ABOUT Rainbow Brains

Exploring Neurodiversity

Guestpost from Heather McCrae
Neurodiversity Coach and Blogger

Intro by Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CMC, MCC, SCAC

If you’ve been following this blog for very long you are surely well aware that  I strongly believe that pathologizing any difference, disorder or disability is a crying shame.  

You also realize, no doubt, that I am ALSO reluctant to jump on the “it’s a difference, not a disability”  bandwagon.

The Power of Diagnostic Identification

In my 25 years in the coaching/training field, primarily working with (and training other coaches to work with) individuals with non-neurotypical brains (aka. “vanillas” – unflavored by the “mix-ins” we find in ADD and/or any of the other spectrum disorders), I have seen the power of an accurate diagnosis to finally turn a life of struggle into one of freedom with accomplishment – time and time again.

To my mind, telling an individual who has been struggling through life that his or her brain is merely “different” is not unlike attempting to encourage a teenage girl who desperately wants to be pretty by telling her that she is smart and has a great personality.

That doesn’t quite scratch the same itch, does it?

It would be particularly sad (cruel, even) if the above-referenced teenager was, in fact, extremely pretty, were we NOT to acknowledge it, regardless of the benefit of our intent to underscore and affirm the teen’s more important and longer-lasting attributes.

Our pattern-recognition brains crave specificity — distinctions don’t have to be thought of as “labels,” and diagnoses can very easily fall under the heading of distinctions.

From a Prior Article:  Tales from the ADD Dark Side

While it certainly is appropriate – and accurate – to note that *all* disabilities have their silver linings, I believe we ALSO need to take care that we do not ignore the disadvantages in our eagerness to extol the “benefits,”  for any number of good reasons — especially with the “invisible” disabilities.

Three of those very good reasons are illuminated in Tales from the ADD Dark Sidean overview of my thinking about the tenuous relationship between disabilities and differences. That article goes on to point out another important possibility:

I sometimes wonder if the lack of belief in ADD as a significant impairment is due, in no small part, to our eagerness to point out the “gifts” of ADD, undercutting, in the mind of the public, the extent to which the challenges can be daunting

The International Expert Consensus Statement on ADHD puts it stronger still.

“ADHD is not a benign disorder. For those it afflicts, ADHD can cause devastating problems.”

You will find some rather daunting statistics illustrating just HOW devasting in Tales from the ADD Dark Side, along with a link to the complete text of The Consensus Statement (with all signers names and contacts, ending with 15 pages of references and citations, double-columned, in small-print), available as a free pdf download from the website of noted ADD Expert, Dr. Russell Barkley.

The Power of Embracing the Positives of Neurodiversity

With the above caveats, I would like to introduce my readers to the blog of a woman who has totally embraced neurodiversity and neurodiverity coaching in a manner I can endorse: Heather McCrea.  

Her article, below, was originally published on her blog, ThinkDifferently-Neurodiversity Coaching™.  In her exploration of the topic, she presents some additional ideas to think about.  I think you will find, as you read further along in her discourse, that she and I aren’t that far apart in our points of view.

Her article is reprinted below with formatting changes consistent with the formatting on this blog (including the addition of some headers, for those of you with reading difficulties who read “from rock to rock”), along with the addition of links, italics and bolding for additional information and emphasis.  The words themselves are untouched.

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What Is Neurodiversity?

Guestpost from Heather McCrae
Neurodiversity Coach and Blogger

This material is based upon Dr. Thomas Armstrong’s Book: The Power of Neurodiversity:  Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain.

Neurodiversity:  A Concept Whose Time Has Come

Over the past sixty years, we’ve witnessed a phenomenal growth in the number of new psychiatric illnesses.  The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, first published in 1952, originally listed about 100 categories of illness. By the year 2000, that number had tripled.

We’ve become accustomed to hearing in the news about “learning disabilities,” “ADHD,” “Asperger’s syndrome,” and other conditions that were virtually unheard of fifty years ago.

A report from the National Institute of Mental Health indicates that about one-fourth of the American population suffers from a psychiatric disorder in any given year, and an article in the Archives of General Psychology suggested that over the course of a lifetime, approximately half of all people may suffer from a mental illness sometime during their lives.

Add to this the observation by Harvard Medical School professor John Ratey that many people have milder versions of psychiatric conditions (he calls them “shadow syndromes”), and we come to the conclusion that when all is said and done, nearly every individual in the country may have a psychiatric illness to one degree or another.

A Crisis in the Making?

This epidemic in the growth of mental illness suggests that there is a crisis in the making.  How much longer can we continue to add new psychiatric illnesses to the list, before it becomes apparent that we have moved too far in pathologizing a sizeable chunk of the American populace?  There is, however, an answer to this crisis.

The concept of neurodiversity provides a paradigm shift in how we think about mental functioning.  Instead of regarding large portions of the American public as suffering from deficit, disease, or dysfunction in their mental processing, neurodiversity suggests that we instead speak about differences in cognitive functioning.  Just as we talk about differences in bio-diversity and cultural diversity, we need to start using the same kind of thinking in talking about brain differences.

We don’t pathologize a calla lily for not having petals (e.g. petal deficit disorder), nor do we diagnose an individual with brown skin as suffering from a “pigmentation dysfunction.”  Similarly, we ought not to pathologize individuals who have different ways of thinking, relating, attending, and learning

The word neurodiversity was coined in the late 1990’s by two individuals: journalist Harvey Blume, and autism advocate Judy Singer.

Blume wrote in the September 1, 1998 issue of The Atlantic “Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of wiring will prove best at any given moment? Cybernetics and computer culture, for example, may favor a somewhat autistic cast of mind.”

Singer in a 1999 book chapter titled:  “Why Can’t You Be Normal For Once in Your Life?” observed:  “For me, the key significance of the ‘Autistic Spectrum’ lies in its call for and anticipation of a politics of Neurological Diversity, or what I want to call ‘Neurodiversity.’  The ‘Neurologically Different’ represent a new addition to the familiar political categories of class/gender/race and will augment the insights of the social model of disability.”

The Wikepedia defines neurodiversity as:  “…an idea which asserts that atypical (neurodivergent) neurological development is a normal human difference that is to be recognized and respected as any other human variation.”

The online Double-Tongued Dictionary characterizes neurodiversity as:  “the whole of human mental or psychological neurological structures or behaviors, seen as not necessarily problematic, but as alternate, acceptable forms of human biology.”

Strengths vs Weaknesses

By using the concept of neurodiversity to account for individual neurological differences, we create a discourse whereby labeled people may be seen in terms of their strengths as well as their weaknesses.

  • Dyslexics, for example, can be seen in terms of their visual thinking ability and entrepreneurial strengths.
  • People with ADHD can be regarded as possessing a penchant for novel learning situations.
  • Individuals along the autistic spectrum can be looked at in terms of their facility with systems such computer programming or mathematical computation.
  • Those with bipolar disorder can be appreciated for their creative pursuits in the arts.

While proponents of the concept of neurodiversity do not shirk from the realization that people with dyslexia, ADHD, autism, bipolar disorder, and other psychiatric conditions, often suffer great hardships, and that those hardships require a lot of hard work to overcome, they realize that until an individual’s strengths have been recognized, celebrated, and worked with, nothing substantial can be accomplished with regard to their difficulties.

 Eight Principles of Neurodiversity: 

  1. The Human Brain Works More Like an Ecosystem than a Machine Up until now, the most often used metaphor to refer to the brain has been a computer (or some other type of machine).  However, the human brain isn’t hardware or software, it’s wetware.  The characterization of the brain as an unbelievably intricate network of ecosystems is much closer to the truth than that of a complex machine.  We should devise a discourse that better reflects this new conception of the brain.
  2. Human Brains  Exist Along Continuums of Competence. Rather than regarding disability categories as discrete entities, it’s more appropriate to speak of spectrums or continuums of competence.  Recent research, for example, indicates that dyslexia is part of a spectrum that includes normal reading ability.  Similarly, we use terms such as autistic spectrum disorders, to suggest that there are different gradations of social ability that merge ultimately with normal behavior.  This suggests that we are all somewhere along continuums related to literacy, sociability, attention, learning, and other cognitive abilities, and thus all of us are connected to each other, rather than being separated into “normal” and “those having disabilities.”
  3. Human Competence is Defined by the Values of the Culture to Which You Belong.  Categories of disability often deeply reflect the values of a culture.  Dyslexia, for example, is based upon the social value that everyone be able to read.  One hundred and fifty years ago, this wasn’t the case, and dyslexia was unknown.  Similarly, autism may reflect the cultural value that suggests that it’s better to be in relationship than to be alone. We should recognize that diagnostic categories are not purely scientifically-based but reflect these deeper social biases.
  4. Whether You are Regarded As Disabled or Gifted Depends Largely on When and Where You Were Born.   In other times and other places, there have been different disability/ability diagnoses depending upon cultural values.  In pre-Civil War America, for example, there was a disorder called “drapetomania” said to afflict blacks. Its meaning was “an obsession with the urge to flee one’s slave masters” and reflected its racist roots. In India, today, there are people who would be labeled in the West as schizophrenic, but who are regarded as holy beings by the local population.  We should not regard diagnostic labels as absolute and set in stone, but think, instead, of their existence relative to a particular social setting.
  5. Success in Life is Based on Adapting One’s Brain to the Needs of the Surrounding Environment.   Despite Principles 3 and 4, however, it’s true that we don’t live in other places or times, consequently the immediate need is to adapt to our current contemporary culture.  This means that a dyslexic person needs to learn how to read, an autistic individual needs to learn how to relate to others socially, a schizophrenic individual needs to think more rationally and so forth.  Tools such as psychoactive medication or intensive remediation programs can help achieve these aims.
  6. Success in Life Also Depends on Modifying Your Surrounding Environment to Fit the Needs of Your Unique Brain (Niche Construction).  We shouldn’t focus all of our attention on making a neurodiverse person adapt to the environment in which they find themselves, which is a little like making a round peg fit in a square hole.  We should also devise ways of helping an individual change their surrounding environment to fit the needs of their unique brain.
  7. Niche Construction Includes Career and Lifestyle Choices, Assistive Technologies, Human Resources, and Other Life-Enhancing Strategies Tailored to the Specific Needs of a Neurodiverse Individual There are many tools, resources, and strategies for altering the environment so that it it meshes with the needs of a neurodiverse brain.  For example, a person with ADHD, can find a career that involves novelty and movement, use an iPhone to help with organizing his day, and hire a coach to assist him with developing better social skills.
  8. Positive Niche Construction Directly Modifies the Brain, Which in Turn Enhances its Ability to Adapt to the EnvironmentIn experiments with mice, neuroscientists have shown that a more enriching environment results in a more complex network of neuronal connections in the brain. This more complex brain, in turn, has an easier time adapting to the needs of the surrounding environment.

In conclusion, the potential is great for the neurodiversity movement to create significant social transformation.  Already, for example, there are software firms that have recognized the special programming gifts of certain people with Asperger’s syndrome and others on the autistic spectrum, and have hired significant numbers of them to improve their productivity.

Similarly, more people are understanding that ADHD brings with it special abilities as well as difficulties, and that appropriate career selection can be an important part of determining whether one will be successful or unsuccessful in a particular job.

It is hoped that the concept of neurodiversity will help combat “abelism” or the belief that people who are “abnormal” should be discriminated against, condescended to, and ultimately kept out of the basic affairs of society.

Neurodiversity brings with it a sense of hope, that all individuals, regardless of how they read, think, feel, socialize, or attend, will be recognized for their gifts, and accorded the same rights and privileges as any other human being.


SEE ALSO: AuthenticYou – Heather’s site for her Neurodiversity radio show

© Neurodiveresity Coaching TM 2012. All rights reserved, with the exception of The Neurodiversity Principles, which are the work of Dr. Armstrong, alone. The application of them, as explained here in my Coaching Practice is solely that of the guest blogger, and no inference is ever intended. Reprinted with permission on ADDandSoMuchMore.com.

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About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

6 Responses to ABOUT Rainbow Brains

  1. Bernadette says:

    A very important article to read. It should be required reading for all teachers.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jodie says:

    You always come up with the most interesting topics, Madelyn!
    That’s so interesting about it depends on where you are born too. The things I never thought of….

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This reminds me of the film ‘The Rain Man’, where Dustin Hoffman portrayed an autistic man with a phenomenal memory for numbers. He ‘read’ the telephone directory and could remember hundreds of telephone numbers. I remembered this because it can be true in reality, and I tend to go for true-life stories.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I, too, tend to gravitate to people’s stories of overcoming adversity or challenge – and especially those in which the person learns to adapt and move forward effectively. It gives me hope for all of us, but especially in my own life.

      Those stories serve as new examples of that cute story that many of us heard in our childhood’s: that Little Engine who COULD.

      What I like about this article is the subtle reminder that we, as a society, need to stop saying “not your way you can’t” — the essence of stigma.

      Liked by 1 person

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