Neurodiversity is the belief that neurological differences diverging away from the average population (whom we call neurotypicals) are a natural occurrence and should be celebrated. Individuals falling into this group include people with conditions such as ADHD, dyslexia, autism, and so on.
While these labels may seem occasionally helpful for us in understanding the constellation of traits that are part of what defines them, the truth is that our labels seem to be most often steered in a way that brings forth greater negativity than positivity; much of our diagnosis is centred around what a person with a condition is unable to do in comparison to what we think an “average” person is capable of.
Yet, if we looked at our so-called “average” population, we would hardly find two individuals who are the same as one another. There are people who are incredible when it comes to Math or Science, some who are talented in picking up languages, and others who have a natural instinct in physical movement, such as dancers, martial artists, or athletes. Yet, these very same people who excel in one aspect may encounter difficulties in another area of their lives. The fact is that everyone is different from each other, and we excel in different ways. This is merely the tip of the iceberg. There is just such a variety of intelligence and abilities that go beyond what is traditionally deemed to be important – academic smarts.
It is for this reason that I believe Neurodiversity to be a powerful idea. Why?
Neurodiversity is powerful because it is an idea that encourages an alternative perspective – an alternative narrative – and our narratives makes up a large part of our reality. Rather than only focusing on what these individuals cannot do, neurodiversity teaches us to focus on what they can. As what Scott Barry Kaufman said in his book ‘Ungifted’, “perhaps instead of labelling dyslexics as learning disables, we should call them visually gifted”.
In this manner, it is very much like a strength-based approach in counselling wherein the strengths of the individuals are highlighted. It also births a space of contemplation that prompts us to deliberately consider how and where we can best put these strengths to use. In other words, it teaches us to capitalise on a specialised type of human resource. Rather than insisting they fit a traditional mould, it is far better to allow them to explore where they can best do well and give them the opportunity to do so. Not only does it empower and enriches the lives of neurodivergent individuals, it also benefits our society!
In fact, Steve Silberman (author of Neurotribes) believes that these individuals can bring about unique perspectives and geniuses that eludes the neurotypical population precisely because of their wildly differing ways of thought. In his book, Silberman gives an anecdotal narration of individuals with contributions stemming precisely from the traits and characteristics they present with because of autism; often, a very focused interest in certain activities. An earlier article I wrote expands my thoughts about this focused interest – what I had called fixations can be found here.
As an approach, Neurodiversity is helpful not only because of the potential contributions that could be made by these unique individuals, but also because what we choose to focus on can greatly affect another person’s sense of self. One way we build our sense of self is via feedback from the others. We often build our self-identity based on what others expect from us or see in us. If a person’s shortcomings are always what is paid attention to, it becomes a challenge for them to see beyond their so-called failures. Instead, their perspectives may be narrowly calibrated to focus on their difficulties, thus limiting their self-image. In the long run, this negatively affects their sense of self and lowers their self-esteem. All of this has a trickle-down effect.
Conversely, if we look towards the positive aspects of an individual, we instill a sense of pride and self-efficacy that gives them greater confidence in their ability to live independently, thereby making it more likely they will try and succeed at it. And that may be one of the more crucial issues at hand – the ability of someone who is neurodivergent to live independently and meaningfully.
Perhaps, it is time for the idea of Neurodiversity to remind society to see the humanity in all of us, and to finally take steps to include a population that has long been an outcast because of their differences. The idea that our neurological differences are a natural development serves as an imploration to the humanity society prides itself on. We are all humans, albeit all a little different from one other. Why shouldn’t we be doing more to take care of a group of people who belongs with us?
A well-known saying in the autism community is this: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism”. While I understand the intention and message of this sentence, I wonder if we should simply remove the part “with autism”.
“If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person.”
I believe, at its crux, despite what arguments that may be presented against the idea of Neurodiversity, its original intention has always been one to unite rather than divide; to spur society to unite in the humanness that we have all come from, and to embrace the uniqueness that make it possible for each of us to know one another differently.
And in that vein, I would probably cast a vote in favour of it.
Hannah Gadsby said this: “Diversity is strength, difference is a teacher. If you fear difference, you learn nothing.”
While it was said in a different context, hearing this struck a chord in me, and I believe it can be applied just as well here. I hope reading this made you reconsider your perspective just a little bit. And above all, I hope you hear the clarion call of our humanity to embrace the humanness in those who are, in all that matters, not so different from us.
Written by Felicia.