Autism Awareness Month and The Revolutionary Idea of Neurodiversity
April is Autism Awareness Month! As a member of the Bagheera staff, I want to celebrate this special month and honor our readers on the spectrum by discussing the term “neurodiversity.” It seems to me that there is a bit of misconception about the true meaning of the word; I myself have heard it many times over the years, but it wasn't until just recently when I googled it that I understood the full extent of it. According to disabledworld.com, neurodiversity is “an approach to learning and disability that argues that diverse neurological conditions are the result of normal variations in the human genome.”
Neurodiversity in this respect is a revolutionary idea. Modern thought has come exceedingly far on the subject in the last few hundred years; evidence of this can be found in the 1800 French account of Victor of Aveyron, a young boy found in the wilderness who was believed to have the mind of an animal after doctors and scientists could not teach him to speak normally (it is believed by many experts today that Victor showed signs of severe autism).
Although the ability to diagnose this disorder has greatly improved the treatment of those who have it, they are for the most part not understood for what they really are: people with “normal variations” in brain function that have incredible untapped potential.
National autism education advocate Autism Speaks reports that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that as of 2018, about one in fifty-nine children are somewhere on the autism spectrum. This spectrum ranges from severe autism (marked by significant trouble or inability to communicate linguistically as well as severe cognitive deficiencies that prevent independence in simple activities) to Asperger’s syndrome (average to advanced IQ with noticeable difficulty in social situations and inability to decipher nonverbal communication such as body language).
Before moving on, I want to make one thing clear: the autism spectrum is a useful tool, not the culmination of a single identity. It does provide general guidelines for diagnosis, but it does not determine in a lump sum the self-worth and quality of life of those who fall somewhere between the two extremes.
I recently read a blog post by an individual with Asperger’s syndrome who explained it much better than I can. He said that most people share the belief that those on the spectrum represent only 1% of the population, and that the other 99% have “identically configured brains,” using an illustration of a group of children in a cafeteria line where all but one are given the exact same items on their trays (e.g., if a child does not get a milk carton, then something is missing from the “tray” of their brain). He then went on to argue that as new variations in human brain function are discovered, it becomes more apparent that what we once thought to be a single-option cafeteria is actually an endless buffet with billions of possible combinations.
If it is continually being proven that there are billions of combinations that make up the human brain, then why is there such a stigma against mental differences? Although organizations such as Autism Speaks do a lot to spread education and awareness about life on the spectrum, there is still plenty more that could be done to increase true, “no-strings-attached” acceptance of autistic individuals in society.
Because autism is almost always diagnosed in childhood, these organizations typically focus their energies on research and prevention for children in an attempt to “find a cure.” While the intentions behind this are wonderful, they often aim for a “maybe” future at the expense of a definite now.
Every day, whether we as a society choose to address it or not, autistic children are becoming autistic adults who are not being allowed to reach their full potential because they are underestimated or misunderstood by those around them.
In an attempt to search for answers, we minimize their very real struggles by blaming vaccines and even reversible environmental issues for the onset of autism instead of owning up to the fact that it is a condition people have when they are born that doesn't show itself until later.
Not only does this negatively affect the high-functioning autistic person who is just as intelligent as those around them (and in many cases more so), but it also forces feelings of guilt on parents who are told that their choices (e.g., vaccinating infants) somehow hurt their children.
For the sake of those who have autism in the here and now, as well as for the families that love and support them, we need to make a change in the way we view the spectrum in the first place. Instead of focusing only on eradicating autism as a “problem,” we should view it for what it really is: an acceptable difference in communication and expression found in people who deserve the same chance at life that those who are neurotypical get to enjoy.
A wise friend of mine told me that the best parts of who she is, the greatest talents and gifts that she can share with the world, are only a part of her because she has Asperger’s. The same can be said about many famous people believed to have been on the spectrum--people like classical poet Emily Dickinson, prodigious composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and even science and mathematics giant Albert Einstein. Fueled by high intelligence, unique thought processes, and extreme attention to detail, they were able to contribute to their world in a way that only they could.
I once read a French proverb that said, “Wherever life plants you, bloom with grace.” I think there is a lot of wisdom in this; we are all born in different circumstances, and for some, that means that there are things they can't do that others can. However, everyone with the capacity to understand it has a choice to do the best they can in life, to bloom where planted with determination and grace. As I mentioned earlier, this can be difficult because society does not always support those who are different.
A fundamental change in the way we view autism and other differences in mental ability needs to take place if we want more Einsteins to rise up and reach their full potential.
And a change of heart is needed if we want to make our best attempt at truly sharing the one thing that connects us all: love. Because that is what neurodiversity is all about--recognizing that we are all different from each other, and that not only are these differences okay, but they can also amount to something incredible if we support each other and strive to understand what makes us all unique.