HomedyslexiaWhy Do Neurodiverse Girls Struggle?
A tree with the sun low in the sky magnified.
via Flickr

The magnification effect. That’s what I’m calling the phenomenon of belonging to two groups with similar, cultural stereotypes. In my case, it’s being female and having a learning disability/difference.

Growing Up As A Girl
When you grow up as a girl, regardless of what your family tells you, regardless of what your teachers tell you, you still get the message loud and clear that you’re only as good as how you look. Commercials aimed at you concentrate on a specific standard of beauty, behavior and interests.

TV, movies and books told us that we’re baby-sitters and fashion obsessed, while boys were to mow the lawn and go on adventures. If there were girls in the group of fictional boys, they were almost always love interests or “exceptions to the the rule”.

Things have changed a little, and they’re continuing to change, but there’s still a long way to go. Let’s look at Barbie’s idea of what scientists and medical professionals should look like.

Two Barbie dolls. One is the blond haired, blue eyed model wearing a tight fitting top with puffy cap sleeves and a stethescope/heart pattern on the fabric. She wears a hot-pink toy stethescope around her neck. The other is a light-skinned black model with dark hair, wering a mini-skirt, high heels, and a short lab coat. She wears glasses and carries a microscope in one hand.While I dig the fabric of Scientist Barbie’s skirt, and the better cultural representation, I highly doubt most female scientists who work in labs would be wearing miniskirts, heels and fashionable 3/4 length sleeved lab coats to work every day.

Actually, I did work for a lab for over five years. All of the techs wore scrubs, closed toe shoes and full lab coats. They also needed vaccinations for things like Hepatitis, because they regularly tested blood and body tissue for assorted things.

In all my years of visiting doctors or hospitals, either for myself or to support loved ones, I’ve never seen a doctor or nurse sporting puffy capped sleeves, either.

Beyond the sheer ridiculousness of the clothes, these dolls are still telling girls to prize their appearances over their actual accomplishments. They continue to send the message that the way their bodies look are more important than how their minds work.

Sorry, Barbie, you’re still missing the mark. You’re still telling your customers, who are still primarily female, that looks are more important than who you can become.

LD and Not Making the Grade
One of the hardest things for many kids is earning passing grades. Those scores are concrete markers of accomplishment. All kids struggle in one subject or another from time to time, but LD kids seem to have concentrated difficulties on the basics.

If you are identified early, as I was, that new label carries the weight of stigma and stereotype with it. When all anyone has to go on is media portrayal, they’ll treat those who live the story every day accordingly. This follows kids up to the higher grades, too, especially if they aren’t allowed accommodations.

For kids who aren’t identified early, they struggle with the eternal cycle of working hard, failing, getting accused of not working hard enough, working harder, failing, facing accusations and eventually either giving up or creating different ways of doing things.

I’ve also seen people bully and degrade those who can’t read well or do math in their heads. Our culture too often uses those skills as the only way to measure intelligence. If you can’t keep up with your peers, you’re obviously not smart.

As one of my past bullies said, “It’s ok that you don’t get the joke. You’re slow. You can’t help it.” She didn’t understand she had a bad sense of humor.

If those types of messages were just one-off comments, it would be one thing, but when you’re surrounded with that attitude your entire life, the idea will take root. Furthermore, when the attitudes are backed up by failing grades and other struggles in school, like having a hard time reading aloud or completing simple math problems on the board, they gain credence.

The words "learning disability" spelled out in Scrabble pieces on a dark wood tabletop.
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Stigma Magnified
Here’s where the magnification comes in.

Girls are still given the message that their minds don’t matter, especially if they take care to look good. Kids who can’t keep up with their peers due to differences in learning and information processing aren’t seen as “smart”, and are often pushed off to the side so higher achievers can get the attention they need.

Girls with learning issues get both cultural packs of messages thrown at them from the time they start struggling in school.

The message that girls aren’t smart enough to pursue careers in traditionally male dominated fields like STEM and journalism is backed up when girls with LDs aren’t able to keep up with their peers in those classes. Those failing grades seem to indicate that there’s truth to those ceaseless messages, which makes it harder for these students to pursue further education.

Of course, girls should have the freedom to choose being a homemaker or more traditionally female careers, but they shouldn’t feel forced into them. There’s no reason why boys can’t stay at home with the kids or pursue things like nursing or teaching elementary school, either.

Why It Matters
We’re still losing valuable contributors to our future when girls are discouraged from STEM, and vital intellectual flexibility when neurodiverse kids are passed over in the school systems.

Girls grow into women who carry their unique perspectives from coping with the cultural pressures they’ve been subject to from a young age. People of color, another diverse group which too often discriminated against because of their skin color, offer yet more viewpoints that benefit humanity as a whole.

This Magnification Effect is what comes into play when we talk about intersectionality.

Like it or not, neurodiverse girls and neurodiverse boys have different experiences, just skin color changes experience. There’s also the intersection of visible disability, invisible disability and chronic illness, as well as socioeconomic class, and nonbinary sexual identities.

When we propose solutions to cultural problems, we must be able to embrace as many experiences as possible. This is part of why concentrating exclusively on one issue at a time is so damaging. While unique challenges must be handled on an individual basis, we need to start looking at the systems behind the various forms of oppression and how the big picture comes into play.

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