions, it’s about the actual words you say. When someone tells you they have severe depression and your response is “have you tried exercising?” the response that usually runs through my head is a very frustrated “I don’t know have you tried being so depressed you can’t get out of the fucking bed in the morning?” Point being, we know. We know that exercise can help with depression to a point. We know that we should probably be exercising more. We probably already feel really crappy about the fact that we aren’t, but let me tell you something about depression, it wouldn’t be considered a psychiatric disorder if the answer was as easy as “oooooh exercise releases endorphins which will elevate my mood!” See, what depression does is it takes a task like getting out of bed and getting dressed seem like how running a marathon would seem to the average American. It puts fifty pound weights on all of your limbs. It tricks your brain into thinking things it would never think otherwise. Essentially, while going out and starting to exercise may seem at least moderately easy to you, it’s incredibly, phenomenally difficult for someone with depression. We might be able to make it to the gym one day, but doing it on a consistent basis to where we start to get the benefits of it is definitely not impossible, but it is much more difficult than it would be for the average neurotypical person. And even if some of us are able to consistently work out, there’s absolutely no guarantee that it’s going to improve our mood.
It works the same way for other disorders and other “potential fixes.” It’s pretty hard to meditate when your thoughts are racing so fast that you can’t keep track of what you just thought ten seconds ago. And it’s pretty hard to do yoga when you’re terrified that everyone in the room is looking at you and judging you because you brought the wrong clothes or aren’t doing it right or aren’t flexible enough. Again, I’m not saying these things wouldn’t help, I’m saying the nonchalance with which people throw out these solutions is surprising and honestly a little to a lot insulting sometimes. I promise you 99% of the time the person you’re talking to knows that exercise is good for people with depression, or meditation is good for people with anxiety or ADD, or whatever solution you’re suggestion. Honestly, it’s invalidating to hear someone who you just opened up to about your personal struggles minimize them down to this one thing you heard on tv or read in a magazine or heard from your second cousin.
Now, this can also come from a place of “I’m really close to this person and it’s really hard to see them display these symptoms. I just wish there was a way I could help.” And I admit that is an incredibly difficult place to be in as a loved one of a neurodivergent person, especially if you’ve seen before that if they could just get out and go for a run, they might feel a little better. That situation isn’t really what I’m getting at with this item on the list, but it does fall under the category. In that situation, I would recommend sitting down and talking with them about it and offering to help. Because again, in almost every situation, they know that exercise would help their depression or whatever it is. It’s just easier said than done.
Back to more casual encounters, in almost every single case when someone opens up to you about their neurodivergence, they are not looking for you to “fix” them. They’re just telling you about their life. And the fact is, even if they were looking for you to “fix” them, you wouldn’t be able to. You can offer advice in an understanding manner if they’re asking for your advice, but you’re not going to have some magical idea that will make their brains not lack serotonin, or whatever chemical thing is going on in their brain and nervous system that’s causing whatever they’re struggling with. Even if it’s not based on brain chemistry, I’m guessing you’re not a certified therapist, so don’t try to “fix” them.
So instead, say something like: if you’re close to them say “hey, it looks like you’ve been going through a really hard time lately, and maybe it’s been harder than usual to do the things you know might help you out of this, so if there’s anything I can do to help, please let me know.” If it’s a more casual situation and you only know their diagnosis usually it’s just best to continue the conversation. Sometimes, like if they’re expressing how difficult it’s been for them, it might be appropriate to say something like “well if you need any outside help please let me know, I’m here for you.” Though you should only say that if you really mean it.
4.) “Hey well, it could be worse I guess. You could have…”
Nope. No. Uh uh. Stop right there, don’t even finish the sentence. Comparing different neurodivergences to each other, comparing neurodivergences to physical disabilities, even just the statement “it could be worse” are all huge no-no’s in so many ways. First, if you’re talking to someone who’s just told you they have depression and anxiety and you say “at least you don’t have schizophrenia,” not only does that minimize the struggles the person you’re talking to is having, it also piles on the stigma of people with schizophrenia, an incredibly stigmatized group. Now, if someone says they live with one of the more heavily stigmatized neurodivergences, like schizophrenia or borderline personality or antisocial personality, and you respond with “well at least you don’t have cancer,” again, not only does that completely diminish what they’re going through, but it makes the statement that you believe physical illnesses or disabilities are “worse” than mental or psychological ones. “Well cancer kills people” a lot of people say… apparently forgetting that depression does too… and so does borderline… and so does anxiety… and on and on. I am in no way diminishing the pain and struggle that cancer causes; what I’m saying is that these things shouldn’t be compared. And that’s the at the crux of why this comment is so frustrating and insulting: it compares things that have no business being compared.
3.) “Honestly it looks to me like you’re just using your (neurodivergence) as a crutch. You don’t get to get a free pass just because you have a disability. Life isn’t easy for the rest of us, you know.”
First of all, try to avoid saying the phrase “as a crutch” as many consider it to be ableist in nature. The only reason I’m using it here is because that’s the exact phrase I’ve heard used several times, and I want you to clearly know the kind of statement I’m talking about. Secondly, this statement is synonymous with statements like “it feels like you just use this to get people’s sympathy” or “you’re not doing what you should be doing to get over it.” Now that we have that out of the way, you, not only as a neurotypical person, but just simply as a person who is not the person you are speaking to, have absolutely no right to judge them and say that they’re “using” their disability “inappropriately.”
There seems to be some kind of fairy tale that neurotypical people work up in their mind of how someone “should” handle having a disability (and this pertains to mental or physical disabilities just to let you know). I don’t know if it means you don’t want to see the person ask for “too much” help, or if it means that after they talk with you about it once you think it should vanish from their lives and you shouldn’t hear about it at all. Either way, and any other way of thinking that leads to people saying this kind of thing, to put it short and sweet, is wrong and invalid. People with disabilities deserve to have appropriate accommodations. I believe there’s actually a law that says essentially the same thing.
Relating to that last line, yes, it’s absolutely true that everyone has struggles. Nobody’s life is perfect, and everybody has their cross to bare, and all the other platitudes you can think of. But the fact of our society is that it is setup to handle certain struggles much better than it is setup to handle others. Saying what you just said essentially erases the fact that the person you are talking to is dealing with something that not only makes life incredibly difficult to navigate, but is not understood by society at large and is certainly not regularly accommodated for. Most places of work, or schools, or whatever institution you’re talking about, are not set up with neurodivergent people in mind, which is why you are probably going to see someone with developmental disabilities ask for more help from the teacher, and is why you may see someone with depression work something out with their boss where they don’t come in as often or can work from home sometimes or have a certain number of days per month they can call in, and so on with other neurodivergences. Unfortunately the examples I gave are fairly to incredibly “generous” in the eyes of most institutions, so you probably won’t even see a lot of teachers go out of their way to give that extra help and you almost certainly won’t see bosses work with people with depression that readily. But you get my point.
So for about half who say this kind of thing, that was the information you didn’t have or weren’t thinking of. For the other half, however, what I think drives you to say this is more like “well so-and-so is getting special treatment for their depression but I was with them on Friday night and they were happy and laughing and everything! I don’t think they even need that special treatment, I think they’re just milking it!” To which I say, oh? really? you saw them laughing and socializing for a few hours and based on that you believe yourself more qualified than that person and/or their psychiatrist or therapist to say whether or not they’re depressed? What exactly do you think depression is? Do you want to spy on them and make sure they’re crying in tattered pajamas unable to get out of bed and intentionally missing calls from their friends while they grab a tub of ice cream for breakfast because that’s what you think a depressed person should be doing 24/7?
Let me tell you, some of the times in my life where I’ve been most depressed, I have put on the biggest disguise. Why? Because I don’t want to talk about it, because I don’t want people to know, because it’s easier than the type of attention I would get if I was honest about how I was feeling. There’s a million reasons. In addition to that, just because I’m diagnosed with clinical depression doesn’t mean I’m incapable of genuine laughter and having fun. Every neurodivergence (and physical illness or disability) is different. Some flare up at certain times or around certain tasks. Some are bad all the time but there are times where the person exerts the extra energy to try to take part in “normal life” and after that they might be incredibly spent and exhausted. Sometimes a person might be experiencing some of the worst of their symptoms and you could be talking with them and not know it. Basically: you just. don’t. know. So instead of making this incredibly dismissive and insulting statement, maybe you should just mind your own business and do what you can to support them if they happen to be your friend.
2.) “Ooooooooh isn’t that what that one guy had that killed all those people?!?!”
Now, this one honestly fascinates me. Why exactly, when someone tells you a condition they have, would you in any way think that it’s at all appropriate to make a comparison to a mass murderer? Like I don’t compare you to mass murderers if you tell me you’re a white male. But it happens! People hear on the news that the Sandy Hook killer had OCD and the minute you say you have OCD they’re talking about children being killed. I’m going to give you a brief crash course in statistics. Well, the first lesson of statistics, really: correlation does not equal causation. In this situation, that essentially means that while some of the mass murderers you see on the news may indeed have a neurodivergence, that does not mean that that neurodivergence caused them to do this horrible action. Like I alluded to a few sentences ago, most mass murderers in the United States have been white and male, that does not mean that being white and male caused them to shoot people. It’s just a common characteristic.
So I hope that stops the question that shouldn’t even be asked, but often is: “are neurodivergent (or certain neurodivergent) people dangerous?” The answer is a flat out no. People, for some reason, seem to be afraid of people with schizophrenia, like they pose some great threat to their safety just because they have schizophrenia. I have news that shouldn’t be shocking to you: schizophrenics are no more dangerous than neurotypical people. Same goes for any neurodivergence. And saying something like this, whether it’s to someone’s face or behind their back, is simply not excusable as something that “just slips out.” This is just cut and dry a horrible thing to say anyway you look at it. Just… as a rule of thumb, dear readers, please don’t ever compare someone you’re talking to to someone who is infamous for the amount of lives they ended. Unless the person you’re talking to has an incredibly morbid streak, they’re not going to be flattered by you putting them in the same category as a person most of the world considers a “monster.”
So instead, say something like: Similar to what you should say instead of comparing them to a TV or Movie character, you are much better off either keeping your mouth shut or saying “Oh you know what? I really don’t know much about that. I’d be happy to do some research on it tonight and we can get back to this conversation later, or if you don’t mind maybe giving me a baseline on what [insert neurodivergence] really is I would really appreciate it.” This also goes for neurodivergences that you think you know about but really all you know is what you’ve seen on TV.
*some sort of drum roll I guess* and the number one thing neurotypical people need to stop saying to neurodivergent people is…
“Wait, what?” you might be saying. What does this mean? But if you’re a neurodivergent person who’s gotten a response like this you very likely instantly resonated with what I’m saying here. For those of you who didn’t resonate, that’s okay, I’m here to explain. What I mean by this is the obvious cringe, the hesitation, the silence, followed by, “oh,” because that’s all you can think to say. Now this one may not be as common as others on this list, but at least in my book, it’s the most hurtful. This might be coming after a neurodivergent person opens up to a neurotypical person about their neurodivergence, or the fact that they’ve been hospitalized as a result of the symptoms they experience, or some other piece of sensitive information that’s difficult for them to share and they’re met with a reaction that makes it seem as if they just said they’re the human size embodiment of the most deadly virus in the world.
Even if the long pause is just out of surprise and what looks like a cringe is just you being taken aback, it’s still. not. okay. Look all of us have to be more aware of how we’re communicating and what we communicate with the things we don’t say. And we also have to be understanding of people that may not get those nonverbal cues, who are obviously not the people I’m talking about with this last entry. Bottom line is that you’ve got to be aware that a visceral reaction like being taken aback by some information, can so easily be seen as disgust. And honestly there’s no excuse for a reaction like this. You need to take it upon yourself to educate yourself enough about neurdivergences that when someone opens up to you, which can often be incredibly difficult and scary for that person, about having PTSD or having Schizophrenia or having been hospitalized for attempting suicide or anything like that, you can respond by saying kindly “oh okay, I didn’t know that, thank you for telling me” or whatever is appropriate to the situation.
If you pause and say “oh” and then are clearly thrown off for the rest of the conversation, I promise you every second of that conversation it hurts even more to see how thrown off or possibly disgusted you are by something that’s a part of who I am and what my life is. Which is not to say either that you should just shorten the conversation by quickly saying “I have to go” and ducking out like an incredibly insensitive Batman. Like I said, the fix for this is education ahead of time, and maybe not thinking of neurodivergences as some big awful thing that you don’t even want to come up in conversation in your life, because if you’re still thinking that way after the end of this article… well… I guess I didn’t do my job quite right.
So instead, say something like: “Oh okay I didn’t know that, thank you for telling me” or “I’m sorry to hear how much you’ve struggled with that, is there anyway I can help?” or “Honestly I don’t really know that much about mental illnesses, I’ll try to learn more in the future and I’d definitely be open to listening anything you’re okay with sharing so I can come to a better understanding” or whatever might fit the situation. Remember in most situations the best thing to do is to just continue with how the conversation was going before. And if you’re wondering if something is okay to say, (A) if you know the person well, ask them, preface it by saying “i’m not sure if this is okay to say, and I’m really not trying to be offensive” or something of that nature, and (B) if you don’t know the person well enough to have an idea about if they’d be comfortable with that kind of discussion, then just err on the side of caution and don’t say it.