An image saying the title of the story "Five percent of nothing" and author "Helena Hartmann". It also includes the logo of Science & Fiction and a picture of a ruminating woman sitting on the floor.

An upside down story about being neurodiverse.

Content warnings

  • anxiety, depression, panic attacks, bipolarity, psychopathy

The short story

“Nothing at all? You’re neurotypical?!”

I stare into my empty coffee cup. Why did I start this topic? I should have just made up some random ones.

“I have four MED-issued diagnoses”, my work colleague Susan chatters on, as if she has given this speech a thousand times. She has only been here a few weeks but already knows how the game works. The MED manual is everybody’s bible nowadays.

“I am getting tested for bipolarity tomorrow, my coach says I have a good chance. How amazing is that?!”, Susan says with a big smile. “I am sure this will help so much with my promotion. Very few people have my exact profile!”, she says, shoveling food in her mouth. She must be in one of her manic phases, I think, watching her eyes dart around aimlessly.

“Amazing…”, I echo weakly. I am aware that having mental conditions is normal. And by normal I mean wanted. And by wanted I mean highly craved. Not conditions, mental enhancements, I correct myself, hearing my course instructor’s voice in the back of my head. “They make you a better human. They guarantee you a better future. Discover your full potential today!” They are making everyone at work do these courses. I look at my half-eaten cake, and am suddenly not hungry anymore.

Susan just continues talking: “I heard that Janet got her official psychopathy certificate last week!” Does she ever stop? Not everybody is like her. The tests for getting such diagnoses are hard. Somehow I managed to fail every single one of them. My brain activity was “unusual”, the examiner had said, my skin conductance “out of bounds”, my facial features “not expressive enough”, and my body language too “neurotypical”.

I think about the last few years, while Susan happily continues her monologue by herself. The perception of mental conditions has shifted dramatically. A 95% prevalence of having a least one condition, and even 78% for two or more conditions, who would have thought… Soon, companies realized that neurodiversity makes more money than neurotypicality. Mental enhancements are now considered special abilities. Because we’re all superhumans. Except me.

I agree with this approach in principle. We have neglected and suppressed mental conditions for far too long, hiding them for fear of stigmatization or loss of possibilities. Now everything is different, but somehow still wrong. It’s not hard, I shake my head in my mind, just accept everybody as they are. No exceptions. Don’t make up special rules that exclude a part of all humans.

“I’m off, see you later! And really, Charlotte, think about signing up for another test. Don’t give up!” I watch her as she turns to leave. It won’t work. I took them all, but failed every single one. Leaving with the same flyer titled “No enhancements? Get help today!”, paired with the same pitying look from the examiner. Lost case, I guess.

I leave my food where it is and shuffle back to my desk. My job involves sorting files for a big law firm. This and other similarly boring jobs is what we get. The 5% of the population who have nothing. The 5% who have a big empty space in the mental enhancement section that garners every CV since 2400 - the century of neurodiversity.

I fight back tears and my beating heart as I sit down and pick up the next file. “Charlotte, could you come into my office for a minute?”, my boss asks me in her serious voice. I can feel panic rising up in me. Keep it together, Charlotte, I tell myself, and make my way to her office. Each step feels like walking through mud. I get slower and slower until it looks like I am not moving at all anymore. Then I stand in front of her office.

After the meeting, which lasts exactly 2 minutes and 31 seconds, I go to my desk and pack the little things I own into a paper bag with the company logo stamped on it. A picture of my cat, a tape dispenser in the shape of a chameleon, and a pen saying ‘You can do it!’ that was given to me by - you guessed it - Susan. I try to ignore every hair on my body that stands up and the everybody’s long stares as I make my way downstairs. Past the room where sad dysthymics and depressives go to ruminate together, past the room where passionate manics are frantically scribbling idea upon idea on whiteboards, past the sound-proof room where hypersensitive people work quietly, each in their headphone-shielded world. Out of the building. This is the end, I think. I am just hopeless.

All I manage is to slump down on a bench before I start to cry. I cry until I am empty and it feels like my body is being torn apart from the inside. Nobody comes to help. Deep desperation and nausea hits me at the same time. Nobody cares, so why should I? Everything is useless, I think, my chest constricting so strongly I think it will shrivel up into a tiny ball. I hear people laughing, but when I look up there is nobody. As I listen to my hummingbird-beating heart, my electrified extremities, and my screaming brain, everything before my eyes starts to blur.

“Wake up, Charlotte. Don’t move just yet while we remove the electrodes.” I open my eyes and see a dark-haired woman in an expensive looking, shiny suit removing a silver headpiece with knobs from my head. “You’re all done. Please have a seat next door while I check your results.”

The woman has to help me up and out of the door. “No worries, the serum will wear off in a few minutes”. My foggy mind clears slowly. Damn, those simulations are getting more and more realistic and intense. I take a deep breath.

After what feels like hours to me she comes back in, carrying a piece of paper which she holds out to me. “Congratulations, Charlotte.”

I look down at the document, stating in big, bold letters: “Certificate for Charlotte Newton, issued by the Mental Enhancement Diagnostics Center on 37.18.2487, for the mental enhancements depression level 2 and anxiety level 3."

This story was originally written in English.

The paper

Elsherif, M. M., Middleton, S. L., Phan, J. M., Azevedo, F., Iley, B. J., Grose-Hodge, M., … Dokovova, M. (2022). Bridging neurodiversity and open scholarship: How shared values can guide best practices for research integrity, social justice, and principled education. MetaArXiv Preprints. Find more info about the first author here!

Connection between story and paper

The preprint (which is a paper that has not been peer-reviewed yet, i.e., received feedback from the scientific community) talks about people who are not considered neurotypical within our current society, so-called neurodiverse individuals. These can be people who have physical or mental disabilities or other psychological or neurological conditions. Often, neurodivergent people are researched (the objects), rather than being the ones doing the researching (the subjects), because scientists want to understand better why certain conditions are the way they are. The paper says that including neurodiverse people actively in research is worth doing, as their lived experiences can bring in new viewpoints and perspectives. This approach, also called “participatory research”, can then try to overcome barriers such as stigma and exclusion, and at the same time highly enrich the research itself. The fictional short story, on the other hand, flips this stigma around back to neurotypicals, although this also seems more like a dystopian world.

It makes you think, why we exclude anyone no matter who they are. It makes you consider: What world would you want to live in?

The author

Helena has developed Science and Fiction and writes many of the stories herself. Her current research as an active scientist focuses on the behavioural and neural basis of pain, pain modulation and treatment expectations based on placebo and nocebo effects. She completed her PhD at the Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience Unit at the Institute for Psychology of Cognition, Emotion and Methods at the University of Vienna, where she investigated empathy and prosocial behaviour in the area of pain.

Dr. Helena Hartmann
Dr. Helena Hartmann
Neuroscientist, psychologist and science communicator (she/her/hers)