What’s it like to live in a body and brain that functions differently than the majority of your peers? We are not talking about subtle differences – as always exist between any two minds – but rather those individuals who possess an entire mental processing system that is metaphorically blind to much of what most people take for granted, but has different kinds of perception that completely escape the majority. So while these individuals may not speak a verbal language, or if they can verbalize, may miss a thousand social cues to stop asking about their particular obsession, they might also intuit how to handle tamed herd animals with elegant efficiency and without violence, or inspire global mass protest against doing nothing in the face of climate change.
What does neurodivergent mean?
Humanity is neurodiverse. We all have different minds and different ways of interpreting the inflow of information that we gather through our senses. No matter how different we are, most of us grow up feeling awkward, insecure, and unsure of where we fit in, and of who we will become.
Some have experienced nasty bullying – being teased about how weird we are, being threatened by the big kid on campus, or at times even attacked. Some unconsciously turn their awkwardness and insecurity outward and become the attacker, the teaser, the one on top. Some unconsciously turn it inward and descend into isolation and depression. Some channel it into other patterns, holding their breath for the day when everything makes sense. But most of us learn to talk, learn to communicate our needs more or less effectively, find something to do that makes us money or gives us purpose, and join the rest of the crowd as a “regular” member of our community, our society, our world.
For some kids though, the journey to full acceptance must also pass through an added layer of complication. Being labeled as stupid because they haven’t learned to read, being labeled as difficult because they can’t bear to sit still, being labeled as eccentric because they can’t make eye contact or intuit that the thing to do when everyone else sits down is to sit down. But over the past few decades, the world has caught on that the child who can’t learn to read might have a brain that interprets figures and letters differently than most others – that he or she is dyslexic, and with extra support can learn numbers, letters, and reading – and become a brilliant mathematician, a fantastic writer, or a CEO.
The world has caught on that the kid who can’t sit still might have a brain that is so easily stimulated, and craves newness to such an extreme that a typical classroom might not contain his or her curiosity, but with some adjustments and support this kid can come up with something no one thought possible before. And the world has caught on – largely because of people like Temple Grandin, Judy Singer and Nick Walker that just because one doesn’t speak, or can’t handle a casual caress, they can offer newness and alternative perspective that teaches the world something amazing.
This is the Neurodiversity Movement, and it has revolutionized the experience and treatment of people whose innate brain functions diverge from the majority of their peers – helping to destigmatize difference and give new value to various ways of being in the world.
It’s simple. You know someone who is neurodivergent
In this week’s Optimist View, we are heading down the road of neurodiversity to discuss how the world of Optimists (and frankly everyone) benefits from NeuroDivergent thinking, and what some experts have to share about the future of a more inclusive NeuroDiverse world. This may be a new way of thinking. The word neurodiversity itself is still relatively new, coined by Australian sociologist Judy Singer in 1998. No longer is the hunt for a cure for many types of neurodivergent individuals the goal. Instead, in the last 21 years, solutions for inclusion, acceptance, and support have grown widely.
Accepting the value in different modes of thinking
Author and educator, Nick Walker helps us understand definitions of the nomenclature we will explore in understanding Neurodiversity, the Neurodiversity Paradigm, and Neurodivergent experiences in his work on NeuroCosmopolitanism.
The neurodiversity paradigm is a specific perspective on neurodiversity – a perspective or approach that boils down to these fundamental principles:
1.) Neurodiversity is a natural and valuable form of human diversity.
2.) The idea that there is one “normal” or “healthy” type of brain or mind, or one “right” style of neurocognitive functioning, is a culturally constructed fiction, no more valid (and no more conducive to a healthy society or to the overall well-being of humanity) than the idea that there is one “normal” or “right” ethnicity, gender, or culture.
3.) The social dynamics that manifest in regard to neurodiversity are similar to the social dynamics that manifest in regard to other forms of human diversity (e.g., diversity of ethnicity, gender, or culture). These dynamics include the dynamics of social power inequalities, and also the dynamics by which diversity, when embraced, acts as a source of creative potential.
So, if we start there, and understand that we are inherently neurodiverse and that as a society, normal is simply not the goal, what can the Neurotypical learn from our colleagues, mentors, and family members with a Neurodivergent experience. What can we learn from the Neurominority?
Let’s talk ADHD
One of the most prevalent Neurodivergent experiences is Attention Deficit, Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). According to specialist Larry Silver, someone with ADHD has a low level of the neurotransmitter, norepinephrine, which affects four key areas of the brain; The Frontal Cortex, The Limbic System, Basal Ganglia and the Reticular Activating System. These systems control areas of attention, executive function, and emotional response processes. With reduced norepinephrine, someone with ADHD may have a hard time following linear deadlines, organization, and be blessed with the meticulous capacity to dive deeper and more thoroughly into a project, create art, or lead a movement than someone who has higher production of norepinephrine.
That beautiful, fast-moving, quick switching, empathetic and emotional brain of someone you probably know and love may, in fact, be brilliantly constructed with this reduced neurotransmitter.
Parents of ADHD children have struggled with helping guide the educational experience of their young ones. In the past, academic institutions have sought to regulate behavior through medication or require conformity for neurodivergent children. As many a parent knows, trying to force any child to be “normal” is a no-win experience. Fortunately, over the last twenty years, there has been robust evolution in the understanding and engagement of children with ADHD.
Professor, branding guru, and founder of Innovation Protocol, Sasha Strauss has spoken widely about his experience in the 1980s undergoing treatment for then defined ADD. As a teenager, while again in the principal’s office, he wondered how students could sit for periods of up to eight hours in fixed positions and then go to detention, remaining motionless for another hour. What did they do with all the pent up energy?
His family, progressive for the time, enrolled him into an ADD medication study. Through using the “chemicals” Strauss was able to identify singular focus, “OK fine, I can look down this tunnel. I can focus on this one thing.” but recognized the tremendous amount of input that was missed, ideas, images, creative expansion, and perhaps most importantly his connection with the output of other people’s energy. He found a way to reframe his experience and came to value how his hyper-alert brain was tuned into the people around him, turning his “disability” into a career-launching pad.
Many ADHD adults express no desire to get rid of their ADHD. It is, in fact, an integral part of their personality, creative capacity, and engagement with society. While the use of medication can help in creating bridges for productivity, organization, and linear project completion, many have learned that taking the least amount required is most effective, helping them stay true to themselves and not become numb.
In addition to ADHD, there are a number of alternative ways that brains function, gaining awareness, respect, and understanding. Neurodivergents, celebrate! One of the most poignant and widely diagnosed, and becoming increasingly understood is Autism.
Dr. Temple Grandin, a prominent author and speaker on both autism and animal behavior has been a leading advocate in the focus on neurodiversity and engagement in the rise of diagnosis. As a professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, she also has a successful career consulting on both livestock handling equipment design and animal welfare.
Grandin is also autistic, and through her prolific writing and public speaking about her personal experience in living from this perspective, she gives others insight into living in the world with a “differently-abled brain”.
Before the 1980’s many people with autism were institutionalized, making them essentially invisible to mainstream society. This has shifted in the past few decades, as clinicians, parents and other advocates for children with radically different neurology came to understand that the behavioral expressions of these children were not caused by bad parenting, but rather were innate differences in how the brain worked. With greater understanding and the development of new and more effective therapies, even children with extreme forms of autistic functioning have been accepted into their families, the school system and their communities.
Over time, and most recently in 2013, the American Psychiatric Association has revised the criteria for autism, broadening it to encompass a spectrum of linked characteristics that may or may not include intellectual impairment. The problem is that there’s not a simple blood test or brain scan that can identify autism. It is diagnosed through observation of behavior.
An autism spectrum diagnosis may include a brilliant scientist like Albert Einstein, or an individual who cannot speak or dress himself or herself throughout his or her lifespan. Grandin writes, “Steve Jobs was probably mildly on the autistic spectrum. Basically, you’ve probably known people who were geeky and socially awkward but very smart. When does geeks and nerds become autism? That’s a gray area. Half the people in Silicon Valley probably have autism.”
With the rise of identity politics, and people looking for where they fit into an increasingly diverse and heterogeneous society, having a label like autism can become a refuge and give succor to adults who previously struggled with personal relationships. Some people with autism have higher service needs and others require fewer service accommodations. Increasingly, people on the spectrum, who require fewer service accommodations, have become articulate self-advocates, creating support networks, advocacy websites, networking conferences, and even poking fun at their neurotypical (NT) peers as suffering from neurological normality disorder.
Debates over what constitutes autism have been complicated by the fact that special services for children who have different learning issues or brain functionality – like ADHD, autism, dyslexia or sensory processing disorder – are often not accessible without a clinical diagnosis. While being diagnosed might free up services and help explain certain idiosyncrasies, the danger is that labels can pigeonhole a child and lower expectations for them in ways that can cause problems later in life.
Grandin points out that, “Parents get so worried about the deficits that they don’t build up the strengths, but those skills could even turn into a job. These kids often have uneven skills. We need to be a lot more flexible about things. Don’t hold the math geniuses back. You’re going to have to give them special ed in reading because that tends to be the pattern, but let them go ahead in math.”
Like Strauss, Dr. Grandin also highly values what makes her different. Her logical way of thinking sets her apart from others and allows her to find solutions to problems others might not see. Her work reimagining the humane care, and efficient treatment of livestock has overhauled an industry.
“The skills that people with autism bring to the table should be nurtured for their benefit and society’s,” Grandin said. And, if a cure for autism were found, she would choose to stay just the way she is.
“I like the really logical way that I think. I’m totally logical. In fact, it kind of blows my mind how irrational human beings are,” she said.
Other common forms of neurodivergence
The further we dive into Neurodivergence, like most of our Optimist View articles, we find that we could write a full-length tome instead of your Sunday morning read. The examples of ADHD and Autism are some of the most commonly misunderstood forms of neurodivergence. We return to the writings of Nick Walker to further understand the scope and basic definitions.
“Neurodivergent, sometimes abbreviated as ND, means having a brain that functions in ways that diverge significantly from the dominant societal standards of “normal.”
Neurodivergent is quite a broad term. Neurodivergence (the state of being neurodivergent) can be largely or entirely genetic and innate, or it can be largely or entirely produced by brain-altering experience, or some combination of the two (autism and dyslexia are examples of innate forms of neurodivergence, while alterations in brain functioning caused by such things as trauma, long-term meditation practice, or heavy usage of psychedelic drugs are examples of forms of neurodivergence produced through experience).
A person whose neurocognitive functioning diverges from dominant societal norms in multiple ways – for instance, a person who is Autistic, dyslexic, and epileptic – can be described as multiply neurodivergent.
Some forms of innate or largely innate neurodivergence, like autism, are intrinsic and pervasive factors in an individual’s psyche, personality, and fundamental way of relating to the world. The neurodiversity paradigm rejects the pathologizing of such forms of neurodivergence, and the Neurodiversity Movement opposes attempts to get rid of them.
Other forms of neurodivergence, like epilepsy or the effects of traumatic brain injuries, could be removed from an individual without erasing fundamental aspects of the individual’s selfhood, and in many cases, the individual would be happy to be rid of such forms of neurodivergence. The neurodiversity paradigm does not reject the pathologizing of these forms of neurodivergence, and the Neurodiversity Movement does not object to consensual attempts to cure them (but still most definitely objects to discrimination against people who have them).
Thus, neurodivergence is not intrinsically positive or negative, desirable or undesirable – it all depends on what sort of neurodivergence one is talking about.”
Parenting neurodivergent children
Several of the team members at The Optimist Daily are parents of neurodivergent children and expressed great interest in our work on outlining solutions created by the neurodivergent. Neurodiversity awareness is critical to their success as parents and the opportunities for their children.
One staffer shared her story of parenting her autistic son through complicated transitions in high school.
When it became clear that something was simply different with our son, the stress level in our family went down by a factor of 100. We no longer found ourselves yelling and punishing him for not “doing the right thing” and instead, we found ourselves strategizing with him on the tools necessary to accomplish the goals he wanted to set forth. Instead of being frustrated at the things we previously felt we had to constantly repeat, we marveled at the untethered brilliance of this kid when it wasn’t a fight. Deciding to worry less about aligning with societal neurotypical behavior, we instead turned our hearts and creative minds over to understanding differences, channeling opportunity, and putting our creative, brilliant, and eloquent child in situations that make him feel strong, respected, and give him the opportunity to grow into a leader.
Of course, like parenting any teenager, there’s a battle for authority, autonomy, and that’s part of the deal. We are blessed to have a brilliant kiddo who is thriving.
As a participant in a parenting group for parents of Transgender kids with Autism, our staffer commented that she loves helping other parents see the light at the end of the tunnel once they remove resistance and dive into acceptance of the phenomenal insights and wisdom of their neurodivergent children. “It gets so much better than ever before. Our family is richer, stronger, and finds solutions in ways we never could have before because we are inspired by my son’s neurodivergent thinking.
Another parent of a three-year-old autistic child explained, “When I figured out that words were not M’s first language, I realized it was ok. He communicated, he made his needs known, he felt and expressed, and he was fine not talking. I just had to pay attention, and by noticing what he was noticing, the world opened up anew.”
Opportunities for neurodivergent students
While neurological disorders are still being researched, with a better understanding of the scope of some of the various alternative brain processes, now we are given the opportunity as a community to learn how to increase opportunities for both neurodivergent and neurotypical people. One way, this has worked particularly well is in academia. From elementary to university levels, educational institutions are increasingly developing programs and centers to support and enhance the experience of Neurodivergent students.
The Taishoff Center at Syracuse University is renowned as one of the United States best educational programs for neurodivergent students. Offering programs through their InclusiveU, they bring education to neurodivergent students of all ability levels. In addition to dedicated courses for students who would not be able to participate effectively in traditional class settings, they offer robust tools for students to craft individual education experiences and independent study plans.
Schools are recognizing that there are great opportunities in expanding awareness, training, and exposure for educators in working with neurodivergent thinkers. If history is any reference, some of our world’s greatest thinkers and creators from Einstein to Van Gogh would be described as neurodivergent today.
If you are looking for educational resources and higher education opportunities for yourself or your neurodivergent student, here are some great resources we’ve found.
Flexible minds, thriving world
Just as biodiversity is essential for life on Earth, neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race. In the face of a radically changing world, who can say what form of wiring will prove best at any given moment? But even for people without brilliant math skills or enhanced creativity that are often linked to unusually wired neurons, being flexible in the face of the full possible expression of the human genome will benefit everyone.
Temple Grandin puts it best: “Rigid academic and social expectations could wind up stifling a mind that, while it might struggle to conjugate a verb, could one day take us to distant stars”
By Kristy Jansen and Summers McKay