Neurodiversity: Creative Differences in the Human Brain
“Ultimately, we all share some core systems, but beyond these our brains are as familiar yet as varied as the stars in the night sky.” - Howard Timberlake
All humans are born with their own unique differences which in turn contributes to a diverse world where people do not just exist in black or white. In recent times, our understanding of neurology has evolved and developed to provide a deeper understanding and insight into the differences present inherently in all individuals. Neurodiversity or Neurological diversity puts forward the view that all brain/neurological differences are common and inherent in all human beings. It was used to describe the variations in human brains just as biodiversity describes the variation of life.
All this time, characteristics like easy adaptation to change, effective interaction with people, maintaining eye contact, not having sensory issues, being socially responsive etc. have been considered the general standard. These traits are thought of as the 'norm'. However, it is important to note that the lack of these aforementioned qualities is nothing but differences and should not be considered as a deficit/disorder.
Emergence of Neurodiversity
The term ‘Neurodiversity’ was first used by Judith Singer, a sociologist, who was also on the Autism spectrum in the 1990s. Singer stated that individuals with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Dyslexia Tourette syndrome and other such thinking and learning differences were oppressed in a similar manner as those discriminated against, on the basis of sexual orientation, gender etc. for years. She hence saw the need for a movement of their own. The “Neurodiversity Movement” is a social justice movement that seeks civil rights, equality, respect, and societal inclusion for neurodivergent people. The movement aims to add neurodiversity to the existing social and political categories of sex, gender, race, class, religion etc. Singer refused to accept that neurological differences are ‘abnormal’, and asserted that they are only different variations of the human brain. All human beings are born diverse with respect to biological or genetic variations, which are unique and personal to them. Everyone deserves to be given equal treatment and respect despite the disparities. Understanding about Neurodiversity helps us shift our focus from impairments to each individual's different abilities.
The Varied Aspects
Neurodiversity advocates support the ‘Difference’ view of Neurodiversity and reject the ‘Medical or Deficit' model. The Difference view, begins with the understanding that all human beings have differences in functionalities which affects their ability to interact with the physical, legal, ethical, educational and attitudinal systems of society successfully. The Difference view considers neurodiverse traits to be seen as a difference instead of a deficit where the individual with an atypical neurotype is not in any way lesser than the average neurotypical (having typical developmental ability) individual. Moreover, it shifts the focus from the individual and holds the society to be responsible for the creation of Neurotypicality and ‘Normal’ behaviour. If society carefully designs and upholds systems that support all individuals irrespective of their differences, then individuals would not be ridiculed for their neurodivergent traits and would not be made to adjust according to societal and social norms. In an ideal world, everyone would be celebrated for their individuality instead of being pushed into categories.
The Medical view, on the other hand, focuses exclusively on the limitations and impairments, viewing Neurodivergent people as ‘ill’ or ‘broken’. It focuses more on the 'problem' which should be fixed or changed by medical or other treatments rather than focusing on the person. Neurodiversity activists propose that we as a society need to acknowledge that neurodiverse individuals are not looking for a cure. Instead some need help and accommodation to empower and enable them to carry out daily activities. They demand that neurodiverse individuals should be given more autonomy over their bodies and ‘treatment’.
Various aspects of society are based on the assumption that the human mind is only of one form. It also brings out the myth of the ‘normal brain’. Many societal systems like universities, industries, corporations and formal organizations have been built considering only the neurotypical mind. We are all affected by the system which uplifts neurotypical standards because of not being able to live upto certain societal standards. This also suggests that the ‘Neurotypical ideal’ is socially constructed and not many people can live up to this ideal. Because of its rigid nature, it is rather a difficult standard to adhere to even for most neurotypical individuals.
The contemporary discourse of Neurodiversity divides the whole movement into two distinct groups of Neurodivergent and Neurotypical people, which can lead to an 'us' and 'them' mentality. Instead of understanding Neurodivergence in a binary view where people exist at the two extreme ends, we should keep in mind that the term Neurodiverse was intended to be used in a more general sense to describe all varieties of brains.
Singer rejected the idea that autistic people were disabled. This has divided people on the Autism Spectrum Disorder into two parts. Some maintain that the Neurodiversity movement does not represent everyone, as it ignores people with severe Autism who need treatment and medications for their well-being. Constructivist understanding of disability gives an individual the autonomy and agency to choose to identify as an individual with a disability. Their differences become an important part of their self-identity and are essential to their personality. In recent times, people have been reclaiming the term disability and are taking the power back in their hands.
Neurodiversity advocates in contemporary times have maintained that they don’t put the responsibility on people to heal as individuals, rather it puts the focus on the systems of oppression which need reformation. They reject the idea that neurodiverse people are broken and need to undergo treatment to adhere to the norms of the society. They do acknowledge that many individuals with severe neurodevelopmental disabilities need medications for their well-being.
It is crucial for us to recognise the differences and to celebrate people and their neurotype. Working on dismantling systems that favor the neurotypical ideal, will help us build a world which is accessible for neurodiverse people. Instead of ridiculing neurodiverse traits, we should work together for a healthier and inclusive world where individuals are celebrated for their unique traits and differences.