Idaho, Iowa, Des Moines
September 16, 2023

‘I Don’t Understand Social Norms’: 5 Ways Neurodivergence and Social Norms Clash

In the world we live in, there are rules about how we should all live our lives. These rules can be either explicit or implicit, meaning they may or may not be clearly stated. Either way, they inform the way we live and shape our behaviors. Sometimes, these these social norms are incredibly helpful and keep us safe. For example, most people would agree that it’s unacceptable to beat someone up in the produce aisle of a supermarket. However, many social rules aren’t actually beneficial. Instead, they’re prescriptive and arbitrary – and they cater to the neurotypical brain.

As a therapist for millennials with ADHD and anxiety, I regularly work with neurodivergent clients who struggle to understand and follow societal norms. There can be a lot of shame and isolation wrapped up in being different in this way. Many of my clients try to mask their behaviors in order to fit in, but this can lead to feeling inauthentic and unaligned with one’s own values. 

5 Ways Neurodivergence and Social Norms Clash

Neurodivergence refers to differences in development, cognition, and brain processes that lead to differences in someone’s experiences and behaviors. Simply put, neurodivergent people have different brains and different experiences of the world than neurotypical people. There’s nothing wrong with this. If you’re neurodivergent, you simply have differing needs and cognitive processes. But we live in a world built around the needs and experiences of neurotypical people.

People with ADHD or autism are more likely to feel hypersensitive to their environments and inner workings, become easily overstimulated, and experience things like social anxiety. Neurodivergent brains are also more likely to experience opposition to social norms that everyone else seems to simply accept. 

Social norms that feel particularly difficult to swallow often revolve around socializing and work life. To a neurodivergent person, these rules can feel prescriptive, arbitrary, and pointless. Here are five examples of social norms you might find yourself struggling with:

  1. Working a typical 9-5 day

Why does work only seem to “count” if it’s a 9-5 job?

Why do workdays have to take up our entire lives?

Why do I have to work Monday through Friday?

What if I don’t work well during the mornings or the afternoons?

Why is lunch so short?

What if I need longer breaks and more time to do the things I care about?

These are questions you might ask yourself if you have a “typical” day job. You’re considered weird if you’d prefer to break your day up into one or two 3-hour chunks. And even if you feel happier and more productive with this type of schedule, your workplace likely won’t allow it.

  1. Exercise has to look a certain way

Western society has very specific requirements around “proper” exercise. We’re taught that we have to block off a certain amount of time (at least 30 minutes) and go to a certain place (a gym) in order for movement to be beneficial. To neurodivergent folks, this may feel incredibly frustrating. Building habits with ADHD is challenging enough to begin with. Feeling like you have to fit your self-care and exercise into a certain mold in order for it to count just makes it feel even more inaccessible. 

  1. In-person vs. remote work

Many of my clients are frustrated about their workplaces requiring them to come back to the office after the Covid pandemic. Generally speaking, workers are happier and just as productive working from home. Working from home is typically more flexible, more comfortable, and requires no commute time than working from an office. So why do managers continue to ignore our needs and require in-person presence under the guise of creating office culture? It can feel invalidating and nonsensical. 

  1. Making small talk or eye contact

Social etiquette tells us that when we’re around other people, we should smile, hold eye contact, and make small talk. But to neurodivergent folks, this can feel bizarre and exhausting. Interacting with other people can feel like a lot of work. Mood and levels of anxiety are among the many factors that impact how we feel about social situations. What’s the point of engaging in social behavior that feels draining and superficial? 

  1. Engaging in group activities

Have you ever struggled to be part of group activities? Spending time on your own when you’re in a group gathering and everyone else is all together chatting or doing group activities can feel shameful, wrong, and guilt-inducing. After all, everyone else is hanging out together. But if you’re neurodivergent, you might find yourself wandering off to be by yourself, spending time doing a solo activity while everyone else is doing an activity together, or excusing yourself early to go to bed. 

Are Terms Like Autistic Demand Avoidance and Pathological Demand Avoidance Helpful?

There’s a term for the avoidance or opposition of social norms among autistic people. It’s called autistic demand avoidance. It refers to the tendency of people on the autistic spectrum to avoid situations that feel overwhelming, overly taxing, disruptive, or pointless. It’s often a way for neurodivergent people to protect their own energy and sense of well-being.

Another term used to describe avoidance is pathological demand avoidance, or PDA. This describes people whose avoidance of doing certain things interferes with their everyday lives. It’s often used to characterize children whose behaviors are extremely oppositional and difficult for their caretakers or teachers to cope with. 

Phrases like this can provide useful language for your experiences. Having a diagnosis or an explanation can shed light on your experiences and behaviors and make you feel less alone. However, sometimes such terms can be used to pathologize people who simply don’t feel the need to stick to social rules. Pathological demand avoidance is sometimes misdiagnosed as something like Oppositional Defiance Disorder in children. This usually just leads to more judgment, criticism, and shame.

Regardless of whether you resonate with terms like this or not, I want to stress that there’s nothing wrong with you or the way you operate around social norms.

I don’t understand social norms

‘I Don’t Understand Social Norms’: Why Are Social Norms Such a Struggle?

If you find yourself saying, “I don’t understand social norms”, you’re not alone. For folks with neurodivergent brains, social rules can feel unnecessary, arbitrary, and flat-out stupid. But if you’re like most of my clients, you probably feel like you still have to stick to them to some degree. And there’s an evolutionary explanation for this. 

As humans, we’re social beings. We need to feel connected to one another in order to feel safe and accepted. Humans evolved in small groups and tribes. Early humans who were ostracized from their group would likely die without protection and help. Today, the need for community and connection still runs deep. Our sense of belonging to a community is one of the most powerful predictors of our mental and physical health. Being unable or unwilling to follow scripted social norms can feel legitimately dangerous to our sense of belonging and well-being. If you’ve struggled to stick to or care about social norms, you likely faced backlash or judgment. As a result, you may feel lonely, anxious, and like an outsider – and this makes a lot of sense.   

Therapy and Coaching Can Help You Cope With Neurodivergence and Social Norms

If you want support coping with neurodivergence and social norms, I’m here to help. I offer online therapy in Idaho and Iowa and coaching services wherever you’re located for anxious clients who struggle with things like people-pleasing, perfectionism, burnout, overwhelm, and ADHD.

Reach out today and see if we’re a good fit. Let’s start building a better future together.

Meet the author

Danielle Wayne

Danielle is an anxiety therapist and perfectionism coach. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.

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