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Neurodiversity: Natural brain variations that should be embraced and celebrated

Nisha Kassam is an intern at Constant Therapy Health and studies Speech Pathology at Boston University, specializing in Deaf Studies and Spanish. Her experience focuses on understanding disabilities and healthcare, creating a passion for learning more about and improving healthcare disparities.

One of the biggest steps to reducing inequity in healthcare is embracing a culture of diversity, and striving for inclusion. Diversity means variety, and working to understand that there is not one dominant human experience, but many variations, all with equal value. This perspective can be extended to neurological development, and is the cornerstone of the idea of neurodiversity, a viewpoint that sees brain differences as normal, rather than areas of deficit.

What is Neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity describes the concept that everyone’s brain is different, and that these differences are not negative, but can in fact be beneficial. The brain is the most complex organ in the body, so a “one-size-fits-all” approach to thinking isn’t always realistic. Neurological variation is natural, and can often add beneficial, unique perspectives to society. Neurodiversity counters the notion that there is a “normal” way of learning, and celebrates the many different thought processes used by neurodiverse people, ultimately advocating for a more inclusive approach to instructive learning and therapy for neurodiverse individuals.

Neurodiversity has become a trending topic when it comes to neurological variations, commonly referred to as “disabilities,” including conditions like autism, dyslexia, or ADHD, which all stem from neurological differences. On the other hand, the term “neurotypical” describes someone with typical brain development. Neurodiversity embraces the view that variations are a part of being human, and argues that these differences in brain development do not need to be coined as problematic. This more inclusive perspective prioritizes supporting individuals as they are, rather than pushing them to operate “typically”. 

Word choice is important

Using appropriate terminology is the first step of embracing neurodiversity. Replace words like “normal” and “abnormal,” with “typical” and “atypical.” “Normal” and “abnormal” are subjective terms that may be offensive. Placing value on “normal” can make those who don’t meet these subjective standards feel out of place. In place of “disabled,” many appreciate the term “differently-abled.” If you’re not sure what words to use, simply ask the person what they prefer. Using thoughtful word choice when describing someone with these natural variations helps to remove the idea that there is something “wrong” with them. There is also the matter of “person-first” or “identifying” language. For example, if someone is diagnosed with autism, they may prefer to be addressed using person-first language, like “person with autism,” or the identifying language of being “autistic.” It’s ultimately their choice, so always ask the person you’re speaking to what their preference is. 

How does culture shape perceptions around neurodiversity?

Being mindful of the words used to describe people’s experiences may seem like a small thing, but ultimately it changes how we as a culture perceive neurodiversity. What comes next is understanding how “typical” standards may be negatively impacting care plans for neurodiverse individuals. Some instructors and providers who care for people with autism aim to teach them to become as independent and as typical as possible. While it’s important to still offer appropriate resources, it’s also important to maintain a person-centered approach to care and tailor therapeutic goals to the individual. It should also be recognized that while someone may not achieve full independence, they can still lead a happy and fulfilling life. By imposing neurotypical approaches upon neurodiverse people, we run the risk of leaving lasting psychological damage.  

Employers and neurodiversity

The key to supporting neurodiverse individuals in the workplace is not trying to change the them, but providing accommodations to help them flourish. Many worry about the future of someone who is neurodiverse. However, thinking differently from those who are neurotypical allows them to generate new perspectives and ideas, making them capable and valuable employees. Many also have strong, employable credentials, like advanced degrees and high grades. Yet, 80% remain unemployed, as most employers do not know how to offer the proper support systems and accommodations that the individual may need. If a company wants to embrace the neurodiversity of new hires and existing employees, it is important to make adjustments for each individual. These adjustments do not need to be expensive, they just need to be intentional. Often accommodations can be as simple as noise-canceling headphones or extra space to work, all of which can make a world of a difference to a neurodiverse employee. 

Assumptions around intelligence and social function

Similar to aphasia, just because someone has atypical neurological development, it does not mean that they lack intelligence. In fact, they can often have higher than average capabilities in areas like math or pattern recognition. Unfortunately, these cognitive strengths are often overlooked because many neurodiverse individuals also experience social difficulties. For example, many assume that those with autism cannot empathize or recognize emotion, however, people with autism often display collaborative and supportive behaviors. What’s more, there is research that demonstrates that only 50% of those with autism have ”alexithymia,” or the inability to recognize emotion. Furthermore, those with autism and alexithymia do in fact still demonstrate emotion, just in a manner that is different from neurotypical people, and less immediately recognizable. It’s also important to note that this condition is fairly common in many other psychiatric and neurological conditions as well, and is not just exclusive to people with Autism.

Dyslexia is another type of neurodiversity that impacts a person’s ability to read and write, and is often hereditary. Again, these difficulties are not a reflection of intelligence, and with accommodations like larger fonts and specialized learning strategies, the difficulties can be alleviated. And while someone with dyslexia may struggle with reading, they may excel in other areas that require visual strengths. This same kind of skill specialization exists for those who are neurotypical as well. For example, some people may be better at reading or writing, while others enjoy math and science. Some may be more athletic, while others prefer art, all of which is a reminder that neurological differentiation is a natural and necessary part of the human experience. 

Finding the silver lining

For many people with acquired disorders, like a traumatic brain injury or a stroke, it can be difficult to find a silver lining in their newfound neurodiversity. However, it is important to remember that even after a brain injury, many pieces of your or your loved one’s individuality remains intact. Different forms of intelligence may even arise, whether it’s stronger visual reasoning skills, expanded emotional intelligence, or newfound creativity and flexibility in communicating.

Culturally, it’s time for us to move towards appreciating and embracing our differences, and understanding that all humans offer valuable perspective and experience, not just neurotypical ones. We are so much stronger when we embrace all of the unique skills and talents our fellow human beings have to offer.

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