Neurodiversity is a concept that celebrates n
eurological differences as natural variations in the human population. Literally, neurodiversity means “differently wired.” The term reflects the brain-based differences that make neurodiverse people think, learn, behave, and work differently than the majority of the population, who are referred to as “neurotypicals.”
What are the differences between neurotypicals and neurodiverse people? They include an autism spectrum diagnosis as well as ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, nonverbal learning disorder(NVLD), language processing disorder, and auditory processing disorder. Neurodiverse people may also struggle with executive functioning challenges, socialization, communication, and visual /spatial processing. They may also struggle with epilepsy, Tourette’s syndrome, and mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
Yet neurotypical individuals often have a set of expectations regarding how people should behave and function, and individuals who don’t fulfill those expectations may be labeled as lazy or unmotivated, leading to misunderstandings and discrimination. For example, an autistic person may have difficulty making eye contact or understanding social cues, which may be interpreted as rude or disinterested.
Judith Singer, an Australian sociologist with autism, coined the term “neurodiversity” in a thesis paper she published in 1998. Singer believed that — in the same way people in power have historically used language to oppress women, LGBTQ people, and nonwhite ethnic minorities — neurotypicals have categorized, minimized, and even eliminated the rights of neurodiverse people. This paradigm shift — from the nonacceptance of those who are in the minority to the embrace of every individual’s unique attributes – launched the movement for neurodiversity acceptance that aims to allow each and every one of us access the same opportunities without prejudice.
Helen Taylor, the Research Director of the Human Centre for Entrepreneurship at the University of Strathclyde (STRATH CLYDE), expanded Singer’s work by studying complementary cognition, the idea that human brains have collectively developed a variety of skills to provide a community approach to problem-solving. In other words, as individuals, we have different strengths that, when combined with the strengths of others in a collaborative problem-solving approach, provide better solutions than we do as individuals. Taylor’s hypothesis is supported by research on cognitive psychology, neuroscience, evolution, and paleo-environmental evidence.
Recognizing neurodiversity increases understanding, thus reducing the stigma, rejection, isolation, and discrimination experienced by many neurodiverse people. As their wellbeing is enhanced, neurodiverse people experience decreasing levels of anxiety, shame, and low self-esteem. Embracing neurodiversity means viewing brain differences as normal rather than abnormal and acknowledging that neurodivergent individuals can be just as intelligent as neurotypical individuals.
Many neurodiverse people have been misunderstood and subsequently excluded from classrooms, sports, and jobs. Yet their different abilities that spur out-of-the-box thinking and fuel innovation can contribute to improved outcomes in all of those arenas. For example, people with autism may have exceptional attention to detail, visual thinking abilities, and logical reasoning skills that make them well-suited for work in science, technology, and the arts inventors, scientists, and artists believed to have been neurodiverse include Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla, and Emily Dickinson.
Changes to education and employment law have recognized neurodivergent differences, paving the way for accommodations — tools that allow neurodivergent individuals to access the same opportunities as everyone rather than special privileges that give them a competitive edge. Cultural change is reflected in the increasing number of books, films, and television shows that now routinely feature neurodiverse characters.
Yet there is still so much more to do for neurodiverse people and for our society as a whole. As stewards of our children’s futures, we must teach children to work as a team, offering each child the opportunity to contribute to a better outcome for all of them, so they can successfully live, play, work, and communicate with others in our neurodiverse world.
A great place to start is Neurodiversity Week, March 13th through 19th. This year there are 24 separate events, including panel discussions and webinars, on everything from language and culture to design tech and justice
For more information on neurodiversity, check out my new book, Misnamed, Misdiagnosed, Misunderstood.
Linda Karanzalis, Board-Certified Cognitive Specialist is the author of Misnamed, Misdiagnosed, Misunderstood, a new book on Nonverbal Learning Disorder and other brain-based challenges.
Dr. Ned Hallowell, a psychiatrist, world-renowned expert on ADHD, and the New York Times best-selling author of Driven to Distraction says, “Linda’s book is vivid, compelling, full of heart and fresh understanding.
Karanzalis replaces suffering with clarity and triumph for the millions of people with NVLD.”
Linda, who has NVLD and ADHD, has worked for more than 25 years with individuals of all ages with NVLD, ADHD, learning disabilities, and those on the autistic spectrum. As an author, podcaster, presenter, learning specialist, and ambassador for the NVLD Project, she provides validation, awareness, solutions, strategies, and, most importantly, compassion to the millions who live with neurodiversity. Find out more about her story and book at www.lindakaranzalis.com.