Neurodiversity: What is it?
There is a growing push to focus on brain differences, not deficits. The broader view of “normal” is much of what is called neurodiversity. Advocates hope the idea will expand our thinking about developmental disorders, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
If the concept becomes mainstream, it could lead to big changes in education and workplace norms, says Alecia Santuzzi, PhD, an associate professor at Northern Illinois University who specializes in socio-industrial and organizational psychology.
“It forces people to take a few steps back to think more creatively about different ways to do tasks at work or school,” Santuzzi says.
Judy Singer, an autistic sociologist, began using the term “neurodiversity” in the late 1990s. It refers to the concept that certain developmental disorders are normal abnormalities of the brain. And those who possess these qualities also have certain strengths.
For example, people with ADHD may have problems with time management. But they often demonstrate a high level of passion, drive and creative thinking.
“Even their impulsivity can be an advantage,” says Sarah Cussler, associate director of undergraduate writing and academic strategies at the Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning. “Because they will say things that others are afraid to say.”
Neurodiversity is not the same as disability. However, people with neurodivergent traits may need accommodations at work or school.
“Neurodiverse students are amazing students,” says Cussler. “They are really creative, broad-minded, and can be exhausted thinkers. However, it is more difficult for them with some classic-type evaluations.”
In addition to ADHD, neurodiversity usually refers to people who:
Whether it’s elementary school or college, Cussler says it’s important to think about a student’s learning profile. This is the idea that people process information in different ways.
But some kids can fall through the cracks when it comes to academic support.
According to Cussler, the neurodiversity approach casts a wide net that “catches them all.”
“There’s a shift in academia now toward using the term neurodiversity as opposed to using the term disability,” says Cussler. “There is some value in this because we want to focus not only on legal definitions of disability, but also to include larger groups.
“This includes people with or without a documented learning disability or difference.”
People with neurodivergent traits may spend a lot of time adjusting to their work environment. They may need to manage their social impressions or find ways to eliminate distractions.
Over time, this extra effort can affect job performance and physical and mental health, Santuzzi says.
“It creates a really unfair situation for the employee,” he says.
If modern workplaces embrace the concept of neurodiversity, Santuzzi believes it could alleviate the stigma and stress workers face. This includes people who shy away from helping because they fear judgment from their co-workers or bosses.
“They don’t want people to think they’re trying to game the system,” Santuzzi says.
If you are an employer, here are some tips for adapting:
- Create jobs for different types of workers.
- It allows for different work schedules and environments.
- Create a flexible work schedule (when, where and how work is done) that welcomes people.
Advocates of neurodiversity suggest that too much attention is paid to disorders such as ADHD. A better approach, they say, is to focus on what someone is good at rather than what they lack.
For example, there is some evidence that:
People with ADHD are high in spontaneity, courage and empathy. They may focus too much on certain tasks.
With whom autism pay attention to complex details, have a good memory and show some “special” skills. Experts believe that this can be useful in certain jobs, such as computer programming or music. As noted by one researcher, Wolfgang Mozart had a strong musical memory and absolute pitch.
People with dyslexia perceive certain types of visual information better than people without the disorder. This skill can be useful in jobs such as engineering and computer graphics.
More research is needed, but experts believe that the genes for these developmental “disorders” persist because they have evolutionary advantages. For example, behaviors such as hyperactivity and impulsivity may have helped our ancestors find food or move away from danger. And strong non-social skills, like those possessed by some autistic people, benefited our ancestors in nature.
Medical experts and people with neurodiversity do not always agree on what neurodiversity means. Some people think that conditions like autism are always there
disable. And people differ greatly in how they want to identify themselves. Some people prefer identity-based language, while others don’t.
“There are autistic people and there are autistic workers,” says Santuzzi.
And while there is a difference between neurodiversity and disability, right now “some people want to cling to a disability identity to acknowledge that the workplace and school environment is not aligned yet,” Santuzzi says. “And they’re still at a disadvantage.”