The “New Normal”
By Alex Webster Guiney
Neurodiversity, otherwise known as “neurological pluralism” is a term coined in 1998 by journalist Harvey Blume. Blume wrote in the September 1, 1998 issue of The Atlantic: “Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of wiring will prove best at any given moment? Cybernetics and computer culture, for example, may favor a somewhat autistic cast of mind.
What is neurodiversity? The idea that neurological differences are the result of a normal, natural variation in the human genome. This is a very different way of looking at conditions such as Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, Apraxia, Tourette Syndrome, etc, which have traditionally been pathologized.
The concept of neurodiversity allows us to take the stance that people with differences don’t need to be “cured.” This is similar to the stance that we don’t need to “cure” gayness, regardless of how many years homosexuality was included in the DSM. In fact, an attempt to “cure” disability by eliminating our differences would be harmful to humanity. Not to mention boring.
Anyone reading this probably attest that being weird and different is part of your essence. Being told to stop being different would be like being told to stop being you. People who have significant differences in their neurological wiring feel the same way. Being told that you need therapy or “curing” is like hearing that there is something wrong with you, in your essence. People with autism don’t experience having autism as something separate from themselves. It is part of their way of being.
So, does embracing the concept of neurodiversity mean denying the struggle of neurological disability? Does it mean denying that living with dyslexia is tough? Does it mean that we no longer need to offer therapy or meds to folks? No! We can help people relieve the burden of being “different” in a society obsessed with conformity and proscriptive ways of being, without altering the essence of a person. Society can make changes to be more accommodating. We can also develop and use therapies to help people with neurological differences lead their best possible lives. In the same way that a neurotypical person might benefit from taking Ativan to quiet anxiety, someone with ADHD may benefit from Ritalin, which could help them stay focused on a project. In the same way that some couples enjoy a type of therapeutic support known as marriage counseling, someone with Apraxia could benefit from speech therapy.
We can also change our attitudes towards people who are different so they are respected, valued, and made to feel part of the community. Changing attitudes towards people who are different is something that Yikes Tikes!, our inclusive preschool, is working on.
Our society has numerous laws and norms to ensure equal treatment of people with disabilities, and we that take pride in our tolerance and integration. So, open dislike towards people who are “different” is no longer socially desirable. However, feelings of discomfort, rejection or fear during interaction with someone with a neurological disability, are still prevalent, as are misconceptions about the behavior, personality and achievement potential of the disabled. Social psychological research on prejudice and stereotypes suggests that we can’t change these attitudes by relying on legal regulations and integration policies. Instead, we have to do something that targets people’s cognitions, emotions, and behaviors towards folks with neurological differences.
Negative attitudes towards people with disabilities begin to emerge early in the process of development. Young children already categorize people into “disabled” and “nondisabled,” and favor the nondisabled. False beliefs about disability and difference, acquired in childhood, are due to pervasive sociocultural conditioning. In the media, for example, neuro-disabled people are portrayed as sick, suffering, looking for help and having special needs. They are unable to conform to the cultural norms and therefore marginalized in society.
One cornerstone of any intervention to change negative attitudes towards persons with neurological differences, is that contact with these folks is required to show positive results. But not just any type of contact. For contact to lead to a reduction in prejudice, certain conditions have to be met: equal status, cooperative pursuance of common goals, institutional support through legal and policy decisions, and the opportunity to form friendships.
In support of these conditions, Yikes Tikes! provides an inclusive early learning environment to children and families. This means we accept all children, regardless of where they are developmentally. This is good for kids with neurological disabilities because it means they get to be around kids who model neurotypical behavior. And, being around kids with a wide range of neurological wiring benefits neuro-typical children, who learn through inclusion that you don’t have to be perfect, to be valued, and that they can be friends with, work with, and learn from children who are “different.” Our program provides the contact between the two groups, necessary to impact and improve intergroup relations, and reduce prejudice. In the words of Julie W., a Los Altos parent, “I am the mother of a 6-year-old son with some developmental delays and a 4-year-old daughter who has developed more typically. While the benefits of educational inclusion for my son are obvious, I believe that my daughter’s experience in the inclusive preschool environment of Yikes Tikes is valuable for her as well. She is gaining understanding and empathy at an early age that will serve her well throughout her life in relating to people, like her brother, who are wired differently.”
Neuro-typical people sometimes see autism and other neurological disabilities as great tragedies. But the grief does not stem from the disability itself. It’s grief over the loss of the “normal” child the parents had hoped and expected to have. To the differently-wired person, there is nothing sad or tragic about themselves. In fact, instead of referring to themselves as “disabled,” some folks like to use the word “neurominority,” framing this as a civil-rights issue, which, when likened to the pathologizing of homosexuality or non-white-ness, makes perfect sense.
Nick Walker, an autism advocate, (see his excellent blog neurocosmopolitanism.com) says that there is no such thing as a “neurodiverse individual” because the concept of neurodiversity encompasses all people of every neurological status, and all people are neurodiverse. Neurodiversity is a natural form of human diversity, subject to the same societal dynamics as other forms of diversity. He asks us to recognize that when it comes to human diversity — including the diversity of minds — “normal” is a highly subjective, culturally-constructed fiction. Recognize that there is no “normal” mind, and that conformity to the local conception of “normal” is in no way synonymous with health, well-being, or personal fulfillment – and is, in fact, often in direct conflict with those things. If you had to choose between being “normal” and being yourself– which would you choose?