An Op-Ed on Being Neurodivergent in Fan Spaces

01/28/2021
en

Fandoms can be described in a number of ways, and there is some truth to each description. It is something I find incredibly fascinating, and have spent over a decade of my life in these online spaces.

I have always had intense interests, so when I got into my first fandom 10 years ago, it was the most exciting thing in the world. I had a space to share and express these interests with other like-minded individuals, which was a nice change from feeling like I had to act or be a certain way. Being neurodivergent by yourself is really difficult, but having these spaces has helped me get through some awful times in my life.

Growing up was not the most fun experience in the world as a neurodivergent person. It caused me to be alienated and feel like I was different, and that there must be something wrong with me because I didn’t fit in with my peers. Mental health and neurodivergence were not something people knew a lot about back then, and ADHD (and especially autism) were demonized by most people.

My parents saw signs of my autism as a toddler and young child as well as the ADHD, but when they spoke to my teachers, they didn’t think I had either. It surprises me now because all the signs were there: I mean, I had to go to speech therapy because I had trouble communicating. I can’t blame them because they did put in the effort, and not a lot was known about autism at the time, especially considering it shows up differently in people assigned female at birth. That doesn’t mean things were easy for me by any means.

I was not someone who had too much trouble with schoolwork, and I’ve made good grades for most of my life. Most of the issues I had were social ones. I had trouble getting social cues, understanding sarcasm and jokes, and I got made fun of a lot. I remember when we got our class superlatives in 8th grade—there were only 49 people in my grade so everyone had one—and I got voted as having the funniest comebacks as a joke because I couldn’t come up with them quickly when people would pick on me.

I had a hard time keeping friends for most of my life, and I always felt different. After my first year of high school, I got diagnosed with the combined type of ADHD. I took medication for a few years, but eventually felt like I was able to manage things without it. But I still felt like there was something wrong, and for me, ADHD wasn’t the only thing causing that. 

I moved home in March 2020, and during a conversation with my mom, she told me my parents thought I might be autistic when I was a toddler. I spoke to my psychiatrist who pointed me in the direction of an autism specialist. In August, I got my full diagnosis, which includes both ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder.

As a neurodivergent person, I have had hyperfixations throughout my life. They typically last for a while, and are not something that occurs just in the moment. They can be experienced by anyone who is neurodivergent, although it can be more closely associated with people who have ADHD or autism. Hyperfixations can even be on people or groups, and many K-pop fans hyperfixate on certain idols or groups. 

For me, I deeply enjoy it and cannot get enough of it. It can get to a point where I partake in my hyperfixation anywhere from every week, to everyday for almost the whole day. I am active in fan spaces, and have been consistently for over a decade. I learned some graphic design skills, social media marketing, and audience engagement by being in these spaces. I also learned how to understand sarcasm better and have become able to follow social interactions way more easily than I used to. 

While these are benefits I have experienced by being in online fan communities, it comes with a cost, and that is attention to my priorities. However, I have become able to figure out my own way of managing my life with these intense interests. 

I set aside more time than I need to complete my assignments, and try to be prepared when I do them. When it comes to daily tasks, I do them every so often as a break from doing something fun, and it makes it more manageable for me, personally.

While hyperfixations can last even years, they typically go away, while special interests remain a part of an autistic person’s life. It can actually be distressing if someone were to take an autistic person’s special interest away. 

For autistic people, according to my therapist, a way of managing your life is to work in a field that is related to your special interest. That way, you get to work with something you like, and you don’t have to give up time with your interest. I would personally consider music and astrology to be my special interests, as well as communities of people, especially online fan spaces.

There are many differences between fan spaces online and in real life. For neurodivergent people, in-person events can be overwhelming, even more so if the person has sensory issues. It varies from person to person, but if you’re with your neurodivergent friend it’s important to be understanding if they need to go outside for a minute or wear earplugs, or any other way they are trying to help themselves deal with the sensory information they’re absorbing.

Fan spaces online can be overwhelming, and sometimes interacting via direct messages is too much and the person prefers to communicate on the timeline. Some people find interacting on the timeline overwhelming, and prefer to interact in group chats. 

Overall, it’s important to remember that a lack of response doesn’t necessarily mean that the person hates you or is uninterested, or that you’re bothering them. Sometimes, low-maintenance relationships are what a person can handle, but that doesn’t mean they care about you any less. On the other hand, we have a responsibility to reach out and make sure the people around us know we care, and that we aren’t ignoring them.

We also have to take care of our fellow fans and stick up for them. Neurodivergent people go through quite a lot, but it is important to acknowledge intersectionality within our own community. Neurodivergence or mental health issues are never an excuse to be bigoted. It hurts people within our own community who fall into that intersection, and we are perfectly capable of being held responsible for our actions. 

It may be difficult to unstan someone who has done something offensive, but I think it’s more important to show your fellow fans that you care about their voices and that they matter. If you won’t unstan someone who has done something problematic, the very least you can do is hold them accountable for their behavior, and listen to the people who were offended. 

I feel the same way about ableist incidents. Not everyone is the same, but I personally will forgive someone if they educate themselves and speak to people who were hurt by the ableist incident, tell their audience why what they did was harmful, make a sincere apology and do better. 

So, what can you do as a neurotypical person to be an ally to the neurodivergent community? It is important to listen to what we have to say, and amplify our voices. Not only that, but if you see someone being ableist towards a neurodivergent person, call them out and stick up for us. 

I’m saying this again, but listening to us and believing us is so important because we tend to be brushed off and ignored when we have a complaint about something. This goes for everything, including fan spaces. Not everyone needs tone tags or double spacing, but if you have a neurodivergent mutual, ask them what they need. 

Last but not least, treat us like you would anyone else. We deserve respect, and infantilizing us is very condescending and weird. We are people with feelings just like everyone else, and responding to our frustration with something like, “I thought autistic people were these soft, cuddly and kind people” is so aggravating. To reiterate, please avoid undermining us by doing things like that, and treat us like regular people.

 

Want more? Read about parasocial realtionships in K-pop here.

Thumbnail by @ddawnct.