Neurodiversity: Different, Not Wrong
Author: Netri Pajankar
Imagine if neurodevelopmental differences such as autism spectrum condition (ASC) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) were explored for their strengths, instead of their shortcomings?
This is where the term neurodiversity comes in - referring to the natural neurological differences exhibited by conditions like ASC, which arise from variations in the genome and its interactions with the environment. This term was coined by Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist in 1998, who popularized the term with journalist Harvey Blume. She aimed to challenge existing views towards these conditions which tended to pathologize neurocognitive differences, and advocated for the adoption of the social model of disability. This model argues that social barriers are responsible for the judgement and discrimination these individuals face.
This movement was first initiated by those in the autism spectrum, and now includes other neurodevelopmental differences seen in conditions like ADHD, dyslexia, Tourette’s, synesthesia, and other learning and developmental differences.
The neurodiversity movement aims to advocate the acknowledgement and normalization of differences in cognitive abilities in these neurominorities, or individuals diagnosed with the above-mentioned conditions. This movement aims to draw attention to the strengths in the different cognitive abilities of these individuals over solely focusing on ‘fixing’ their differences by pathologizing their weaknesses. Members of the neurodiversity movement have (pushed) for the re-evaluation of the existing psychological terminology currently used for diagnostic purposes, as they do not capture the alternative and beneficial neurocognitive abilities these individuals possess. Robert Chapman aptly sums it up in his paper: “The comparison of minority cognitive styles should be adapted by normalizing neurocognitive diversity as a healthy presentation of biodiversity.” John Elder Robinson a passionate neurodiversity movement advocate diagnosed with autism at 40, member of the Interagency Autism Coordinating Movement (IACC) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (says it well about why this movement is important), “Indeed, many individuals who embrace the concept of neurodiversity believe that people with differences do not need to be cured; they need help and accommodation instead.”
Neurodiverse individuals have tendencies that often tend to contrast from existing conventions, which they suppress out of fear of rejection and discrimination. This suppression orconcealment of their behaviors and thought processes is called masking an exhausting practice undertaken to fit in, connect to and relate to others. Masking is a draining process, involving the adoption of mindsets and behaviors of the status quo, alongside constantly compensating with unhealthy behaviors like isolation and people-pleasing to make up for their tendencies that they consider to be ‘deficits’. Over time, the concealing and suppression of major aspects of their personality, sometimes even harmless behaviors and thoughts, can damage their sense of self-esteem and self-worth. Masking poses another issue - it can affects their ability to understand the help they need often in the form of diagnoses, with subsequent medicinal and therapeutic interventions, and hinders them from seeking it. As a result, depression and anxiety run rampant as a result of the eventual exhaustion from masking.In the professional setting, the practice of masking affects their ability to focus and contribute to their responsibilities, as they tend to get overwhelmed focusing on being ‘presentable’. This often affects their performance and reduces their chances getting recognized for their skills and talents, affecting their chances at getting hired and holding down a job.
It’s important to realize that the neurocognitive differences seen in these individuals don’t always impede their lifestyles, and they can be supported in many different small ways. These individuals struggle with their day to day lives from trying to adjust to lifestyles that have been set in place by people who are not wired this way. Diverting the sole focus from the disadvantageous tendencies of neurodiverse individuals to acknowledging and supporting the favorable to help them thrive in their personal, social and professional lives cognitive strengths to help them thrive in their personal, social and professional lives.
While it can be argued that everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, for some these differences are more pronounced - making them exceptional at certain skills, while severely struggling to learn others. Individuals who fall under this category often require accommodations to thrive in their professional commitments. These elements of support in the workplace can look different for different individuals. For instance, they might need headphones to focus, and may not socially interact with their peers as much. They may engage in coping behaviors such as ‘stimming’, where the individual engages in repetitive and sometimes unusual sounds and body movements, like shaking their legs or tapping their fingers to cope with stress. While these behaviors may be strange to witness, they are essential to helping them focus and work efficiently and shouldn’t be discouraged if they don’t affect others.
McMaster University offers the following services for neurodiverse individuals:
- If you suspect that you have any of these conditions, you can reach out to the Student Wellness Center to book an appointment with a consulting physician.
- If you have a diagnosis and/or require clarification about the same, here is a list of disabilities and accommodations you can seek
- You can register with Student Accessibility Services (SAS) and speak with an advisor to find out more about the support and accommodations you can seek
- Here are a list of accommodations instructors can be asked to provide you with in their courses
- The Student Wellness Center has several support and peer groups that can join:
- ADHD drop in: https://wellness.mcmaster.ca/program/adhd-drop-in/
- Understanding and Managing Social Anxiety: https://wellness.mcmaster.ca/program/understanding-managing-social-anxiety/
- Perfectionism group - to understand and work on managing perfectionist tendencies: https://wellness.mcmaster.ca/program/perfectionism-group/
- ACT on Anxiety - Accept, Commit, Take Action: https://wellness.mcmaster.ca/program/act-on-anxiety/
- Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) for navigating interpersonal relationships: https://wellness.mcmaster.ca/program/dialectical-behaviour-therapy/
- Mend your mood - Identifying triggers for depression and working on them: https://wellness.mcmaster.ca/program/mend-your-mood/
- Hack your mind - Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for learning to manage anxiety and depression: https://wellness.mcmaster.ca/program/hack-your-mind/
Here are more resources to learn about the neurodiversity movement:
- Neurodiversity Network offers various resources for employers and universities who want to advocate for neurodivergent individuals seeking meaningful employment or post-secondary education.
- Neurodiversity Hub offers resources and information for students to thrive in their academics and acquire job opportunities, employers with information on how to train and support neurodiverse employees and universities with areas of research related to neurodiversity
- Genius Within is a neurodivergent led and owned business that provides resources for other neurodivergent individuals to empower them at their workplaces
Inclusiveness for everyone begins with acknowledging and addressing the differences in the minorities, and subsequently taking the steps to support and give them a voice with the majority.