When it comes to understanding behavior, it is important we consider how different abilities and neurotypes can affect people’s behavior. Understanding, accepting and celebrating neurodiversity is a valuable part of supporting and helping others.
Medical Model vs Social Model of Disability
The medical model of disability frames an individual’s impairment as the cause for their challenges to participate in society the way others’ do. This model frames the body of a person with an impairment as a health condition that is ‘wrong’ or ‘needs to be fixed.’ For example, a person in a wheelchair is not able to go up stairs to access a building because they are not able to walk. This can lead to a feeling of social exclusion and inequality.
The social model of disability suggests that individuals would not be restricted from full participation in the world around them if society was constructed in a way that was accessible for people with disabilities. This model puts the responsibility on society rather than the individual (e.g., buildings are designed and constructed with ramps). The social model points out that a condition is only disabling when it prevents someone from doing what they want or need to do.
Impairment & Disability
Within the social model of disability there is a distinction between “impairments” and “disabilities.” Impairments can be understood as functional limitations (not being able to walk), whereas disabilities are disadvantages imposed by society (treating the impairment of not walking as abnormal and thus excluding the individual). Impairments do not necessarily equate to disabilities if the right accommodations and supports are provided.
Physical and mental impairments can happen to anyone at any point in their life as a result of genetic conditions, illness, accident, aging or other causes. These impairments are common experiences of being human and how we respond as individuals and as a society reflects our perceptions and beliefs.
It’s important to address the role of public perception towards disabilities and work towards creating a society that addresses barriers to inclusion. Barriers to inclusion range from the actual design of environments to thoughts, beliefs and attitudes. Addressing barriers to inclusion is a human rights theme that applies to multiple domains in society (disability rights, ableism, racism, sexism). How we treat others who may be perceived as different points out the cracks of inequality that run deep within our society.
Everyone will benefit if society is designed to include and support all humans.
Neurodiversity is the view that within the human population there are normal variations in neurological functioning. There is no one ‘right’ way of thinking, learning and behaving; differences do not need to be viewed as deficits.
“Neurodivergent” is a non-medical term that is used to describe any person whose mental or neurological functions differ from what is considered typical. Australian sociologist Judy Singer coined the word “neurodiversity” in the late 1990s. Her intent was to give a name to a political and civil rights movement for neurological “outsiders”. At about the same time, Harvey Blume presented neurodiversity as a component of biodiversity – just as the ecosystem requires biodiversity to thrive, the human species needs neurological variation to succeed. Today the neurodiversity movement is primarily a social justice movement that has propelled issues of disability rights in areas of education, clinical practice and research.
The neurodiversity movement points out that differences in brain functioning should not be stigmatized; differences do not always need to be changed or corrected. We should understand and accept these differences rather than making others fit in a predetermined mold. There are many valid ways to experience being human. It is important to work to change attitudes, perceptions and expectations to expand our view of human differences.
Types of Neurodiversity
While the term “neurodiversity” was first used by the autistic activist community, the vocabulary of neurodivergence has expanded to encompass any person whose brain works differently from the norm. There are no medical criteria for being considered neurodivergent, and any individual may (or may not) choose to identify as part of this group, however there are conditions (listed below) that are common among those who choose to self-identify.
- Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
- Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Down Syndrome
- Learning Impairments (e.g., dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia)
- Chronic Mental Health Conditions (e.g., depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder,
- Bipolar disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder
- Sensory processing disorders
- Intellectual disabilities
- Prader-Willi Syndrome
- Williams Syndrome
- Tourette’s Syndrome
Ableism is discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities or those perceived to be disabled. This form of discrimination favors non-disabled people. In ableist societies, disabled people may be considered less-worthy or less-valuable. This discrimination is based on a belief that typical abilities are superior and that disabled people require ‘fixing’. Similar to racism and sexism, it classifies entire groups of people as ‘less than’ and often includes stereotypes, misconceptions and over-generalizations of whole groups of people. Society has engaged in large and small discrimination towards disabled people throughout history (e.g., eugenics movement of the early 1900s, mass murder of disabled people in Nazi Germany).
Ableism Can Be Intentional or Unintentional
As with other forms of oppression, people do not always know they are being ableist. Ableism is ingrained in our culture and language and often people don’t even recognize it is there until it is pointed out.
How one chooses to view and talk about their impairment is going to vary from person to person. Some may lean towards the medical model of disability and others will lean towards the social model of disability. This is an individualized process that does not have a standard one- size-fits-all approach.
There are many words and metaphors used in our everyday language that are ableist and could cause harm to people with disabilities. Examples include the use of the following words or phrases: crazy, psycho, dumb, insane, ‘falling on deaf ears,’ ‘blind leading the blind.’
Neurodiversity advocates encourage nonjudgmental and inclusive language. Some research has found that the majority of those in the autistic community prefer identity-first language rather than person-first language (autistic person rather than person with autism). However, rather than making an assumption that any one opinion represents the whole community, it is best to ask someone their preferred use of language.
Accepting neurodiversity also means validating and accepting all people and recognizing that differences are not things that need to be changed or “corrected.” Neurodivergence is not inherently pathological and neurodivergent people should be embraced and accepted into society as they are.
People with neurological variations are not broken or incomplete versions of normal people; variation is an important part of humanity. People with atypical brains are fully human and valuable members of society. People with disabilities deserve equal human rights.
Accepting neurodiversity requires us to challenge our assumptions about what is normal.
We may need to broaden our view of a meaningful and productive life. A society which views people as only being useful when they are independent and financially productive has a narrow view that requires expansion. A person who requires lifelong care can also live a happy, meaningful and productive life.
Examining Your Own Assumptions
Accepting neurodiversity means that we have to examine our own assumptions about others. It means we have to consider whether our labels of ‘weakness’ or ‘deficit’ are more about our own perceptions of what normal is. Perhaps some of those ‘weaknesses’ are really strengths in disguise. It is important to examine why something might make us uncomfortable; rather than assuming someone else needs to change, we need to consider changing our perspective. For example, teachers often require ‘whole body listening’ (sitting still and not moving hands or feet and looking at the teacher) in their classroom but we should consider whether this is actually required for learning or if it is simply the expected norm. Many kids actually learn better when allowed to stand, fidget or avoid eye contact.
“We are freshwater fish in saltwater. Put us in fresh water and we function just fine. Put us in salt water and we struggle to survive.” – Anonymous autistic student
Acceptance Does Not Mean Do Nothing
It is important to accept neurodivergent people AND provide necessary support for them. It is possible to appreciate and accept characteristics of neurodivergent people and also recognize that some experience significant challenges and impairments that can have a huge impact on their life and the lives of their family members. Individuals who are neurodivergent may face challenges doing things that come easily to a neurotypical person, but this often is because the environment is designed for neurotypical people. When accommodations are made to support neurodivergent individuals, their obstacles decrease.
Neurodivergent individuals often need support in a variety of ways; all require understanding and acceptance, many require accommodations, skill building opportunities, positive behavior support, therapy or mental health support. All of these approaches should be person-centered and aimed at helping people live their best lives without the end goal of changing or altering the core of who they are.
Some individuals are severely affected by their neurodiversity or disability and require intensive support; their experience should not be forgotten or eclipsed by others who have more ability to speak out.
Ways to Demonstrate Acceptance
Some ways you can show appreciation and acceptance for neurodivergent people are to have conversations with them, celebrate their strengths and interests, welcome new and different ways of thinking, be open to various types of communication, read about neurodiversity and how it impacts different people.
Accepting neurodiversity means respecting others’ choices even when they seem unusual to you. Neurological and behavioral differences are not always problems. There is a difference between not having the skills to participate in society and not having the desire. For example, if someone wants to socialize with others but lacks the social skills to do so, skill building to help them learn would be appropriate. However, if someone has the skills but chooses not to, then intervention is not required.
In many situations we can make changes to community settings to relieve some of the burden that some people face. For example, having wheelchair accessible spaces, including braille on signs and designing spaces to accommodate for those who may have sensory sensitivities.
Whatever skills a person has, it’s important to teach them how to access the things that are meaningful to them – this may be learning to care for themselves, have a job or socialize with peers. The important thing is that every person has the right to as much self-determination as possible.
It’s important to respect and honor different forms of communication, some people use AAC devices to communicate and others use sign language or written word. Communication is communication and should be honored no matter the format. It is important to be sensitive to all forms of communication, especially body language. Just because a person does not speak, doesn’t mean they don’t understand what others are saying or have something to say themselves.
We should respect that not all children develop skills in the same way or at the same time. Many neurodivergent kids will excel in one area and struggle in another area. It’s important to focus on the skills and interests they do have and build upon those. We must challenge our assumptions and methods of measuring intelligence because we are learning there is way more variation than our normative-assessments can consider.
For some, there is a great psychological cost to fitting in and changing themselves for others. Allowing others to ‘let down their guard’ and be themselves allows them to spend their energy on the things that really matter rather than on trying to fit into the neurotypical world.
There is a benefit for all of us when we create a world that accepts and celebrates differences.
Humans Need Interdependence
No human exists completely independent from others, but rather we exist within a society, culture and community and rely on others for many things. Pushing people to aim for 100% independence as the highest goal is not appropriate. Individuals thrive when the goal is to work towards things that are important to them. It is especially helpful to learn the skills to advocate for their needs and ask for help from the right people at the right time. We all need to learn about our own strengths and weaknesses and call upon others for support. Interdependence should be the goal over independence – being part of a functioning community that values all of its members.
Finding Beauty in the Everyday
Being neurodivergent or caring for someone who is neurodivergent can be wild, wonderful and stressful every single day. When we slow down to notice the small things, it helps us to find the beauty in the everyday events and interactions. Each day of life we are given can be miraculous and magical.
Imagine how boring the world would be if we were all the same. Diversity is what makes life interesting. We need all kinds of brains in the world and it’s important to not just understand and accept others but to celebrate them. Many neurodivergent individuals have extraordinary skills in areas such as memory, creativity, attention to detail, and problem solving skills.
The list of accomplished individuals who identify as neurodivergent is long and varied. It includes scientists, entertainers, athletes, inventors, and captains of industry, all of whom have made significant contributions in their chosen fields. Here are the names of a few:
- Billie Eillish (Tourette’s)
- Emma Watson (ADHD)
- Greta Thunberg (ASD)
- Muhammad Ali (Dyslexia)
- Simone Byles (ADHD)
- Florence Welch (Dyslexia, Dyscalculia)
- Mary Temple Grandin (ASD)
- Alan Turing (*Dyslexia, *ASD)
- Albert Einstein (*Dyslexia, ASD)
- Henry Ford (Dyslexia)
- Richard Branson (Dyslexia, ADHD)
- Bill Gates (Dyslexia)
- Will Smith (ADHD)
- Cara Delevinge (Dyspraxia, Developmental Co-Ordination Disorder)
- Courtney Love (ASD)
(The conditions that fall under the neurodivergence umbrella are not new, but testing and consistent diagnoses are. Historical figures who have been hypothesized to be neurodivergent are marked with an *)
Understanding, accepting and celebrating neurodiversity are important ways forward for us as a society. It’s important that all humans are respected and included in society because not all great minds think alike.
Written by Brianna Z. Kauer with help from the CBS team