Neurodiversity: What Is It?

There is a growing push to focus on our brain differences, not our deficits. This broader view of the “normal” is a big part of what’s called neurodiversity. Advocates hope the idea broadens our thinking about developmental disabilities, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

If the concept becomes mainstream, it could lead to big changes in education and work standards, says Alecia Santuzzi, PhD, associate professor at Northern Illinois University, specializing in socio-industrial and organizational psychology.

“It makes people take a step back and think more creatively about all the different ways that work or school tasks can be done,” says Santuzzi.

What does it mean to be neurodivergent?

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 variations of the brain. And people who have these characteristics also have certain strengths.

For example, people with ADHD may have problems with time management. But they often show high levels of passion, drive, and creative thinking.

“Even their impulsiveness 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 other people are afraid to say.”

Neurodiversity is not the same as disability. However, people with neurodivergent characteristics may need accommodations at work or school.

“The students at Neurodiverse are wonderful students,” Cussler says. “They can be really creative thinkers, with a big picture and out of the box. But with certain types of classic assessments, they have a harder time.”

Besides ADHD, neurodiversity generally refers to people with:

The Neurodiverse student

Whether in elementary school or college, Cussler says it’s important to think about a student’s learning profile. It’s the idea that people process information in different ways. But some children can fall through the cracks when it comes to getting tutoring.

Cussler says the approach to neurodiversity casts a wide net that “catches up with them all.”

“On campus now, there is a shift towards the term neurodiversity as opposed to the term disability,” Cussler says. “There is some value in this because we don’t just want to focus on legal definitions of disability, but include broader groups. This includes people with or without a learning disability or a documented difference.”

Neurodiversity at work

People with neurodivergent characteristics can spend a lot of time trying to adjust to their work environment. They may need to manage their social impressions or find ways to block out distractions. Over time, Santuzzi says that the extra effort can take a toll on work performance and physical and mental health.

“It really creates an unfair situation for the worker,” she says.

If the modern workplace embraces the concept of neurodiversity, Santuzzi believes it could alleviate some of the stigma and stress that plagues these workers. This includes people who are reluctant to receive help because they fear the judgment of their co-workers or their boss.

“They don’t want people to think they’re trying to mess with the system,” Santuzzi says.

If you are an employer, here are some tips to help you adapt:

  • Create jobs for different types of workers.
  • Allow for different working hours and environments.
  • Create a flexible work design (when, where and how work takes place) that welcomes people.

Focus on the positive

Advocates of neurodiversity suggest that there is too much attention on the impairments that accompany conditions like ADHD. They think a better approach is to focus on what someone is good at, not what they lack.

For example, there is evidence that:

People with ADHD have high levels of spontaneity, courage, and empathy. They can concentrate on certain tasks.

People with autism pay attention to intricate details, have fond memories, and demonstrate certain “hard” skills. Experts believe it can be an asset in certain jobs, such as computer programming or music. As one researcher noted, Wolfgang Mozart had a strong musical memory and absolute tonality.

People with dyslexia may perceive certain types of visual information better than those who do not. This skill can be useful in jobs such as engineering and computer graphics.

We need more research, but experts believe the genes for these developmental “disorders” persist because they have evolutionary benefits. For example, behaviors like hyperactivity and impulsivity could have helped our ancestors find food or move away from danger. And strong non-social skills, like those of some people with autism, were good for our prehistoric ancestors who lived in the wild.

Challenges around neurodiversity

Medical experts and people with neurodiverse characteristics don’t always agree on what neurodiversity means. Some believe that conditions like autism are still disabling. And people vary widely in how they want to identify themselves. Some prefer the first identity language while others do not.

“There are workers with autism and there are workers with autism,” says Santuzzi.

And while there is a distinction between neurodiversity and disability, at present, “some people want to retain the identity of the disability to recognize that the workplace and school have not yet adjusted.” , says Santuzzi. “And they are still at a disadvantage.”



Alecia M. Santuzzi, PhD, associate professor of psychology; Director, Research Methodology Services, Northern Illinois University.

Sarah Cussler, Associate Director, Undergraduate Writing and Academic Strategies, Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, Yale University.

British medical bulletin: “Neurodiversity at work: a biopsychosocial model and its impact on active adults.”

AMA Journal of Ethics: “They Myth of the Normal Brain: Embrace Neurodiversity.”

ADHD Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders: “The Positive Aspects of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: A Qualitative Survey of Successful Adults with ADHD.”

Frontiers in Psychology: “Neurodiversity, Giftedness and Aesthetic Perceptual Judgment of Music in Autistic Children.”

Society for Human Resource Management: “Leveraging Workplace Flexibility for Engagement and Productivity”.

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