“As an adult with autism, I find the idea of natural variation to be more appealing than the alternative - the suggestion that I am innately bad or broken and in need of repair. Asserting that I am different - not defective - is a much healthier position to take. Realizing the idea is supported by science is even better.” - John Elder Robison
Neurodiversity is a concept that communicates that diagnoses such as ADHD and autism are not ‘abnormalities’ but rather variations in the human brain. This shift in mindset, which is backed by neurological imaging and science, represents a new way of looking at conditions that were previously pathologized, thereby helping families and children frame their challenges as differences rather than deficits, and focus on the unique gifts within each child.
When discussing autism and brain development, research has shown that these brains have increased neurological connections and synapses. So, if a neurotypical brain has 100 highways, an autistic brain has 1,000. Rather than viewing this as “wrong” or “bad”, it can be seen for what it is, a unique lens in which to view and interact with the world. Everything is brighter, louder, more intense, and details can sometimes overwhelm the big picture.
According to the CDC, in the US, one in 42 boys and one in 189 girls are born neurodivergent. And for a world designed for the “typical” mind, it can be challenging for these families to find equal rights, support, and accommodations. Simply put, it can be demanding to have a brain with 1,000 highways in a world built for 100. Seeing and honoring the whole child and the whole environment is paramount in meeting each child where they are to further cultivate the unique architecture of their brain.
We are all on the spectrum of neurodiversity with some of us seeking stimulation, some of us avoiding it, and the rest of us somewhere in between. In this way, neurodiversity isn't something that divides us, but really one that unites us. Just as we have different colored skin, ethnicity, and experiences, we have different brains.
When we can honor our differences as equally worthy and deeply see these children, we move the needle from tolerance to awareness … awareness to acceptance … acceptance to advocating for rights, resources, and equal opportunities.
- Awareness is knowing you have a classmate with a disability, and acceptance is including them at recess.
- Awareness is appreciating the gifts and challenges of those with different abilities, and acceptance is volunteering your time to help.
- Awareness is not doing anything different, and acceptance is taking action.
Neurological variations are a vital part of humanity. For our world to be fully rich and nourished, it requires more than one view and angle. Unique paces, perspectives, and thoughts have led to some of the greatest advancements. None of us have the right or the wisdom to try and improve upon our species by deciding which characteristics to keep and which to discard. Every person is valuable. We all have gifts.
Like one of my favorite children's books says, “We are different, we are the same.” And whatever the differences, every person's existence is beautiful, and that is the mindset we are striving toward.
Focusing on Strengths
Rebecca Brastetter, PhD, clinical psychologist, Licensed Educational Psychologist, author, and co-creator of the Make It Stick Parenting Program for neurodiverse families, poses the question, “What if you were defined by your greatest weakness?”
Language is powerful. Even a subtle shift in language can influence how children see themselves and how stigmatized they feel. Rather than using labels that pigeonhole the child, drop the stamps of “high” and “low” functioning and “mild” and “severe” impairment.
Often, when we label those as low functioning or with severe impairment, we begin to lower our expectations for the child and think they are incapable of more, boxing them in the limitations we set for them. But we are all capable of more.
Labeling children as high functioning or with mild impairment can also have drawbacks. Society tends to view these children as if their struggle is less in some way, which can lead to a child’s needs being overlooked, dismissed, or denied.
In either case, who wants to be defined by what they don’t do well?
When we begin to see the neurodivergent mind as a strength - one for us to understand, accept and advocate for - we are on to something big. It isn’t their mind that needs to be “fixed” or mainstreamed but our way of embracing the beautiful brain before us.
Ten Activities for Awareness, Acceptance And Equality
In her book, Make Social and Emotional Learning Stick, Elizabeth Sautter, M.A., CCC-SLP, licensed speech and language pathologist, and co-founder of the Make It Stick Program offers daily activities to build executive functioning and future thinking. Below are ten activities you can do this month to develop awareness, acceptance, and equality.
- Become aware of your own biases or misconceptions first, understanding where they are born in you.
- Have hard conversations with your child. Talk about race, culture, differences, and biases.
- Purchase toys of different races, ethnicities, genders, or abilities.
- Learn how to say “hello” in different languages
- Role-play what to do and say when someone is not treated fairly.
- Talk about things your child has in common with another and how they are also different in some ways.
- Expose your child to cultural events or festivals.
- Identify racism, bigotry, and discrimination when it happens in real life or on the media.
- Teach your child about the brain and how all brains are unique.
- Watch movies or TV shows that are diverse and sensitive.
If we can accept that a neurodiverse world is a good world and that neurodiversity is wholeheartedly embraced and valued, we will have made great strides. And though we still have quite a ways to go, it begins here, with educating our minds and opening our hearts to the gifts of those around us.