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  • Courtney Erin

Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD): disorder or discrimination?

While Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, or RSD, is often cited as the reason for "overblown" reactions to seemingly innocuous situations - this doesn't tell the whole story. Namely, this tells the story from a neurotypical (and neurotypist) perspective.

RSD, described on websites such as WebMD and Medical News Today, is defined as "a condition that causes extreme emotional sensitivity to being criticized, whether that criticism is real or perceived." It is said to manifest in high-anxiety (withdrawal, avoidance, and rumination) or high-anger responses (outbursts of anger or hostility or aggressive behavior).

What determines whether the criticism is real or perceived? Often, this determination is made by neurotypical systems and is grounded in neurotypism, not a 'critical' perspective.

a critical perspective

Neuroqueer ways of embodiment, relating, engaging, and communicating are systematically erased starting in pre-school through activities such as social skills training - if not earlier. Neuroqueer kids are forcibly assimilated into neurotypical culture as soon as signs of neurodivergence or neuroqueerness are shown. As such, neuroqueer individuals are denied access to their natural physicality, or innate embodiment and movements such as stimming; neuroqueer language, or organic expression and description of their experience and emotions; community; and culture by individualizing neuroqueerness through pathologization. These access denials serve to deny neuroqueer individuals access to their own authentic selves - not to mention authentic community.

Neurotypist systems continually reinforce these access denials throughout the lifespan, surveilling kids in classrooms; forcing them to move (or not move), sit, talk, and socialize in neurotypical ways; and punishing them with detention and suspensions if they are unable to assimilate properly. This surveillance continues into higher education and the workplace and also occurs among friends and family. Wouldn't you avoid these circumstances and withdraw from this type of treatment for self-preservation? Wouldn't you be angry at people and systems that are denying your humanity?

This constant surveillance leads neuroqueer individuals to mask, or camouflage. The damage caused by camouflaging has just recently become a topic of research interest. This research has shown how closely camouflaging is related to suicidal ideation, attempt, and completion (mainly done with White children within a binary model of sex and gender). For example, autistic children are 28 times more likely to experience suicidal ideation than allistic (non-autistic) children. This is not because of any innate, neuroessentialized difference. This is due to the neurotypism that keeps neuroqueer people in the neurological (and sexuality and gender) closet.

Society responds to neuroqueerness (and the 'rejection' of neurotypical norms) with carcerality, whether that is through incarceration, institutionalization, or excluding people because they are "annoying," "weird," "anti-social," or "too different"; bullying; 'cringe culture'; detention and suspension; segregated education and employment; institutionalization; incarceration; or death. When viewed through this lens, aren't society and neurotypical supremacy the ones with rejection sensitivity?

individualizing systemic oppression

Responses labeled 'RSD' are often reactions to either neurotypist microaggressions and oppression or neurotypism-related trauma.

However, Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria is instead placed on neuroqueer people. RSD weaponizes neuroqueer ways of regulating emotion and sensory stimuli to gaslight neuroqueer individuals into believing their reactions are wrong and shameful.

Blaming a reaction on 'rejection sensitivity' invokes neurotypism by:

  • victim-blaming neuroqueer individuals

  • weaponizing neuroqueer sensory experiences

  • absolving any accountability for neurotypist action

  • gaslighting neuroqueer individuals to believe that reacting to neurotypism, asserting neuroqueer boundaries, or advocating for neuroqueer access needs are not socially acceptable

While there could be different, healthier ways to handle triggers, such behavior changes need to be grounded in care for the neuroqueer person and based in their own ways of embodiment instead of pathologization that solely aims to make neurotypical people and systems more comfortable.

What can we do?

  1. Deal with the immediate situation. What does the neuroqueer person (or you, if you are the neuroqueer person) need? What will allow you to honor how you feel, process the event, and bring you to baseline when you are ready? What access needs do you have in the moment? For the future, what access needs were potentially unmet (sensory, emotional, food, relational, etc.) that created the conditions that led to your current emotional state? How can others help meet that need? If you are around people who will not help meet that need, how can you try to reach out to others or meet that need in your own way?

  2. Listen to neuroqueer people. They know what they need, even if it differs from neurotypical norms or what neurotypical people and systems have prescribed.

  3. Believe neuroqueer people. It is one thing to hear a neuroqueer person and another to truly trust their wisdom. For example, sensory experiences differ. Personally, balloons scare the "daylights" out of me because the popping sound is incredibly physically painful. I explain it away as a phobia when masking in party situations, but it is completely founded in my sensory experience of physical pain. Neurotypical people may think it is no big deal and are often completely perplexed by my intense fear of balloons. Worst case, I've been made fun of and people will just pop them in front of me. Apparently it is fun for them to see me "overreact" and scream/potentially cry/hyperventilate when they pop.

I share this because I had a recent-ish experience where I was at a friend's party and there were balloons all over the floor (which, in my brain, is way worse because they are much closer to feet that can step on them). I tried to play it cool but was completely panicking and was on my way to a total meltdown or shutdown. I told my friend that balloons were a no-go for me and how I was reacting. She got everyone to move the balloons away from the party into her bedroom while I stood covering my ears in the living room. Everyone was super cool about it and just got the balloons into her room. Some people asked me about it afterwards because they were genuinely curious, not malicious. They said they could understand my point of view.

Now, keep in mind, this was a Valentine's Day party I attended at 27 years old. The balloons were pink, red, and white and went along with the theme. But nobody batted an eye and I was able to enjoy the rest of the party without being excluded, asked to leave, or subject to people complaining about how weird I was. I actually even got a number that night from someone who helped with the balloons and we saw each other casually for a couple of months.

I hope that this small example can show people that a different, neuroqueer, anti-neurotypist future is possible. Particularly, I hope that kids, teens, and parents read this and see that this type of interaction and friendship are possible.

Let's not invalidate neuroqueer people by pathologizing and individualizing oppression. Let's learn what neurotypism is, how it manifests (especially with intersecting identities), and how we can be anti-neurotypist and anti-oppressive. We can co-create different futures that center those most impacted - and those most impacted within this context are not neurotypical people that are uncomfortable and don't like it. Those most impacted are are neuroqueer communities - especially QT/BIPOC neuroqueer communities. We can do this together.

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