Who Am I? Reframing a Neurodivergent’s Sense of Self

For young adults on the spectrum, the journey to living independently can have many steps. At CIP's transition program, we find it crucial to help our students to reframe their understanding of who they really are. Generally, our students are very aware of how others react to them, how they are treated, and the ways people talk about them and their diagnoses. Humans aren’t rational, but we are rationalizing creatures. We strive to make sense of our experiences by creating stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. In ways, this rationalization creates a frame within which a person contextualizes and understands themselves. 


A Lifetime of Others Defining Us

A common challenge for neurodivergent people is the narrative we develop to make sense of our experiences is often unrealistic and ultimately unfounded. Getting feedback – or worse, being bullied – about the way we talk or act can lead us to think that there is something wrong with us. We notice that others don’t talk or act like us, and they don’t seem to get or even need the feedback we receive. We see our peers effortlessly figure out social mores, and seemingly intuitively know what to say and when. It’s all too easy for this to form a narrative of, “I can’t learn how to get along in life. I can’t figure out how to talk to people. I’m weird, unlikable, and unlovable.” This narrative is, of course, inaccurate and damaging to our sense of self-worth. 


The Necessity of Reframing

This is where reframing comes in. Reframing is not rewriting history, it is reinterpreting it. The facts of the stories of our lives are still the same. No one can be un-criticized, un-ridiculed, or un-alienated. But we can change the stories we tell ourselves about those facts. Instead of internalizing those experiences as reflecting immutable traits about ourselves, we can instead understand them as slices of time that reflect a particular moment. Instead of labeling ourselves as incapable or ignorant, we can see more fully that our suffering was due to not meeting a standard that was not designed for us, as neurodivergent people, to meet. It’s like getting mad at a cat for not having opposable thumbs; the cat has no choice in the matter.


How Reframing Works

Certainly, it’s not as simple as swapping words and phrasing; it’s about examining the underlying thoughts, feelings, and self-talk. From a young age, we are taught that the world is organized into distinct, black-and-white categories: some things are good, some things are bad. Although adhering to this simplistic view of life was an attempt to understand and fit in, ultimately we find it no longer serves us. We must learn to see things not in definitive, oppositional categories to each other but in relation to each other. It is rude to tell someone to stop talking in polite conversation, but it is not rude to tell someone to stop talking when they are making fun of someone. 


It’s crucial that we apply this new way of thinking to our own selves. “I am bad at getting along with people.” becomes, “In the past, I really struggled with getting along with people.” Both statements are commenting on the same experiences, but one passes a judgment about the inherent traits of the person and the other avoids the judgment. Convincing someone that truly believes they can’t do something is far harder than someone that recognizes an area they struggle in. When we begin to reframe our own views and thoughts about ourselves, we are able to move through the world more honestly and confidently, as our true selves.


Reframing at CIP Bloomington is about exploring these ideas and finding the connections and relations, which ultimately allows us to be kinder to ourselves and others. We align ourselves with processes and changes, instead of judgments and categories. Reframing is about positioning our students for growth. It is an ongoing, evolving journey! 

Case Study: “I Can’t Even…. You Know What? Never Mind.”


A CIP Bloomington student - a 22-year-old woman we will call “Jennie” - struggles profoundly with her past. She has deeply embedded beliefs about her capacities and possibilities that are observably and categorically false. She tries to convince staff that she can’t put together a single thought, let alone any more complex skills. She will interrupt herself when speaking: “I can’t even–you know what? Never mind”, is a common refrain of hers when she’s stuck in judgment. 


When Jennie arrived at CIP, she was able to interact with her peers to an extent but was terrified of asking a peer to play Pokemon together, a shared interest between the two of them. Jennie would raise her voice and clench her fists when asked to participate in modules or asked what she wanted to do in life. If staff pushed back and cited her strengths and observable abilities, Jennie would deny them and start crying.


With the support of the reframing module combined with consistent reminders, Jennie now regularly plans social activities with her peers at least once a week. She is seeking an online course to teach her how to fully utilize a drawing app on her iPad, and she is in the process of enrolling in a welding trade program. Jennie still struggles with being unhelpfully judgmental, but these tools provided her with a path forward instead of leaving her stuck at the starting line. Most importantly, Jennie can accurately assess her growth over the past eight months and is beginning to rewrite her narrative from someone who can’t to someone who can.

About Lazuli Davis, M.A., Ph.D. ABD

Lazuli has worked as an educator for young adults for over ten years as an instructor at Indiana University, Ivy Tech, and as the Social Skills Coordinator at CIP. She is autistic, which gives her a unique insight and opportunity to teach CIP students in ways that make sense to them. She previously found success teaching at a collegiate level, with evaluations that placed her among the top tier of all educators in the IU system. As the Social Skills Coordinator at CIP, Lazuli helps her students develop and utilize effective social strategies through group and one-on-one modules that target social skills in a variety of contexts. Targeted contexts include building and maintaining friendships and other relationships, engaging with and participating in a community, and building an understanding of common communication practices of allistic and neurotypical people. Lazuli has earned her M.A. in media science from Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. She is presently ABD in her media science Ph.D. program at Indiana University. She is trained as a research psychologist that specializes in how the mind processes sensory information, and how the body reacts to it. When she’s not teaching social skills, you can find her engaging in her special interests of music composition, photography, tea, (mostly) vegan cooking, and Star Trek.