Neurodiversity and Rethinking the brain
A Brave, Neuro World
Over the past century in the US, we have seen so many changes in our conceptions of diversity and equality. Desegregation of spaces, fights for more equal pay between the genders, working to protect the rights to work, serve, learn, and vote for many different subcultures within our country. By embracing diversity, we create a space where we can learn more from one another and allow different folks to bring unique perspectives and skills to the table. One area of diversity, however, that many people overlook is disability. Despite the fact that our common symbol for disability is a wheelchair, there are so many different subcommunities with both visible and invisible disabilities.
When we conceptualize disability, our minds tend to what a person cannot do. This is especially true when we think about people with intellectual, social, and learning disabilities. Neurodivergent (see definition below) people are often seen as inept at typical professional and academic tasks. However, many people are challenging this narrative and acknowledging the strengths and skills of people with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, mental illness, and other neurological conditions. The push to honor neurodiversity in the same ways that we acknowledge the importance of other forms of diversity is gaining momentum, and it might be something worth incorporating into your own view of diversity, regardless of who you work with. In this article, we’ll be exploring some of the basics when it comes to neurodiversity and provide recommendations and references for those wanting to be more engaged on the topic.
The idea that acknowledges different patterns of human thought and behavior as part of normal variation within our species. Neurodiversity challenges the concept that there is one “normal” type of brain and that all variation is “abnormal”.
An adjective used to describe people whose neurological and mental conditions are different from what is seen as the “norm” or “typical” way of thinking and perceiving. The term was first coined by Judy Singer, a sociologist and someone with autism, in the late 90s and has since become an umbrella term for several different conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, mental illnesses, and other learning disabilities.
An adjective used to describe people whose neurological and mental conditions are congruent with the “norm”.
A disability that is not noticeable from visuals alone. Many people in the neurodivergent community have invisible disabilities since you cannot tell their condition just by looking at them (or in many cases, you may not notice it when you interact with them at first, either!)
Going a little deeper: Strengths-based view versus Deficit-based
Now that we’ve thrown some of the basic definitions at you, let’s look a little deeper. Neurodiversity is important because we live in a world where not only do we all not look exactly the same, many of us also do not think the same as others. As discussed before, there has been decades of activism, research, conversation, and demands towards the idea that just because people look different or live differently does not mean they should be treated as lesser. Interestingly, in most of these conversations, neurodivergent people don’t get a seat at the table. It’s seen as a given that if your brain doesn’t “work” the same as others, that must mean there is something to be fixed.
This paradigm of fixing neurodivergence can be harmful. While much of it can be good-natured, it often leads to the mistreatment of disabled folks and the view that they are inherently damaged and incapable. It also fails to address that many people do not want to be “fixed”. One prime example of this is within the austistic community. Many autistic people protest organizations like Autism Speaks which are run predominantly by neurotypical folks and historically have called for a “cure” that the community does not desire.
Neurodiversity challenges the idea of fixing people and focuses instead on utilizing unique skills. Historically, neurodivergent people have been seen as problems in the workplace and in schools rather than assets. Outside of simply unique perspectives, personalities, and skills that all people have, we also notice some trends that show that neurodivergent people can be highly skilled in important areas.
Compared to neurotypical counterparts
People with autism often have great memories, are detail oriented, and commonly have specific “skills” or interests.
Actor and writer Dan Aykroyd credits his autism for many of his works, including Ghostbusters and Blues Brothers, where his hyperfixation on law enforcement inspired many concepts in these blockbusters.
People with ADHD tend to have high energy, empathy, and levels of spontaneity. When paired with the right task, their hyper-focus can create an impressive drive.
Olympians Simone Biles and Michael Phelps both have spoken openly about their ADHD. Athletes with ADHD often are able to hyper-focus on their sport, giving that extra passion and desire to continue getting better.
Adults with learning disabilities show strengths in creativity and adaptability. They also portray high levels of empathy in the workplace.
Many people believe from studying his childhood academic struggles that Albert Einstein had ADHD and dyslexia. Einstein learned ways to work with his brain instead of against it; he would recount taking breaks when stuck on difficult math problems to get up and play one of his instruments to fully engage himself.
How can I support neurodiversity?
There are many different ways we can support neurodiversity around us. The very first step is to challenge a lot of messages we have received historically about all forms of disability. As opposed to hearing the same messages from neurotypical speakers and systems, engage with media created by and about folks with disabilities. Find opportunities to hear perspectives from the disabled and neurodivergent communities. You may be surprised by the thoughts that you hear.
There is a lot of debate around and within the community about person-first versus identity-first language.
This is talking about disability in the context of putting the “person” first when referring to someone.
Person-first language examples
“person with a disability”, “people with autism”, “children with dyslexia”.
This is different from what we refer to as identity-first language
Identity-first language language examples:
“disabled people”, “autistic person”, “dyslexic children”.
Many people have shifted to the person-first language - you may even be familiar with the phrase “people with disabilities” since it has become the common vernacular. Despite good intentions of “putting the person first” and trying to differentiate the person from the condition, many people in the community speak out against person-first language, stating that disability is a part of their identity. While there are many conversations to continue being had, it’s important to always acknowledge the language used by the people around us. If your friend says she’s an autistic woman, then call her an autistic woman, not a woman with autism.
Neurodiversity in the professional world
A critical place for neurodiversity is the workplace. Neurodivergent people are often mistreated, judged, or kept out of certain spaces. When possible, find ways to create space for neurodiversity. Offer up resources that can be helpful for neurodivergent folks.
Neurodivergent Employee Resources
- Quiet spaces, noise-cancelling headphones
- Clear communication on workplace expectations and etiquette
- Clear, concise instructions.
- Avoid euphemisms and sarcasm when discussing business especially.
- Allow space for movement.
- Normalizing the use of fidgets and breaks just for the purpose of walking down the hall or getting a breath of fresh air.
- Be mindful of sensory needs.
- Understand the impact of sensory overload. Some folks may need modification to uniforms, seating arrangements, and lighting.
- Be patient and flexible.
- Give space to check-in with colleagues about needs.
If you want to learn more about neurodiversity, here are some great resources:
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