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Empowering the wUNDERDOG!

Updated: Aug 2, 2022

Underdog (n): a loser or predicted loser in a struggle or contest; a victim of injustice or persecution

I read this definition and the first part angered me and reminded me of past definitions of Down syndrome (focusing on the now banished 'R' word and others) and the antiquated yet still published definitions of introversion (loner, anti-social, narcissist, icicle).

However, I do find the second part of the definition quite apropos..."a victim of injustice...". This applies to introverts and those with intellectual/developmental disabilities (I/DD) including Down syndrome which I will focus on here given my personal connection. In fact, these two large parts of society have much in common. Both those with Down syndrome and introversion are, indeed, underdogs - often victims of injustice, persecuted at times, repeatedly underestimated, and nevertheless frequently, overachievers.

From Underdog to wUnderdog

Both introverts and people with Down syndrome may be considered underdogs by many, but once they have the tools to succeed, both contribute warmth and amazing perspectives to those around them. They will become wUnderdogs! And it ends up that the keys to this transformation are quite similar.

Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI)

Even today, introverts and those with Special Needs lay at the fringe of the workplace DEI discussions. Neither meets the stereotypical view of proper, outspoken, or brash. Yet both offer unique perspectives. Nearly 20% of the US population have various Special Needs and 40-60% reside on the introversion side of the personality scale. Hence, they not only represent a large portion of today's workplace, but they also represent a huge slice of the customer base companies are seeking to serve. Yet, these groups are often shunned and avoided for their differences instead of valued for their unique perspectives and insights.

Social Outcasts

While many with Special Needs can be easily identified by their features or supportive equipment, many others such as those with Autism often cannot. Introverts cannot be identified from facial features or characteristics. Yet both groups are often social outcasts once their true condition is revealed. As evidenced by society's reluctance to interface with people of different ethnicities, color, or sexual preferences, people are generally uncomfortable with people that are different from themselves. People don't believe they can relate or hold a conversation with people that appear so different, so they typically don't try. But in the world we live in, this fear, reticence, and discomfort don't make the other person the castaway, but the object of their fear the social outcast.

Indeed, like other groups, the introvert and Special Needs community are often social outcasts, having to work twice as hard to develop relationships or to get their voices heard. Yet there are a smattering of examples of people who do reach out to others, either because they already know a person with Special Needs, have an introvert in the family, or are bold enough to believe in the value of the melting pot. And when they do, they would agree they are the better for it - enlightened by how skill, creativity, and bravery can be packaged in new ways.

Extending an Invitation

Often, both because of natural predispositions and perhaps because of these social nuances as well, most introverts prefer to stay close to home. Small groups of familiar people, especially those who understand and respect their introverted personality, give comfort and energy to introverts. Nevertheless, the most private of introverts wants and needs social interaction at their own pace. Chatting at work or socializing out in society is not actually introvert faux pas. Like nearly all humans, introverts need such interaction, just in small doses, after which a return to more solo endeavors is warranted to recharge their personal battery.

Oftentimes, people with Special Needs do test as introverts per the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test. This is especially the case amongst those with Autism ("Are Autistic People Introverts?" by Lisa Jo Rudy, 2/8/2020) and others who may struggle with social and communication skills. However, these barriers can be broken down with some effort by others. People with Special Needs, like neurotypical introverts, want and need social interaction.

Introverts frequently just need to be invited into a conversation. "What do you think?" or "What's on your mind?" are often the most effective invitations to join a group discussion. This is probably sparked by some curiosity on the questioner's part. That same curiosity and question extended to those with Special Needs can be rewarded with a smiling face and an energetic response.

The Gift of Calmness

Did you know those with Down syndrome are twice as likely as the general public to suffer from depression or OCD? And introverts are three times more likely to experience depression and anxiety than extroverts. Why is this so?

Neither of these propensities is a given. Those people with Down syndrome do have intellectual and developmental disabilities, but this does not at all mean they will suffer from depression. It is not part of the dynamics of having a third twenty-first chromosome. And introverts are more introspective, but this characteristic does not dictate depression or anxiety.

In both cases, I believe, depression is not a result of the diagnosis but a result of being lonely - not alone, but lonely. We all have thoughts wandering through our heads - all of us. While such circumspection is a quite valuable trait for introverts, too much introspection without a relief valve, a variety of outlets to blow off steam, park thoughts and fears, or bounce them off others to discover they're commonplace or to find some solutions, is essential for all of us. Extroverts often do that naturally. Introverts and those with ID/D need help; they need that invitation, that someone to invest a bit of their time to help others find relief.

When invited to talk and share, not only does their self-esteem rise with such inclusion, but the swarm of thoughts in their heads dissipates and calmness pervades. Anyone can provide such a gift. We just have to make a bit of space for others.