Bird-in-nestIn my book The Power of Neurodiversity:  Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain, I explore the idea of niche construction as a way of thinking about neurodiversity.  When I suggest that neurodiverse individuals, such as those with autism or ADHD, might have been labeled gifted in other times and in other cultures, the quick retort is:  “Well, we don’t live in other times or cultures.  People have to adapt to the culture they’re in right now.”  So what does the person who is a round peg have to do to fit into a square hole?  Answer: Shave off enough of its wood to fit, uncomfortably, usually, into the square hole.  That’s one solution.  The other solution is to round off some of the square hole so that the round peg can stay a round peg and still fit in.  That’s niche construction. 

In other words, I’m saying that people with neurodiverse brains can create special niches for themselves where they can be their unique selves.  An example would be a person with ADHD in a job that requires novelty, thrills, and creativity.  Instead of suffering in a 9 to 5 desk job (an example of poor niche construction), they create a career for themselves that allows them to be who they are.  Another example:  a person on the autistic spectrum who has keen mathematical skill working as a computer programmer in Silicon Valley, instead of wasting away in a group home somewhere. Niche construction is what animals have done for eons:  the bird building a nest, the beaver building a dam.  They’re modifying the environment to suit their unique needs.  We need to make niche construction a key tool in improving the lives of individuals with autism, learning disabilities, ADHD, mood disorders, schizophrenia, and other neurological conditions.  Yes, there will always be the need to adapt to the way the world is, and there are medications, behavior modification programs, and other adaptational programs that can help accomplish this.  But let’s not lose sight of the fact that we can also help neurodiverse individuals be who they are and still fit in. 

For more information about niche construction in school settings, see my book Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life

This article was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and

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I'm the author of 19 books including my latest: If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education -

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3 Responses
  1. I teach technology to students with dyslexia and aspergers and I see that are truly gifted. From my experience with this population, I believe that if these students are given the right opportunity they can excel. I would like to share a brief story with you and your readers to illustrate this point. A student joined my class mid year and was able to design his own computer game in two weeks. After questioning the student, I discovered he did not have knowledge of the application or programming, as he stated he “just figured it out.” He then told me he loved my class because this had been the first time he was asked to do a project like this. As in this case, too often, the outside world can’t see past the student’s disability long enough to recognize that, in reality, it is an ability.

  2. Walter

    “In other words, I’m saying that people with neurodiverse brains can create special niches for themselves where they can be their unique selves.”
    Thomas this is the hope of every parent of a child who fits the square peg description! You are a hero to all of us seeking to find that niche for each of our students who don’t fit a standard mold of success!

  3. Sandra Shoro

    Ms. I , Thanks for the vignette. Dealing with different shapes of pegs & holes with niche construction fits into how educators can approach meeting the needs of diverse learners. Adapting the environment/situation/task rather than trying to change the individual and offer multiple pathways of success is our challenge.

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