What Is Meant by Neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is a word used by researchers, academics, and clinicians to describe the concept that neurological differences, such as those seen in autism, dyslexia, intellectual disabilities, ADHD and emotional and behavioral disorders, are normal variants on the comprehensive spectrum of brain development. Neurodiversity is a relatively new model of understanding mental health and mental disorder. It highlights the current debate regarding when a neurologically based behavior moves from what is viewed as a normal human variation to a pathology.

How did neurodiversity become a center of clinical attention and debate? In roughly the last 20 years, studies have revealed that many psychological disorders manifest with strengths as well as weaknesses. For instance, some individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) exhibit certain strengths in connection with work considered system-related: mathematical systems, machines, and computer languages, as well as heightened ability to recognize minute detail in complex patterns. As a result, ASD-related strengths have become sought after skills in the technology industry with individuals recruited specifically for work involving computer code, managing databases, etc.

Others proponents point to studies which show that some with dyslexia are better able to perceive peripheral or diffused visual data faster and more efficiently than those without, and suggest that these visual-spatial skills may be valuable in jobs demanding three-dimensional thinking such as engineering, astrophysics, and computer graphics. Those who support the neurodiversity paradigm promote the idea that because neurological differences are normal they should be respected and supported, not pathologized.

Many individuals with high-functioning autism or a similar difference advocate neurodiversity, contending that the traditional medical model of disorder strips individuals of their humanity and uniqueness. This results in those with neurological differences having their power to decide their own best interests effectively taken away. The neurodiversity movement is not without controversy as it spreads its message. Others, including caretakers of children with low-functioning autism and related conditions, argue that neurodiversity downplays the challenges these individuals face.

Today, many neurodiversity proponents criticize the viewpoint that neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism, dyslexia, ADHD, and others, require medical intervention in order to fix or cure the person. Instead, they argue that other means, such as communication and assistive technologies, occupational training support systems, inclusion-focused services such as accommodations and independent living support, should be used to aid the individual. Those who advocate in this way have proposed that the aim of the neurodiversity perspective is to recognize legitimate forms of self-expression, being and human diversity, versus treatment which forces the individual to accept socially sanctioned ideas of normality or conformance to a clinical ideal.

Neurodiversity advocates look to remodel the way that society views autism and related conditions in the following ways: changing the language used to describe conditions from words like condition, disease, disorder, or illness; giving non-neurotypical people control over their treatment or decision to not participate in treatment; expanding the concept of healthy/independent living via the acknowledgment of new forms of autonomy; acknowledging that neurodiversity does not require a cure.

According to autism advocate Aiyana Bailin, the following bullet points highlight the tenets of neurodiversity:

  •       No disability diminishes personhood. People with atypical brains are human with the same inalienable rights as everyone else.
  •       Autism and other neurological variations such as ADHD, learning disabilities, etc., may be disabilities but are not flawed. Those with neurological differences are not incomplete versions nor broken versions of normal people.
  •       Neurological variations are as vital to humanity as variations in size, skin color, and personality. No one has the right to attempt to enhance our species by determining what are valuable or nonvaluable characteristics.
  •       Disability is a complicated thing but people with disabilities can live meaningful, rich lives.

An online survey in 2013 sought to determine the public’s perception of autism and neurodiversity. Based on study data, researchers concluded that “a deficit-as-difference conception of autism suggests the importance of harnessing autistic traits in developmentally beneficial ways, transcending a false dichotomy between celebrating differences and ameliorating deficit.”

Another study, conducted in 2009, involved 27 students diagnosed with either ADHD, autism, stroke, dyslexia or developmental coordination disorder. The researchers found that all of the participants reported experience with exclusion, abuse, and bullying in school and careers. Subjects who perceived themselves from a different/disabled perspective (41%) reported higher academic self-esteem and confidence in their ability, with the majority (73%) reporting significant career goals with positive and clear objectives. Interestingly, the researchers stated that many in this cohort reported gaining this perspective of themselves via online support group contact with neurodiversity advocates.

Autism researcher Simon Baron Cohen believes there is a middle ground to be found between the medical model and neurodiversity, but until then the debate about what is different/disabled and what is normal will continue at opposite ends of the spectrum.

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