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How Neurodiversity Has Changed

Today, many groups embrace the concept of neurodiversity.

Key points

  • The neurodiversity movement has expanded to become a major component of the DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) programs of tomorrow.
  • The neurodiversity concept sprang from the autism community, but the population of people born with "different brains" is far larger.
  • Expanding the neurodivergent community to include ADHD, dyslexia, and other differences increases visibility, advocacy, and support.

It’s been 15 years since neurodiversity emerged into public view in America. Back then, no one had heard of it. Today, I can’t say everyone knows what neurodiversity is, but everyone working in DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) certainly does. Thousands of colleges and workplaces have established neurodiversity programs.

Defining neurodiversity

For most of its history, neurodiversity was a euphemism for autism. That’s not surprising because the idea sprang from the autism community, even as it was described as more inclusive.

Today other groups embrace neurodiversity. I see neurodiversity discussed and supported in ADHD, OCD, and dyslexia discussion forums. People with intellectual and developmental disability diagnoses now see themselves as neurodivergent.

That’s understandable when you consider self-image. Most of us would rather be different than disabled. That does not mean we deny our disability. It means we are more than a disability. Many of us prefer to present our gifts to the world, as opposed to our struggles.

The essential concept behind neurodiversity is that there is a lot of diversity in our cognitive abilities. When I was growing up, the only cognitive diversity was the simplistic notion that one person was “smarter” than another. “Smart” was not precisely defined, though many parents asserted that they knew it when they saw it, particularly as regards their children.

Medical professionals were quick to recognize the disability side. “Johnny can’t talk” came far ahead of the realization that “Megan has the most extraordinary memory for details.” Over the last 40 years, doctors shaped those observations into reasonably good summaries of how some people’s cognition and behavior differ from the majority of the population. Unfortunately, they presented those differences exclusively in the context of disability, usually childhood disability.

The extraordinary traits were all too often set aside, with dismissive terms like “splinter skills.” The focus was locked on disability, and once they had their lists of behavioral aberrations, they had to treat them.

In the case of autism (and Asperger’s and PDD-NOS), there was a lot of head scratching, as no credible pharmaceutical “cure” ever emerged. For many parents, the choice was behavioral therapies aimed at “normalizing” their autistic children in hopes they could grow up to have independent lives.

In the case of ADHD, that led to millions of children being fed Ritalin and Adderall to “stabilize” their aberrant behaviors, and “help them grow up to be normal.”

The first generation to grow up with the benefit of this knowledge and the associated therapies are now well into adulthood, and they are speaking out. Many of them express anger at the treatments they were subjected to, particularly certain behavioral interventions imposed on autistic children. Adults who were medicated as children are now choosing to live without medicine and chart their own course. In some cases, they return to the meds. Others prefer to live in their “natural” state.

As a member of that group, I can write this with confidence: We may be different from most people, but we are not subhuman or broken. We are our normal. We were born as we are, and our differences serve many purposes. The fixations that made me a disabled child make me a highly focused adult. My friends who “bounced off the walls” as children can now “juggle a hundred balls” in a fast-moving workplace.

Facing injustice

The medical profession did us a huge service by developing certain therapies that have delivered life-changing benefits. We also see how they did great harm by painting us as “less” than other people. A generation grew up with the false idea that “we were not college material,” or worse.

Many young neurodivergent adults harbor anger over this injustice. They feel that doctors, therapists, schools, and even parents have done them wrong. They feel marginalized and disrespected.

Autistic people were the first to speak out on this. However, autistic people only represent 2-3 percent of the population, so they were a small minority. Black people, by comparison, represent 12 percent of the population, and Hispanic people make up 18 percent. When corporations and schools talk about diversity, they put their focus on those groups due to their far greater size.

Expansion of the neurodivergent community

ADHD is one of the most common developmental differences affecting some 10 percent of the population. As we autistics welcome them under the neurodiversity banner, our numbers swell. When we add dyslexics and others with unspecified learning differences, we find our numbers growing to 12-14 percent, making us a much larger group than was previously recognized.

The recognition that the neurodivergent community includes ADHD, dyslexia, OCD, autism, and a host of other differences is huge. It puts our community on a par with other major minority groups. From an advocacy and support standpoint, many of our issues and concerns are the same. We want equal opportunity and access. We seek the elimination of barriers to our participation.

I look to tomorrow when neurodiversity is fully woven into the DEI programs that are part of every major educational institution, and every large workplace—public and private.

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