I was happy to see recently a post on the Encyclopedia Brittanica blog that featured an interview with Cambridge University researcher Simon Baron-Cohen on the topic of neurodiversity. When asked about the movement, Baron-Cohen replied: “The neurodiversity movement has been a very positive influence in reminding us that there is no single pathway in neurological development, but there are many ways to reach similar end-points.”
Baron-Cohen is most well known for his research in the field of autism and gender differences. His book The Essential Difference: The Truth About the Male and Female Brain (Basic Books, 2003), presents a fascinating look at two dimensions of human behavior that exist along a broad continuum: empathizing and systematizing. Empathizing, of course, refers to the ability of an individual to get under the skin, so to speak, of another person and to know what they are thinking, feeling, or intending. Systematizing, on the other hand, involves relating more to systems than to people. Examples of systems include: a computer program, a football game, a mathematical system, an automobile’s hydraulic system, or a poker game. It may not surprise people to know that systematizers are more frequently male, and empathizers are more often female. Women get together to talk about feelings, relationships, gossip, and other interpersonal behaviors. Men typically talk about what’s under the hood of a car, last night’s basketball scores, the latest software program, or what’s on TV tonight (and, of course, they control the TV clicker with greater speed and aplomb than women).
Baron-Cohen emphasizes that these behaviors exist along a continuum, and that most people are in the middle of the spectrum, combining aspects of both empathy and systematizing. On the extreme end of the systematizing side, however, one is likely to find individuals with autistic spectrum disorders. A look, for example, at the savants of autism (estimated to account for about 10% of all autistic people), reveals their incredible abilities at manipulating various systems: rapid calculation of mathematical information, incredible fluency with musical structures, extraordinary attention to visual-spatial features of the external environment, and the like. Even those autistic individuals with low I.Q. scores are often found to be obsessed with systems such as the snow on a television screen or the workings of an electric fan. What is significant in Baron-Cohen’s “system” (remember, he is a male!), is that we are all on the spectrum, so to speak, between empathizing and systematizing. As he points out later in the Britannica interview, “The impact of dimensionalizing autism has been very positive, in terms of recognizing that we all have some autistic traits and that the difference between someone who needs a diagnosis and someone who does not is simply one of degree (they have more autistic traits) and their “fit” in society.”
I’ve similarly pointed out in my book Neurodiversity: Discovering the Extraordinary Gifts of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Other Brain Differences, that we all exist along “continuums of competence” with regard to basic human processes, including: sociability, attention, literacy, intelligence, and mood. In addition, I’ve focused a great deal of attention in my book on what I call “niche construction,” which essentially involves modifying the environment to provide a better “fit” between an individual’s uniqueness and the surrounding culture. It’s really my hope that the neurodiversity movement will continue to grow and will begin to provide mental health professionals with the ecological tools they need to help all individuals, regardless of their labels, find their unique positive “fit” in society. These tools include assistive technologies, universal design for learning strategies, human relationships, career planning, and other environmental modifications that can turn an individual’s pathologies into positive attributes.
A good example of a “positive fit” would be the Danish software company Specialisterne, which hires people on the autistic spectrum to test software programs for “bugs”. As it turns out, these individuals have superb “systematizing” abilities with computer software, enjoy working alone on tasks that others would consider boring, and thus are in a place which makes maximum use of their capabilities. This sort of approach to job placement should be attempted with other individuals on the autistic spectrum, as well as those with other disability labels. It also should be a key component of the inclusion model in classrooms around the world. The use of a diversity model to replace the “deficit” model that we’ve been using promises to help neurodiverse people realize more of their potential in life.