Over the past sixty years, we’ve witnessed a phenomenal growth in the number of new psychiatric illnesses. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, first published in 1952, originally listed about 100 categories of illness. By the year 2000, that number had tripled. We’ve become accustomed to hearing in the news about “learning disabilities,” “ADHD,” “Asperger’s syndrome,” and other conditions that were virtually unheard of fifty years ago. A report from the National Institute of Mental Health indicates that about one-fourth of the American population suffers from a psychiatric disorder in any given year, and an article in the Archives of General Psychology suggested that over the course of a lifetime, approximately half of all people may suffer from a mental illness sometime during their lives. Add to this the observation by Harvard Medical School professor John Ratey that many people have milder versions of psychiatric conditions (he calls them “shadow syndromes”), and we come to the conclusion that when all is said and done, nearly every individual in the country may have a psychiatric illness to one degree or another.
This epidemic in the growth of mental illness suggests that there is a crisis in the making. How much longer can we continue to add new psychiatric illnesses to the list, before it becomes apparent that we have moved too far in pathologizing a sizeable chunk of the American populace? There is, however, an answer to this crisis, which I've begun to address in my new book Neurodiversity: Discovering the Extraordinary Gifts of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Other Brain Differences (DaCapo Lifelong/Perseus Books, May, 2010). The concept of neurodiversity provides a paradigm shift in how we think about mental functioning. Instead of regarding large portions of the American public as suffering from deficit, disease, or dysfunction in their mental processing, neurodiversity suggests that we instead speak about differences in cognitive functioning. Just as we talk about differences in bio-diversity and cultural diversity, we need to start using the same kind of thinking in talking about brain differences. We don’t pathologize a calla lily for not having petals (e.g. petal deficit disorder), nor do we diagnose an individual with brown skin as suffering from a “pigmentation dysfunction.” Similarly, we ought not to pathologize individuals who have different ways of thinking, relating, attending, and learning.
The word neurodiversity was coined in the late 1990’s by two individuals: journalist Harvey Blume, and autism advocate Judy Singer. Blume wrote in the September 1, 1998 issue of The Atlantic: “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 in a 1999 book chapter titled: “Why Can’t You Be Normal For Once in Your Life?” observed: “For me, the key significance of the ‘Autistic Spectrum’ lies in its call for and anticipation of a politics of Neurological Diversity, or what I want to call ‘Neurodiversity.’ The ‘Neurologically Different’ represent a new addition to the familiar political categories of class/gender/race and will augment the insights of the social model of disability.” The Wikepedia defines neurodiversity as "…an idea which asserts that atypical (neurodivergent) neurological development is a normal human difference that is to be recognized and respected as any other human variation." The online Double-Tongued Dictionary characterizes neurodiversity as: "the whole of human mental or psychological neurological structures or behaviors, seen as not necessarily problematic, but as alternate, acceptable forms of human biology."
By using the concept of neurodiversity to account for individual neurological differences, we create a discourse whereby labeled people may be seen in terms of their strengths as well as their weaknesses. Dyslexics, for example, can be seen in terms of their visual thinking ability and entrepreneurial strengths. People with ADHD can be regarded as possessing a penchant for novel learning situations.. Individuals along the autistic spectrum can be looked at in terms of their facility with systems such computer programming or mathematical computation. Those with bipolar disorder can be appreciated for their creative pursuits in the arts. While proponents of the concept of neurodiversity do not shirk from the realization that people with dyslexia, ADHD, autism, bipolar disorder, and other psychiatric conditions, often suffer great hardships, and that those hardships require a lot of hard work to overcome, they realize that until an individual’s strengths have been recognized, celebrated, and worked with, nothing substantial can be accomplished with regard to their difficulties.
The potential is great for the neurodiversity movement to create significant social transformation. Already, for example, there are software firms that have recognized the special programming gifts of certain people with Asperger’s syndrome and others on the autistic spectrum, and have hired significant numbers of them to improve their productivity. Similarly, more people are understanding that ADHD brings with it special abilities as well as difficulties, and that appropriate career selection can be an important part of determining whether one will be successful or unsuccessful in a particular job. It is hoped that the concept of neurodiversity will help combat “abelism” or the belief that people who are “abnormal” should be discriminated against, condescended to, and ultimately kept out of the basic affairs of society. Neurodiversity brings with it a sense of hope, that all individuals, regardless of how they read, think, feel, socialize, or attend, will be recognized for their gifts, and accorded the same rights and privileges as any human being.
Harvey Blume, “Neurodiversity,” The Atlantic, September 30, 1998, p. .
Judy Singer, “Why Can’t You Be Normal for Once in Your Life,” in Mairian Corker and Sally French (eds), Disability Discourse, Buckingham, England: Open University Press, 1999, p. 64.