Neurodiversity, and Why It Should Be Celebrated
April 29, 2022
Growing up, I watched my brother struggle. He was forgetful, he was easily distracted, and his grades suffered. His teachers thought that these were disciplinary problems, and for a long time, "has difficulty paying attention in class or needs to apply himself more" was written on his report cards. He felt bad that he couldn't remember to do things, that he couldn't focus the way other students could. When he was finally diagnosed with ADHD, he felt worse. But that's only half of the story; my brother is more than just his struggles. He's creative and talented, a musician that also expresses himself through art. He's becoming more comfortable with who he is every day and learning to embrace his neurodivergence in a world that stifles it.
The problem is that we as a society haven't fully accepted this simple concept: no two brains are exactly alike. They aren't factory-produced according to specific instructions the way a car or computer is, and neurodiversity embraces the idea that our brain differences are normal rather than deficits. These differences, like our height or eye color, can't be changed, and we shouldn't want to change them. Rather, neurodivergence comes with benefits we should celebrate.
ADHD, dyslexia, and autism are just a few examples of neurodivergence. What everyone knows is the challenges that come with these differences but we seldom discuss the advantages. For instance, people with ADHD tend to be more flexible and resilient, which often stems from them considering many options at once. This can mean they're less likely to become set on a single choice, and that leaves them open to different ideas and new courses of action. Due to their symptoms, kids with ADHD often have to figure out ways to adapt to their environments as well. This teaches them coping skills. Lito, an artist with ADHD, has also embraced his creativity, another frequent advantage of ADHD. On Instagram @lito_leafart, he posts images of the daily leaf cut-outs he creates, most depicting animals and what appear to be magical scenes. His cutouts are incredibly detailed and when explaining his art, he said, “I make positive use of my own ADHD biased concentration and commitment to create paper-cutting works using leaves.” The energy that someone with ADHD can have is valuable when they are doing something that they are passionate about or interested in, as they can become so motivated that it may be hard to distract them from their favorite activity.
People with autism may also display a range of strengths that can be directly related to their diagnosis such as memory recall, visual learning, logical thinking, honesty, and learning to read at a very early age (known as hyperlexia). They too are capable of being extremely creative and innovative. A website dedicated to promoting neurodivergent artists is The Art of Autism, and one featured artist is Michael Worthington. He noticed loose change on the sidewalk and got the idea to incorporate loose pennies into his artwork, which brought about his Lucky Penny Paintings. In addition to The Art of Autism website, his work can also be viewed on Instagram @luckypennypaintings. When describing these paintings, he said, "You can cup the Lucky Penny Painting in two hands, much like a retablo, with the energy of the penny radiating outward. The painting reflects the location, history of the area, and my relationship to it." Worthington reflects on his mother telling him that he always “marched to a different drummer," and attributes this to some of his success in the arts, as he gave purpose to pennies most ignored by turning them into beautiful works of art.
As I mentioned with my brother, however, where there is good, there are also challenges. Shawn Brown, a Ted Talk speaker who is an engineer and designer, also has dyslexia and experienced struggles in school. Instead of having trouble with reading or writing, he often struggled to remember long lists of information like mathematical formulas or facts and statistics. "When it came to my A-levels, I revised stupidly hard to try and remember as much information as possible. But when it came to some of my exams, I just sat there with my head in my hands, and I couldn't remember anything. I felt useless." Brown decided to focus on what he was good at— creating things, designing, and problem-solving. This paid off for him, as he created a road-legal solar-powered electric trike, and won the 2010 UK young engineer of the year.
Though while Brown and many neurodivergent people will go on to do great things, struggles at school and in the workplace are all too common. This is no fault of theirs but an issue with how these systems are set up. We are more concerned with trying to conform neurodivergent people to neurotypical solutions rather than accommodating their differences. As was the case with my brother, children with ADHD can sometimes struggle in school due to a lack of focus. Their grades can suffer because of this or they are reported for bad behavior because of their inattention. They are sometimes written off as bad students instead of being allowed to learn their way. Children with dyslexia may have trouble with reading, writing, memorizing information, and even communicating verbally, which may also be dismissed by educators as a lack of skill or effort. Students with autism may require less sensory input in the learning environment and even individuals who can read benefit from visuals. Concrete wording and phrases also help them understand more than figurative language. Possible solutions to incorporate these students' needs would be educators adapting their teaching style, how they teach specific students, and checking in with them regularly.
Another issue we must work on, in schools and outside it, is how we speak of neurodiversity. As I was researching for this article, I came across others that addressed neurodivergent peoples' differences as deficits, or stated that they were afflicted with their differences or a sufferer of them. The challenges of these differences are very real, and when I say to embrace the positives that doesn't mean ignoring the negatives. However, changing how we speak of neurodivergence will erase a lot of the stigma surrounding it and create a more inclusive space for neurodivergent people. This just doesn't end at talk, however. Action is important too.
Psychologists, the education system, and the workplace need to be more accommodating. Psychologists who embrace neurodiversity can research and provide therapy and support in ways that don't marginalize neurodivergent individuals but create empowering opportunities instead. Psychologists can also advocate social changes that promote inclusion and reduce stigma; even small changes can greatly benefit neurodivergent people at school and work. Further examples include allowing employees to wear noise-canceling headphones to improve concentration, giving all students the option to stand while they work, allowing fidget toys, movement breaks, or simply recognizing that listening does not require eye contact.
These steps promote the idea that neurodivergent people are just as capable of success as neurotypical people, because they are, and the advantages of their differences are just as important as every other aspect of them. Instead of trying to change or mold neurodivergent people to our way of thinking, it's important to adapt our environment to their needs so that they can thrive. This quote by Alexander Den Heijer applies to neurodivergence beautifully: "When a flower doesn't bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower."
Brown, Shawn. “Neurodiversity: An Untapped Resource for Future Inventors.” TED, Dec 2017, https://youtu.be/uecEdkEoY4E.
Lito Leaf Art, The Japanese Artist that Carves Tree Leaves to Create Magnificent Scenes. Design Boom. Retrieved 9 March 2022, from https://www.designboom.com/art/lito-leaf-art-cutout-09-15-2020/.
Myers, D., & DeWall, C. N. (2020). Psychology (6th ed.). Soomo Learning. https://www.webtexts.com
Sparx. (2020). Four Ways to Support Neurodiversity in the Classroom. The Education and Development Forum (UKFIET). Retrieved 9 March 2022, from https://www.ukfiet.org/2020/four-ways-to-support-neurodiversity-in-the-classroom/.
Strengths and Abilities in Autism. Altogether Autism. (2018). Retrieved 9 March 2022, from https://www.altogetherautism.org.nz/strengths-and-abilities-in-autism/.
Worthington, M. (2021). How This Artist Transformed Found Heads-up Lucky Pennies Into 400 Pieces Of Art. The Art of Autism. Retrieved 9 March 2022, from https://the-art-of-autism.com/how-this-artist-transformed-found-heads-up-lucky-pennies-into-400-pieces-of-art/.