One of the themes that I’ve sought to emphasize in my work in the field of neurodiversity is the idea that whether a person will be labeled as disordered or gifted may have more to do with when and where they were born rather than anything intrinsic to them as an individual. I’ve found it useful to look at different so-called ”disorders” in today’s medical-model society and reflect on how they might have been regarded as ”strengths” or ”assets” at another time or in another place. The following are six examples of how this might be conceptualized.
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: In several ancient societies, the religious traditions often involved sacrificial rituals. Cattle, for example, were slaughtered and offered up to the gods. As part of this sacrifice, intricate rituals needed to be performed. And this is the important part for our purposes: they needed to be performed exactly in the way specified by the religious texts (or oral traditions). If a ritual had even one small part omitted or changed from the original, it had to be repeated from the beginning. Not only would this be a waste of precious time, but also a waste of precious sacrificial animals. The priests who had obsessive-compulsive traits would be favored in this environment because of their intense compulsion to perform a ritual act precisely. So instead of this quality being regarded as a disorder (e.g. in today’s world a person ritualistically washing their hands), it would have been considered an asset (e.g. accurately replicating a religious ritual).
- Schizophrenia: In indigenous cultures (especially shamanic cultures), people who displayed symptoms which in our culture would be considered to be evidence of schizophrenia, were viewed as possessing special shamanic potentialities. Joseph Campbell, for example, writes: ”The shaman is a person (either male or female) who in early adolescence underwent a severe psychological crisis such as today would be called a psychosis. Normally the child’s apprehensive family sends for an elder shaman to bring the youngster out of it, and by appropriate measures, songs, and exercises, this experienced practitioner succeeds.” (Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By, p. 210).
- Bipolar Disorder: In traditional Irish culture, people who had a special emotional lability (e.g. able to express feelings easily), were hired as ”keeners” to wail at funerals. The term ”keen” comes from the Gaelic – caoineadh (“to cry, to weep”). Physical movements involving rocking, kneeling or clapping accompanied the keening woman (bean chaointe) who was often paid for her services. It’s unclear whether keeners would be in their best form during their manic or their depressive states, but in any case, free and spontaneous access to feelings of sorrow, bereavement, grief, and loss, would have been considered to be attractive traits for the role of a professional keener.
- Sociopathy: In indigenous Scandinavian culture, being a warrior was considered a positive personality trait (as it perhaps is in the warrior traditions of most cultures). Those who were fiercest in battle were often the most highly praised individuals, and were often referred to as ”beserkers” (from which we get our word ”berserk”). Berserkers could work themselves up to an animal frenzy (in some cases, people believed that they actually turned into fierce animals), to accomplish super-human feats on the battlefield. In one of the most popular of the Icelandic sagas, Egil’s Saga, the eponymous figure, Egil, was actually praised by his mother when he was a child for burying a hatchet into the skull of a playmate whose behavior irritated him (she saw his promise as a future warrior).
- Williams syndrome: Williams syndrome is a form of intellectual disability which affects one in every 9000 individuals and is due to a specific genetic defect. It causes those with the disorder to have physical problems (e.g. heart and digestive abnormalities) and cognitive deficits particularly in logical mathematical and spatial thinking. People with this disorder are often shorter than average, have ”pixie” like facial characteristic, are often very musical, and can be both gregarious and quite talkative (with sometimes remarkable vocabularies). It has been suggested in a Scientific American article, that people with Williams syndrome, might have been the ”little people” of fairy tale lore in the British Isles, playing music and telling stories as they passed on the oral cultural traditions.
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Twenty-five years ago, the political pundit Thom Hartmann suggested that people diagnosed with ADHD might have originally descended from the hunters in a hunting and gathering society. His ideas were later taken up by psychiatrists and anthropologists. In this thinking, the traits of the hunter (able to move swiftly, respond to stimuli quickly, pay attention to more than one stimulus simultaneously) are viewed as evolutionarily adaptive, whereas in today’s complex society, these same behaviors devolve into hyperactivity, distractibility, and impulsivity, the classic warning signs of ADHD.
- Dyslexia: In Victor Hugo’s classic novel ”The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” he inserts a plot-disrupting chapter called ”This Will Kill That,” where he argued that the ascendency of the printed word which was enabled by the Gutenburg printing press, would result in the death of architecture. He pointed out that the people had been previously told religious stories through the images found in the cathedrals’ stained glass windows, but now with the printed word would lose this capacity for visual wonder. This idea of society shifting from a ”picture culture” to a ”word culture” has important implications for the study of dyslexia. In an ”image society,” a person’s inability to read would have little consequence. And the visual-spatial strengths that have been seen to be associated with dyslexia would have been advantageous (who knows, they might have been themselves the designers of the churches and stained glass windows).
Naturally it is impossible to prove that these ”disorders” were seen as advantageous in these other cultures and historical periods (even in traditional cultures today, the study of such advantages would be distorted by the scientists’ own cultural bias). However, in another context, we can see the proof reflected in specific ”sub-culture” contexts in the modern world. For example, in today’s evolving workplace, a number of studies have shown that people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, for example, often have advantageous traits in the information technology field as programmers, code checkers, and with similarly detailed work. In any case, it seems that the sort of investigation detailed above should be extended to a broad range of neurodiversities, since people with diversities are likely to be more successful and happy if they are seen in terms of their strengths rather than exclusively through their negatives.
For more information about the strengths of people with neurodiversities, see my book The Power of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain.
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