Technorati Tags: ADHD, assistive technologies, autism, computer software, dyslexia, neurodiverse, neurodiversity, niche construction, personal digital assistant, speech-to-text software, text-to-speech software, word processing software
Over the past sixty years, we’ve witnessed a phenomenal growth in the number of new psychiatric illnesses. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, first published in 1952, originally listed about 100 categories of illness. By the year 2000, that number had tripled. We’ve become accustomed to hearing in the news about “learning disabilities,” “ADHD,” “Asperger’s syndrome,” and other conditions that were virtually unheard of fifty years ago. A report from the National Institute of Mental Health indicates that about one-fourth of the American population suffers from a psychiatric disorder in any given year, and an article in the Archives of General Psychology suggested that over the course of a lifetime, approximately half of all people may suffer from a mental illness sometime during their lives. Add to this the observation by Harvard Medical School professor John Ratey that many people have milder versions of psychiatric conditions (he calls them “shadow syndromes”), and we come to the conclusion that when all is said and done, nearly every individual in the country may have a psychiatric illness to one degree or another.
This epidemic in the growth of mental illness suggests that there is a crisis in the making. How much longer can we continue to add new psychiatric illnesses to the list, before it becomes apparent that we have moved too far in pathologizing a sizeable chunk of the American populace? There is, however, an answer to this crisis, which I've begun to address in my new book Neurodiversity: Discovering the Extraordinary Gifts of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Other Brain Differences (DaCapo Lifelong/Perseus Books, May, 2010). The concept of neurodiversity provides a paradigm shift in how we think about mental functioning. Instead of regarding large portions of the American public as suffering from deficit, disease, or dysfunction in their mental processing, neurodiversity suggests that we instead speak about differences in cognitive functioning. Just as we talk about differences in bio-diversity and cultural diversity, we need to start using the same kind of thinking in talking about brain differences. We don’t pathologize a calla lily for not having petals (e.g. petal deficit disorder), nor do we diagnose an individual with brown skin as suffering from a “pigmentation dysfunction.” Similarly, we ought not to pathologize individuals who have different ways of thinking, relating, attending, and learning.
The word neurodiversity was coined in the late 1990’s by two individuals: journalist Harvey Blume, and autism advocate Judy Singer. 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.” Singer in a 1999 book chapter titled: “Why Can’t You Be Normal For Once in Your Life?” observed: “For me, the key significance of the ‘Autistic Spectrum’ lies in its call for and anticipation of a politics of Neurological Diversity, or what I want to call ‘Neurodiversity.’ The ‘Neurologically Different’ represent a new addition to the familiar political categories of class/gender/race and will augment the insights of the social model of disability.” The Wikepedia defines neurodiversity as "...an idea which asserts that atypical (neurodivergent) neurological development is a normal human difference that is to be recognized and respected as any other human variation." The online Double-Tongued Dictionary characterizes neurodiversity as: "the whole of human mental or psychological neurological structures or behaviors, seen as not necessarily problematic, but as alternate, acceptable forms of human biology."
By using the concept of neurodiversity to account for individual neurological differences, we create a discourse whereby labeled people may be seen in terms of their strengths as well as their weaknesses. Dyslexics, for example, can be seen in terms of their visual thinking ability and entrepreneurial strengths. People with ADHD can be regarded as possessing a penchant for novel learning situations.. Individuals along the autistic spectrum can be looked at in terms of their facility with systems such computer programming or mathematical computation. Those with bipolar disorder can be appreciated for their creative pursuits in the arts. While proponents of the concept of neurodiversity do not shirk from the realization that people with dyslexia, ADHD, autism, bipolar disorder, and other psychiatric conditions, often suffer great hardships, and that those hardships require a lot of hard work to overcome, they realize that until an individual’s strengths have been recognized, celebrated, and worked with, nothing substantial can be accomplished with regard to their difficulties.
The potential is great for the neurodiversity movement to create significant social transformation. Already, for example, there are software firms that have recognized the special programming gifts of certain people with Asperger’s syndrome and others on the autistic spectrum, and have hired significant numbers of them to improve their productivity. Similarly, more people are understanding that ADHD brings with it special abilities as well as difficulties, and that appropriate career selection can be an important part of determining whether one will be successful or unsuccessful in a particular job. It is hoped that the concept of neurodiversity will help combat “abelism” or the belief that people who are “abnormal” should be discriminated against, condescended to, and ultimately kept out of the basic affairs of society. Neurodiversity brings with it a sense of hope, that all individuals, regardless of how they read, think, feel, socialize, or attend, will be recognized for their gifts, and accorded the same rights and privileges as any human being.
Harvey Blume, “Neurodiversity,” The Atlantic, September 30, 1998, p. .
Judy Singer, “Why Can’t You Be Normal for Once in Your Life,” in Mairian Corker and Sally French (eds), Disability Discourse, Buckingham, England: Open University Press, 1999, p. 64.
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Starting on Feburary 6, 2010, HBO will lauch a new biopic starring Golden Globe award winner Claire Danes, based on the life of Temple Grandin, designer of livestock machinery, best-selling author, and autistic individual. Grandin has punctured the stereotype of autism as a disorder locking a person into isolation from the rest of the world. Instead, Grandin is articulate, inventive (she has designed roughly one third of the machinery used to manage animals in slaughterhouses around the country), and a strong supporter of neurodiversity, or the idea that autism and other mental disorders should be viewed as part of the natural diversity of the brain. Here is the trailor of the HBO show:
AMC Entertainment is teaming up with the Autism Society to create movie experiences on a monthly basis that are autism-friendly. AMC movie auditoriums will bring the lights up and turn the sound down to accommodate those who are sensitive to sensory input. There are no previews or advertisements, and families are allowed to bring in gluten-free, casein-free snacks. Also, audience members are welcome to get up and dance, walk, shout, or sing. For a list (and map) of movie theaters cooperating in these Sensory Friendly Films, go to the website of the Autism Society.
"UC Davis researchers searching for autism clusters in hopes of finding an environmental cause for the disorder have identified 10 clusters around the state, but the source of the clusters is not exactly what they expected. The clusters, including five in metropolitan Los Angeles and one in San Diego, are centered on regional developmental services centers in areas with highly educated parents, primarily Caucasians, with high incomes. In short, what they found were clusters of increased diagnostic rates for autism. In one respect, the results were not surprising because it has long been known that high-income, highly educated white parents are more likely to have their children diagnosed with autism and more likely to have them diagnosed at an early age." Read the entire article.
My Note: Another great example of how disabilities intertwine with social factors like race, education, gender etc.
A White House press release dated December 16, 2009, announced that a prominent neurodiversity advocate, Ari Ne'eman, has been named to a key governmental post. Obama has named Ne'eman to the National Council on Disability, which is an independent federal agency making recommendations to the president and Congress on issues affecting 54 million Americans with disabilities. Ne'eman is the founding president of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, Vice Chairman of the New Jersey Adults with Autism, and a board member of TASH and the Autism National Committee. He himself has been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. Earlier this year, Ne'eman was featured in a Newsweek article where he argued that autism is both a disability and a different way of being, and that neurodiversity is a concept that should be accepted by society. He was also featured in a Good Morning America segment advocating for the rights of people on the autistic spectrum (below).