I have been thinking about the difference between accommodations and coddling. On one side, there are a lot of people who claim that all accommodations are coddling: that giving someone extra time on a test, or allowing them to work from home, or providing them medications that allow them to function better, is keeping them from developing the essential moral fiber to participate in society. On the other hand, there are a lot of people that claim that coddling isn’t a thing that happens, that no one ever infantilizes neurodivergent people, treating them like children who need to be protected from things that are too hard and scary for them.

I think both sides are untrue. Accommodations exist, coddling exists, they are often difficult to tell apart, and one must pay careful attention to figure out which one is which.

[ETA: I have listed two fundamental differences between accommodations and coddling here. I think that they are two clusters; however, it is possible that a proposed way of coping with neurodivergence fits one category and not another, and in that case we must be even more careful to figure out which one it is. I apologize that in the previous version of the post this was not clear.]

One of the fundamental differences between accommodations and coddling, I think, is this: coddling makes you weaker, but accommodations make you stronger.

Consider the dyslexic person who gets access to audiobooks. Suddenly they can read much more easily. They can experience great works of literature and poetry, learn about history and science. They are better informed than they would otherwise be and more capable in their studies, at work, and as citizens. They can do more than they could without the audiobooks.

On the other hand, when I’m depressed, I usually don’t want to do anything; I want to lie around on the couch under a blanket making sad noises. It does not actually help to say “it’s okay, Ozy, I will do everything for you and you will just lie under a blanket making sad noises.” If I tidy my room, I will get a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment; if someone else tidies my room, I will just feel worse, because I can’t even do that. And it can be self-perpetuating: the longer other people do everything for me, instead of helping me do things for myself, the more I end up under a blanket being sad and the less I am capable of doing.

It can require a lot of discernment to figure out whether something is strengthening you or making you weaker. For instance, imagine that you’re an agoraphobe who uses Instacart to buy your groceries. It’s possible that not having to go outside in order to eat means that you go hungry less, which gives you a lot more ability to do things; because you spend less energy and time working up the nerve to go grocery shopping, you can do more things that matter to you. On the other hand, it’s also possible you’re using Instacart as a way to avoid doing things which frighten you. Instead of practicing courage, you’re giving in to fear. For the same person, the same thing can be accommodations in some circumstances and coddling in others; it can be really hard to figure out.

Another fundamental difference is that accommodations are something you decide, and coddling is something other people decide.

There is a really important difference between saying “I can’t do this” and someone else saying “you can’t do this.” There is a difference between saying “ugh, I can’t handle making this phone call, can you make it?” and someone else saying “every time you make a phone call, you have a panic attack; I’m going to make it for you.” There is a difference between saying “given my executive functioning issues, college is too hard for me, so I’m going to drop out” and someone else saying “you’re probably going to fail a class if you take one, so I’m not going to let you.”

People have a right to struggle, to make mistakes, to take risks, to do things that scare us, and to fail. Neurodivergent people have that right just as much as neurotypicals do. I think the most pernicious part of coddling is when– often from the highest of motives, distressed at the pain we cause ourselves– people take away this right from us. When they wrap us up inside a cotton-ball world where there are no sharp edges we might cut ourselves on.

When you don’t do things that are hard for you, your achievements aren’t meaningful: if you didn’t work or struggle, how can you take pride in what you’ve accomplished? You might as well skip playing a video game and instead stare at a screen that says YOU WON. When you aren’t allowed to fail, you aren’t allowed to try new things. Your world can get very small. And when someone else is making decisions for you– even for your own good– they are substituting their values for yours, and instead of having a life that is full of things you want, it’s full of things that other people think you ought to want.

An interesting outcome of defining the words the way I define them is that many anti-trigger-warning people– the ones who say that if you have strong negative reactions when exposed to certain material you should be in therapy, rather than in the classroom– are the ones who are really coddling rape survivors. The decision of whether a rape survivor should go to college should be made by the individual rape survivor, not by thinkpiece writers. And in many cases allowing a person to avoid or prepare themselves for certain material allows them to be educated when they otherwise wouldn’t. Imagine a veteran with PTSD who has flashbacks when she hears loud noises but who wants to learn physics; she is clearly stronger as a physicist who occasionally skips loud demonstrations than as someone who never takes a class where there might be a noise.