I was diagnosed with ADHD in my mid-20’s. For my entire life, I struggled with things other people, including my twin sister, seemed to have no issue with. I had trouble turning in homework, even if I had already done it, since everything just got crushed in the bottom of my backpack. Every teacher and every boss I’d ever had told me I was “extremely intelligent and extremely lazy,” even though I felt like I was running as fast as I could just to keep up. I was rarely without friends, but still had a hard time socially and often felt like I was on the outside looking in. My boyfriend at the time (now my husband) had recently got his own diagnosis, and when he described his symptoms, it shocked me how similar they were to my own life experience. Since I didn’t have health insurance, I enrolled in a clinical study for a new ADHD medication that accepted patients who suspected they had it, but hadn’t been formally diagnosed.
I decided to open this review with a personal story because My Brain is Different: Stories of ADHD and Other Developmental Disorders is a highly personal book. Its conception began when Monzusu noticed her son was showing some delayed development, and his pediatrician suggested he may have a developmental disorder such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In the course of her research, Monzusu found that many of the symptoms described not just her child, but herself. She also found the popular narrative about these disorders overwhelmingly negative, especially when describing adults. Instead of simply accepting the pessimism and discrimination she found, she sought out the personal stories of people who dealt with developmental disorders, whether they cope with it themselves or have loved ones who do.
It is, in many ways, a heavy book. It comes with a laundry list of content warnings; self-harm, suicide, child abuse, and bullying are all recurring themes. This is partially because being neurodivergent in a neurotypical world is difficult, especially in cultures that demand conformity to strict social norms. People with what the book terms “developmental disorders,” and their comorbidities such as depression often have trouble with things Japanese society values highly, such as hygiene, tidiness, punctuality, and reading the room, and in many of the stories represented, the narrator wasn’t diagnosed until adulthood and faced dire social, academic, and professional consequences for parts of themselves they couldn’t change or understand.
The other reason these aspects figure in so heavily is that Monzusu admits she selected the stories of people who faced difficulties, even hitting rock bottom before things improved. She did receive letters from people who were diagnosed at a young age, got the treatment and support they needed, and reached adulthood without major difficulties. Those personal stories are also important and just as authentic, but are difficult to translate into something people would want to read.
This is not to say that every story follows the same arc; it’s clear that Monzusu took care to represent a variety of perspectives from people whose lives are directly affected by developmental disorders, including family members. Hanako faced pushback from her family on her attempts to accommodate her autistic son Tarou and worried that he’d struggle socially in school, only to discover that he was popular and well-liked. Iku finally finds peace when her Strattera (an ADHD medication) starts working. Mamu had friends and got good grades growing up, but only due to pushing herself to the point of exhaustion and has reached her breaking point. Cat-Paw Punch’s husband Yuuto was only diagnosed with autism when he couldn’t adjust to dealing with their daughter as a young child, and she must figure out how to balance both of their needs. As people with developmental disorders, our experiences are diverse, and do not conform to a single narrative.
The single common element in every one of these stories is that each one ends with hopefulness. With their diagnoses, they learn to understand themselves and their own needs, even if the world around them doesn’t share that understanding. Many of them find work through social services, or a job that understands and is willing to accommodate them, and they figure out coping strategies for the parts of their lives they can’t change. The overarching narrative echoes Monzusu‘s description of her own experiences: that while a diagnosis can be frightening, the new paths and perspectives it opens up outweigh the anxiety that comes along with it.
Some potential readers may take issue with the language used in the book, including outdated terms like Asperger’s Syndrome; even referring to autism as a disorder may be controversial in some circles. While nobody can be blamed for bristling at a sensitive subject like this, two things are important to keep in mind. One is that these are the stories of real people living in a different culture, and as such, they experience their neurodivergence differently from those of us reading the work in translation. One of the most fascinating parts of the book is seeing the different resources and services people have access to in another country. The other thing is that the stories in this book are people writing about their experiences in their own words. A translator’s note at the beginning of the volume emphasizes the importance of not changing the terminology that the writers used themselves, even if it’s problematic by today’s standards.
This emphasizes the source of so much of the book’s power: neurodivergent people telling their own stories in their own words, scaffolded by Monzusu‘s art. It’s all too common for organizations to claim to speak for people with developmental disorders, especially autism, and instead speak over them (and now that I mention that, never donate to Autism Speaks). The conversation around developmental disorders tends to be controlled by neurotypical people, privileging the perspectives of people who feel inconvenienced by us or treat us with smiling patronism or as inspiration porn. The stories Monzusu highlights are simple and quiet, with no grand triumphs or overcoming the odds. Nobody stands up and claps at the end. Even Monzusu‘s simple art style plays into this sense as it avoids taking the focus away from the contributors’ words.
Several times while reading My Brain is Different, I had to put the book down simply because I was so emotionally overwhelmed by seeing experiences so similar to my own on the page. When I finished reading, I spent half an hour in bed, quietly sobbing at how Monzusu discussed how things were changing and expressed her hopes for the future for people with developmental disorders like her own child. And it’s true: the world has come a long way in understanding and accommodating our needs, but there’s also a long way we still need to go. My Brain is Different won’t fix all the problems, but perhaps, in its own way, it can help a few people understand themselves or the people around them.