To Accept Neurodivergence, Cultivate Compassion for Yourself and Others

To Accept Neurodivergence, Cultivate Compassion for Yourself and Others

To Accept Neurodivergence, Cultivate Compassion for Yourself and Others

Disability acceptance means being kind, letting go of shame and accepting imperfection

Most neurodivergent adults I’ve encountered learned as children to feel shame about their disabilities. Because some important things were harder for them than for other people, they believed they were broken and needed to be fixed. 

Quote in white over a photo showing a close-up of a white flower against a blue background: “Unlike guilt, which is the feeling of doing something wrong, shame is the feeling of being something wrong.” – Marilyn Sorensen
Image and quote from Marilyn Sorenson’s blog.

Diagnosis or identification marks the beginning of a long journey to unlearn that shame. Disability communities try to help by sending messages of acceptance and pride. Even with this support, the process of learning to accept themselves often takes years. 

One reason is that neurodivergent people have few role models who can show how acceptance looks and feels. Even other neurodivergent people struggle with it.

How All or Nothing Thinking Leads us Away from Acceptance

Conversations about disability acceptance are often full of all-or-nothing thinking.

I will give several examples of the black-and-white thinking neurodivergent people use when talking about themselves. However, neurotypical family, friends, teachers, and clinicians say similar things about neurodivergent people. 

Some people try to feel better about themselves by denying they have a disability at all. They might say, “my ADHD/autism is a gift.” That belief can leave them unprepared to deal with ADHD- or autism-related problems when they do occur. That might be one reason that high-achieving neurodivergent people burn out. Also, proving our worth by declaring our superpowers suggests that people must perform at superhuman levels to be acceptable. However, some neurodivergent (and neurotypical) people don’t have “superpowers,” and that’s OK. They still deserve acceptance.

Some people try to ignore or separate themselves from their disability. They might say, “I don’t define myself by my ADHD/autism.” Yet, even when it’s not part of their identity, it can affect their lives. Ignoring a disability makes it harder to understand why certain things are challenging and what support would help. When I used to ignore my difficulties as much as possible, I’d feel stunned when I suddenly, unexpectedly lost my phone or forgot an appointment. ADHD inevitably seemed to hit me out of nowhere. 

Some people give up at times, thinking, “my autism/ADHD will always be there, and it takes immense effort to make the tiniest change in my habits, so why bother?” That’s resignation (and probably depression), not acceptance.

Some people aim to feel proud of their disability itself. Yet it’s difficult, perhaps unrealistic, to feel proud of taking hours longer to finish homework, losing a job due to missing too many work meetings, or just feeling exhausted all the time. It’s difficult to delight in being unable to see far-away friends or accept distant in-person jobs because you can’t drive. It’s tough to love and take pride in something that makes your life harder. 

None of these stances are accepted

Acceptance is Thinking “Yes, And”

Acceptance is seeing the full effect of the disability, while viewing yourself as worthy —  maybe even liking yourself. 

Disability acceptance is a type of what Dialectical Behavioral Therapy calls “dialectical thinking.” In other words, it involves reconciling two perspectives that at first seem contradictory, linking them with an “and.”

Disability acceptance sounds like this:

  • I read slowly, and I’m okay.
  • I take a long time to reply to emails, and I’m a good person.
  • I feel exhausted after spending time in loud, crowded places, and I don’t need fixing.
  • I can’t drive, and I deserve the same opportunities as anyone else.

Neurodivergence can cause problems in the wrong environment, when we lack the support we need to function at our best. We are not a problem.

Accepting ourselves, disabilities included, means accepting our imperfections. 

Many people have difficulty accepting their own imperfections, including neurotypical people. Although neurodivergent people face an especially intense struggle to accept ourselves, and see especially few examples of self acceptance, everyone faces societal pressure to feel unworthy

For example, the beauty and fitness industries rely on people thinking they must be “perfect” (however defined) to be beautiful, and they must be beautiful to be worthy. When people who are a shape or size deemed ugly feel shame, they spend endless money, time, and energy trying to “fix” themselves. What people eat and how they move their bodies should be about taking care of themselves, but societal pressure frames it as fixing themselves. 

So, how can we push all these -isms out of our heads?

We need to learn self compassion for ourselves, and just plain compassion for others. 

Acceptance Means Compassion for Ourselves and Others

Kristin Neff, a leading advocate for self compassion, defines it as follows:

“We are kind and understanding rather than harshly self-critical when we fail, make mistakes or feel inadequate. We give ourselves support and encouragement rather than being cold and judgmental when challenges and difficulty arise in our lives. Research indicates that self-compassion is one of the most powerful sources of coping and resilience we have available to us, radically improving our mental and physical wellbeing.”

Self compassion drives us to improve ourselves:

“It motivates us to make changes and reach our goals not because we’re inadequate, but because we care and want to be happy.”

Self-compassion also helps us resist shame, the belief that because we are flawed, we are “unworthy of love and belonging.” Learning to be kind to ourselves means forgiving ourselves when we fall short, recognizing that obstacles are inevitable, and imperfection and suffering are part of being human. Recognizing this common humanity replaces shame with empathy not only for ourselves, but also for others.

Quote in white text against black boxes on a background showing a sandy shore: “Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together.”  — Brene Brown


Because I’m human, there are things I want to do, and can’t yet. To achieve my goals, I need to learn to do certain things better. So, I work toward self-improvement. 

Therapy and maturity have taught me: Self improvement is not about “fixing” oneself. It’s about continually learning and growing.

I am imperfect, both because I have ADHD and because I’m human —  and I’m worthy of love and belonging. 

And so are you.


Want to learn more about how to show kindness to yourself and others? Read more here on the Kind Theory blog, check out our images and shortform articles on Facebook and Instagram, or visit us on LinkedIn


Has self-compassion helped you accept your own or a loved one’s disabilities? Do you have any favorite affirmations or self-compassion practices? Leave a comment below and let us know.

Emily Morson

About the Author

Emily M. is a writer fascinated by the infinite variety of human minds. She grew up inexplicably different and was diagnosed as an adult with several forms of neurodivergence, including ADHD and an auditory discrimination disability. Feeling as if she were living life without a user's manual, she set out to create her own. In the process, she met other neurodivergent people on similar quests. She began working with them, advocating for inclusion, accessibility, and autism acceptance. Seeking to understand how neurodiverse minds work, she became a cognitive neuroscience researcher.
Her favorite research topic: what do children learn from their intense, passionate interests? Wanting to help neurodivergent people more directly, she trained as a speech/language therapist. Ultimately, she turned to writing, combining research with personal experience to explain autism and ADHD and champion acceptance – because everyone is happier when they are seen and accepted for who they are. She envisions a world where neurodiverse people have equal opportunities for education, loving relationships, and meaningful work. 

She also blogs about autism and ADHD research at Mosaic of Minds. You can chat with her on Twitter: @mosaicofminds

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