Two recent articles highlight the positive dimensions of mental health conditions such as autism, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. In the journal Nature, an article by Canadian neuroscientist Laurent Mottron, emphasizes the advantages of autism (Mottron, 2011). Mottron suggests that, in addition to the well-known savant abilities of a small sub-section of autistic individuals, there are also assets in a broader segment of that population, including their ability to process large pieces of perceptual information. This results in among other things, an often-superior performance on non-verbal, highly visual assessments such as the Raven’s Progressive Matrices.
In New Scientist, science writer Kate Ravilious reports how the genes for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other psychiatric conditions may have given our ancestors an evolutionary advantage by providing unusual ways of thinking that helped spark the development of culture (Ravilious, 2011).
These two articles hint at a theoretical concept—neurodiversity—that has been emerging over the past decade, one that promises to revolutionize the way we think about mental illness and developmental disabilities. This new theory suggests that we should celebrate differences in brains just as we honor differences in flowers (biodiversity) and societies (cultural diversity). We don’t say that a calla lily has “petal deficit disorder,” but value it for its own intrinsic worth. Similarly, we don’t say of people from Holland that they have “altitude deprivation syndrome,” but rather we appreciate the country’s unique geographic features.
Neurodiversity similarly suggests that we honor differences in brains, even when those brains initially appear to be defective. Interestingly, the term neurodiversity did not originate within the scientific community as a “top down” phenomenon, but rather came from the disability community, and in particular, the autistic community. It thus represents a “bottom up” grassroots movement (Solomon, 2008).
In a seminal article for the neurodiversity movement, “Don’t Mourn for Us”, autism rights activist, Jim Sinclair, suggested that autism is not a disease or a life sentence, but rather, something positive and worthy of exploration and development (Sinclair, 1993). The actual use of the word “neurodiversity” first occurred in a 1998 Atlantic Monthly article in which journalist Harvey Blume wrote: “Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general” (Blume, 1998). Since that time, neurodiversity has been the subject of, among others, bloggers (Seidel, 2004-2011), journalists (Harmon, 2004), essayists (Antonetta, 2007), public policy experts (Baker, 2010), educators in higher education (Pollock, 2009), and special educators (Hendrickx, 2010).
Neurodiversity as a 21st Century Challenge
This new approach to human differences strikes at the heart of the medical model, which has been the primary 20th Century discourse used to talk about people with mental health labels. Instead of focusing purely on defects and deficits, the field of neurodiversity proposes that equal attention be given to the assets, advantages, and abilities of individuals who are wired differently from those who are “neuro-typical” (Armstrong, 2011).
While the rapid growth of knowledge about the human brain in the past two decades has given us more information about the regions of the brain that are damaged or diseased in individuals with psychiatric conditions, this research also promises to reveal something about the positive dimensions of those with mental and developmental disabilities. Mottron (2011), for example, includes fMRI images depicting the perceptual regions of the brain activating more among autistics than non-autistics during a non-verbal intelligence test. Similarly, research suggests that individuals with dyslexia utilize more of their right hemisphere when reading than non-dyslexic readers (Eide, 2011). In the field of genetics, a “novelty-seeking” gene has been identified and associated with individuals diagnosed with ADHD (Hartmann, 2003).
This new look at the positive side of what have traditionally been seen as negative conditions does not mean that we should glorify what are in many cases very challenging disorders. But it suggests that we should complement what we already know about the difficulties and problems associated with mental health diagnoses, with a look at the strengths and capabilities of these individuals. Such a project is perfectly in line with the new field of “positive psychology” championed by Martin Seligman (2002), the “capability approach” of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum (1993), and the “strength-based approach” utilized increasingly in the fields of social work, counseling, and psychotherapy (Rudolph and Epstein, 2002).
The practical implications of neurodiversity are considerable, in that a positive approach to mental health provides an opportunity for researching the optimal conditions for growth that can promote the well being of individuals with autism, dyslexia, ADHD, schizophrenia, and other conditions. Since neurodiversity is basically an ecological conception, I’ve used the evolutionary term “niche construction” (e.g. a spider spinning a web, a beaver building a dam etc.) to designate the process of building environmental supports to help negatively labeled individuals lead full lives (including the use of key learning strategies, assistive technologies, environmental modifications, and human resources).
One excellent example of niche construction can be found in Denmark at a computer software firm called Specialisterne, which hires 75% of its employees from individuals on the autistic spectrum (Austen, 2008). These individuals are particularly adept at computer programming, enjoy detailed work, get to work alone, and are being rewarded according to their strengths rather than penalized or patronized because of their disabilities.
Educators who wish to help individuals flourish who are beset with mental health labels would do well to investigate this emerging field of neurodiversity, and work to design programs and environments in schools that will assist such students in reaching their fullest potential. The use of iPads for children with autism, rubber ball chairs for students with ADHD, speech to text software for students with dyslexia, and self-monitoring devices for students with emotional and behavioral disorders, are just a few of the many strategies that can be used to build positive and nurturing environments for those whose brains are “differently wired” (Armstrong, forthcoming).
Resources and Further Reading
Antonetta, S. (2007). A Mind Apart: Travels in a Neurodiverse World. New York: Tarcher.
Armstrong, T. (2011) The Power of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain, Cambridge, MA: DeCapo, (published in hardcover as: Neurodiversity: Discovering the Extraordinary Gifts of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia and Other Brain Differences). Reviewed from Information Age Education Newsletter: http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2011-63.html.
Armstrong, T. (forthcoming) Neurodiversity in the Classroom: A Strength-Based Approach to Teaching Students with Special Needs.
Austin, R., Wareham, J., and Busquets, X. (2008) Specialisterne: Sense and Details, HBS case study 9-608-109, Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School.
Baker, D.L. (2010). The Politics of Neurodiversity: Why Public Policy Matters, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
Blume, H. (September, 1998) “Neurodiversity: On the Neurological Underpinnings of Geekdom,” Atlantic Monthly. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1998/09/neurodiversity/5909/. The article contains an incorrect link to the Institute for the Study of Neurologically Typical. The correct link is http://isnt.autistics.org/.
Eide, B and F. (2011), The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain, New York: Hudson Street Press/Penguin.
Epstein, R. and M. (2002) “Empowering Children and Families Through Strength-Based Assessment,” Reclaiming Children and Youth, 8(4): 207-209.
Harmon, A. (May 9, 2009). “Neurodiversity Forever: The Disability Movement Turns to Brains,” The New York Times.
Hartmann, T. (2003) The Edison Gene: ADHD and the Gift of the Hunter Child, Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Press.
Hendrickx, S. (2010). The Adolescent and Adult Neuro-Diversity Handbook: Asperger’s Syndrome, ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, and Related Conditions. London: Jessica Kinsley Pub.
Mottron, L. (November 2, 2011) “The Power of Autism,” Nature, vol. 479, pp. 33-35. Online: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v479/n7371/full/479033a.html
Pollock, D. (2009). Neurodiversity in Higher Education: Positive Responses to Specific Learning Differences. New York: John Wiley.
Ravilious, K. (Novembr 7, 2011) “Misfit Minds: Mental Problems Gave Early Humans an Edge,” New Scientist. No., 2837.
Seidel, K. (2004-2011), www.neurodiversity.com.
Seligman, M. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.
Sen, A. (1993) “Capability and Well-Being,” in Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen, (eds.), The Quality of Life. New York: Oxford Clarendon Press.
Sinclair, J. (1993) “Don’t Mourn for Us,” http://www.autreat.com/dont_mourn.html.
Solomon, A. (May 25, 2008)“The Autism Rights Movement,” New York Magazine.
This article is reprinted from the Information Age Education Newsletter, December, 2011, Issue #79. http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2011-79.html