Neurodiversity: the Last Piece of the Puzzle of Human Diversity

By MJ Gauthier
Social Connectedness Fellow 2018

Photo by Greg A. Dunn – http://www.gregadunn.com/

With an average of 100 billion neurons connected by trillions of synapses, the human brain is the most densely ramified and connected object we know to exist. On Earth, billions of versions of this mysteriously complex biochemical material have come to be over time, and process life in different ways. Indeed, neurological developments and wirings differ among human beings, as the brain structure and chemistry of each person is influenced by a precise genetic ancestry and a unique equation of experiences.

While humanity is in essence neurodiverse, mainstream society has been fraught with forces that alienate and isolate neurominorities: people with autism, ADHD, epilepsy, dyslexia, dysnomia, Tourette syndrome, schizophrenia, OCD, or clinical depression, to name some of the most well-known conditions. There are numerous members of the human family who think, feel, move, sense and/or communicate in ways that differ from the majority.

For one, conditions like autism remain officially defined and colloquially referred to as disorders, as intrinsic anomalies that need fixing. Accordingly, scientific research has been predominantly focused on basic genetic and biological research— that is, on how to alter the essence of a person. Today, innumerable initiatives exist to make people with autism be more like neurotypical[1] people; to cure the differences that make us who we are. MMS (Miracle Mineral Supplement) is considered one of the most destructive among said initiatives. In my eyes, the worst is the institutionalized abuse of physically and cognitively disabled children in various countries around the world, who are taken from their families without consent and placed in pseudo-orphanages where they are isolated and deprived of any dignified social exchange or opportunity to deploy their potential.

Of course, there is no scientific basis for hierarchizing cognition like this—the act of pathologizing neurominorities relies firstly on the assumptions that our atypical neurological conditions are a burden on ourselves and that we are a burden on society because we cannot conform to its uniform demands. This is not only false but irrelevant, as the intrinsic worth of one’s existence does not depend on their utility to society, and only serves to underscore how crucial self-advocacy is for neurominorities.

In the word-embedded realities of human beings, some constructs are oppressive, limiting and disempowering. But the program of language is a dynamic one, an open-ended one. We can take a hold of language and engineer it consciously. In the early 1990s, people with autism redefined their neuroatypicality as a mere difference in cognition to be recognized and understood as a part of their identity. Personally, I love and cherish being alive as a human, no matter how ineffably overwhelming my sensations, mind-cacophony and atypical needs can be. This is not to deny that some neurological conditions cause unbearable pain and require treatments, but simply that it has been empowering for me to no longer internalize my autism and ADHD as illnesses. They are terms that help me and others grasp our differences, allow me to identify my strengths and weaknesses and know where I can be helpful and what accommodations I need.

In a neurodiverse picture of reality, the compass of research should be predominantly directed towards developing treatments and therapies that seek to alleviate the most disabling aspects of neurominorities and support them as they are, not change them. Speech therapy, independent living support, assistive technologies, occupational therapy for sensory processing, and the open dialogue model for neurominorities who suffer from a social disconnect, are good examples to keep building upon.

In order to aggrandize the currently narrow pool of opportunities to which neurominorities have access, an increasing number of companies, such as Microsoft, have started personalizing their recruitment strategies, notably letting people with autism talk about their interests instead of asking them standard questions. Meanwhile, in education, promising initiatives such as the UDL (Universal Design for Learning) are emerging to replace the confining one-size-fits-all approach to learning with a model that is flexible to the different cognitive processes of the students, offering “multiple pathways for engagement, action, and expression”. The intention behind this initiative is not only to ensure equality of opportunity, but to celebrate and empower human neurodiversity. Five learning institutions in Montréal, including McGill University, are currently working to have UDL implemented by 2020.

Since internalizing neurodiversity implies accepting that people express themselves in different ways, an enhanced knowledge of neurodiversity promises to keep opening communication channels between us all. In fact, when we don’t give up on one another, miracles of connectedness can occur. For instance, Carly Fleischmann is a woman with non-verbal autism who started communicating with her devoted parents at the age of 10 via a computer. Her first two words were “Hurt. Help”. Progressively, she revealed herself as hilarious and confident, writing with perfect fluency about her inner world, giving a voice to the non-verbal community. Recently, assistive technology allowed her to become a talk show host (you can visit her YouTube channel here). To me, this is a pinnacle of human beauty and strength, accomplished by innovating in our diversity. I hope it fills your heart with hope and excitement that we can build a community that is more compassionate, loving and fully accepting-of-one-another.

[1] The term “neurotypical” was coined in the early 1990s by Jim Sinclair, a pioneer of the autistic self-advocacy community, to designate both the neurological condition of the majority of people and the fact that mainstream society was built by and for such people.