Human beings have an inherent tendency to favor the familiar; what is common is often automatically deemed to be beneficial and acceptable, whereas that which is atypical is likely to be judged as inferior, or at least somewhat suspect.
This rather reductive way of looking at the world has often been applied to our own brains, with terms like “deficit,” “disorder,” and “impairment” being attached to conditions like autism, dyslexia, and ADHD simply because these conditions do not always easily gel with the traditional learning model used in schools and certain social mores. There is a long list of unique traits that make people with autism look different. Standardized psychological assessments for autism spectrum disorders specifically target these traits to establish a diagnosis. Yet, the question remains (especially for those at the high end of the spectrum) – is being different really so bad?
In the late 1990s, however, an enterprising sociologist by the name of Judy Singer set about changing all that. Singer, who is herself on the autism spectrum, decided to coin a new term for these myriad conditions, one which properly acknowledges the fact that often those who have them are not only perfectly functional on their own terms, but in possession of various unique skills. Drawing on the positive connotation of terms like biodiversity and cultural diversity, she decided to label these conditions as being forms of “neurodiversity”.
In an interview with journalist Andrew Solomon in 2008, Singer explained her mission: “I was interested in the liberatory, activist aspects of it, to do for neurologically different people what feminism and gay rights had done for their constituencies.” This concept caught on quickly after its inception, first appearing in print in a 1998 Atlantic article by journalist Harvey Blume, who stated that “Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of wiring will prove best at any given moment? Cybernetics and computer culture, for example, may favor a somewhat autistic cast of mind.”
Singer’s idea that different brain wirings are something to celebrate rather than scorn has a strong factual basis; those on the autism spectrum, for example, are often highly intelligent, possessing unusually adept memories and lengthy attention spans. Indeed, if someone on the autism spectrum were to judge a neurotypical person by his or her own standards, the neurotypical person would come across as easily distracted, flighty, and unobservant in certain areas.
Why is this radical shift in perception so important, you may ask? The answer is multifaceted, and goes beyond helping those who are neuroatypical feel better about themselves (as worthy an aim as that is). Namely, our prior model for assessing the neuroatypical leads to an incredible waste of human resources; many autistic adults who may be highly skilled are relegated to “make work” jobs such as assembling keychains and other mundane tasks, sometimes for no better reason than their having social skills which have been deemed sub-par. Secondly, our view of neuroatypical behaviors as the result of a “flawed” mind adds a negative cast to these behaviors that almost certainly contributes to their view as socially unacceptable, or at the very least, socially uncomfortable—something which further limits these individuals’ opportunities and mutes their voices.
If you have a passion for computers, you no doubt realize that a computer is not “broken” because it is not running Microsoft’s incredibly common—and often inefficient—Windows operating system. You likely understand without question that Macs do some things better, even if they don’t run all of the same software. You probably know that Linux distributions, while nowhere near as “user friendly” as Windows OS, are capable of some highly specialized professional functions.
Diverse minds can be viewed in the same light; different human “operating systems” are capable of achieving great things. Herman Hollerith, for example, who was very dyslexic, invented one of the world’s earliest computing systems (a machine which tabulated and sorted punch cards). Other famously innovative dyslexics include Carver Mead, the mastermind behind grand-scale integrated circuits, and William Dreyer, creator of one of the first protein sequencers.
Singer drew on these success stories and spawned a movement which is still very much ongoing; the internet today provides a gathering place for the proudly neuroatypical to mobilize and advocate for the appreciation of cognitive differences, as well as for better accommodation in schools, housing, and the workplace. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network, for example, is working with the US Department of Labor to create much-deserved employment opportunities for people across the autism spectrum, pushing for greater acceptance of those who rely on non-traditional methods of communication (such as screen-based communication). As ASAN cofounder (and the first openly autistic White House appointee) Ari Ne’eman rightly believes, “Trying to make someone ‘normal’ isn’t always the best way to improve their life.”
Neurodiversity is also vastly improving the classroom environment, with emphasis shifting away from trying to correct the “flaws” of the neurodiverse, moving instead toward helping them to maximize the advantages of their unique strengths and aptitudes within an environment which is comfortable for them.
Such expanded thinking bodes well for the future of our species—everywhere in nature, we can see that the end result of biological diversity is invariably resilience, an increased ability to weather changing conditions in the environment and resist predation. The human world, in this fast-paced technological age, is changing at a rate more rapid than any hitherto seen in the natural world; ergo, nurturing neurodiversity is without a doubt key to us thriving as a species.