For more than a century, scientists have tried to understand humans through the evolving process of science. In order to grasp the vastness of what it means to be human, scientists started defining human variations in terms of standardised measures. The main goal of this process aimed towards increased understanding, as understanding could potentially lead to ways of improving lived lives. Scientists started to operationalise anything remotely measurable such as body strength, personality, reaction speed, processing speed, memory, and vocabulary. The scientific process that initially aimed towards understanding what it means to be human became an increasingly more applied dogmatic approach. Eventually, the aim towards maintaining societal efficiency and optimising the welfare system became as important as the initial scientific aim of understanding and improving individual lives.
The societal aim towards standardisation and optimisation has unfortunately also created a breeding ground of attitudes less tolerant towards individual differences and traits that are different.
Almost every aspect that makes us human will be felt and expressed in different ways across the population – differing from one person to another. Everyone will deviate in more ways than not. Compared with others, we tend to be more or less: impulsive, stubborn, creative, rigid, energetic, emotional, observant, optimistic, etc. The ways in which we differ can sometimes be considered aspects of our personality and identity. However, these concepts are construed in relational terms and will be descriptive of ways we will express, interpret or relate to each other. Put in another way, the concepts of personality and identity will only make sense as observed in a relational setting. What about the more invisible, fundamental, and experiential aspects of human ways of living that are not overtly expressed or interpreted in relation to others? Some of the ways in which we differ from each other can be quite hard to grasp, because the quality of our subjective lived experience is not something we can share directly. Acknowledging that 1) we do differ from each other in ways that are not overtly observable, and that 2) these differences can fundamentally define how we experience and engage with the world, is essential in order for us to understand each other. However, most of us don’t have a vocabulary for naming and understanding these less obvious human differences.
While several of the experiential ways in which we differ can be hard to understand or delineate in words, I will still attempt to give some concrete examples of quite normal ways of differing. Among 1 in 10 people will experience hearing voices. About 5% of us will persistently experience a perceptual phenomenon called synesthesia, where an individual’s perception of the world is augmented with additional or alternative sensory qualities not actually present. Some people could see words or numbers light up in specific colours when reading, even though the actual writing is in plain black and white. Some will involuntarily experience tasting or smelling when reading or hearing a word. Some can see or feel shapes and textures when hearing different sounds. About 2-5% will be unable to recognise faces, a tendency commonly known as “face blindness”, where an individual is unable to differentiate one person from another solely based on facial features alone. Notice that the some ways in which humans differ will be fundamental and ubiquitous features of their experiences, while not immediately observable (or even fathomable!) for the majority.
While many traits can be thought of as learned ways to adapt to our surroundings, most of our traits will be neurological makeup formed in our first years or during our lifetime. Research has found that our measurable traits, such as our preferences, tendencies, and ways of expressing ourselves, are to a significant extent influenced by our genetic predispositions. In other words, our genes play a big role in shaping our preferences and ways of being. Different neurodiverse traits can be more or less tied to our neurological makeup. For some aspects of our ways of being, external influences, life experiences or individual motivation will not affect or change us. Our neurological structure tends to be relatively stable over time and is not easily influenced by child rearing practices or social influences. Understanding the fact that many human differences is not a matter of choice or life experience is central to the neurodiversity perspective. Expecting individuals with some neurodivergent traits to conform to and follow more neurotypical ways of living is blatantly disregarding the challenges and preferences.
Neurodiversity is a perspective and a social movement promoting inclusivity, acceptance and destigmatisation of the diverse ways humans experience and interact with the world around them. Neurodiversity represents an ideological shift towards learning and accommodating for individual differences in cognition, emotion and behaviour – advocating against a restrictive, narrow and intolerant understanding of normal and acceptable ways of being.
The concept of Neurodiversity was coined as a societal parallel to that of biodiversity; just as an ecosystem is dependent on a multitude of variations in life and symbiotic interactions in it, society is dependent on everyone having different preferences and strengths. Human variation in perceiving, understanding, and engaging can foster innovation in both art and science. With this diversity, society as a whole will become more versatile and adaptive. When we better understand divergent ways of experiencing and living in the world, not only will each individual feel better, but society as a whole will be more colourful, interesting, and nourishing for everyone.
The perspective of Neurodiversity advocates for a shift away from understanding atypical ways of being as individual disabilities or impairments in adaptation. Rather, from a neurodiversity perspective, societal structures and social norms are viewed as constrained and disregarding the diverse set of needs and possibilities humans have. Individual differences that have tended to be framed in terms of disability or impairment, should also be understood and framed in terms of strengths and opportunities. Different diagnostic and more abstract categories pertaining to mental states and experiences have traditionally been delineated in terms of deficits and abnormality. However, although disability and difficulties adapting could be descriptive, diagnostic labels often do not acknowledge aspects of strengths, opportunities and empowering narratives.
Neurodiversity includes the whole spectrum of diversity seen in society, people that identify as being neurodivergent, and people that we might refer to as neurotypicals. There is no strict definition of what it means to be neurodivergent. Some identifying as neurodivergent can do so due to having a specific diagnosis such as Autism, ADHD, or Tourettes. While for others – simply feeling different from others is in itself sufficient. Ultimately, we are all unique and different from each other. However, it is up to each individual to decide whether they feel this difference is a defining part of their own identity.
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