A Brief Guide to Neurodiversity

by Peter Smagorinsky

While sharing a vacation cabin with my siblings, one of my sisters and I were on kitchen duty. She said, “It’s a good thing we’ve got OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder). The kitchen is spotless.”

I agreed with her except for one thing: the D. “If the place is spotless because of our obsessive-compulsiveness, how can it be a disorder?” I asked. Obsessive-compulsiveness seemed like a good sense of order to have under these circumstances.

With that anecdote, I’ll provide a brief set of points about what is known as “neurodiversity.” My colleague Nick Walker explains it well on his blog. He takes the assumption that there is no norm by which people may be found disordered, defective, deficient, abnormal, or disabled. These are the terms often used to characterize people whose neurological makeup makes them seem different enough for them to be considered mentally ill and in need of a cure. Attention Deficit Disorder (a double whammy), Autism Spectrum Disorder, Learning Disabilities, and many others: All frame the individual in terms of a deficiency, no matter what else they have to offer.

Rather, says Walker, neurodiversity is “a natural, healthy, and important form of human biodiversity—fundamental and vital characteristic of the human species, a crucial source of evolutionary and creative potential.” That potential is hard to recognize when the “pathology paradigm” centers being different as being in deficit, rather than foregrounding what is healthy and positive about someone. The neurodiversity movement sees people in terms of strengths and assets. Rather than seeing obsessive-compulsiveness as a disorder, those who embrace this perspective would see what this frame of mind enables. Clean kitchens everywhere appreciate this way of being.

I’ll next sketch out what I see as possible through a neurodiversity perspective.

  • Nobody is normal. Rather, each person has a unique makeup. Attempts to measure human development relative to whole-population norms are often discriminatory because they are deficit-oriented and turn difference into pathology based on one aspect of a person’s makeup.
  • Foregrounding a difference as a deficit is misguided in that it overlooks the person’s potential in other areas. It’s much more humane and responsible to foreground the assets of a person and how they might be cultivated, than to fixate on a perceived disorder or disability as the principal characteristic of a whole person.
  • The extent to which one is disabled or disordered is a matter of situation. Framing someone as disabled suggests a steadfast, negative condition. But each context calls for different strengths. In a dark room, a blind person has the advantage.
  • The extent to which one is disabled or disordered is a function of relationships. How other people think about a person with a diagnosis, and how they relate to that person, has a lot to do with how that person feels about being different. Treating one as inferior will create an environment that surrounds neurodivergence with an oppressive context that reinforces the idea the being difference means being deficient.
  • The most disabling problems faced by people follow from how they are negatively viewed by other people. Those who are treated as inferior often accept that judgment and feel deficient. Shifting attention from perceived disabilities to strengths provides a very different, more enabling context for people whose neurodivergence (or other form of difference) is found unusual by those who surround them.
  • Neurodivergence is mostly represented by two groups on the extremes. On one end are the savants, those with fantastic memories and quirky sorts of comprehensive knowledge. Think Rain Man. On the other end are those who are so out of sorts with society that they act out in threatening and violent ways. Think Columbine. But these extreme examples do not at all represent the great majority of neurodivergent people, and so should not frame our perceptions of the larger population.
  • The role of medication remains unsettled. I take Paxil, for instance, which moderates my own high anxiety and makes sleeping and life in general easier for me, not to mention others. But others dispute the benefits of medicating neurodivergence. It’s advisable to educate yourself about whether or not a condition is debilitating in enough contexts to merit a medical perspective.
  • A label has problems and benefits. A label like “OCD” can lead people to consider a person deficient, and so from a social standpoint, can be problematic. But from the individual’s standpoint, it can be comforting to know that a condition like Asperger’s Syndrome, another part of my own makeup, has certain traits (which appear differently in each case) that are useful to know about and understand, and therefore feel less weird about. I have had a successful career as a social science researcher, for instance, and I believe that my Asperger’s trait of intense focus over extended periods of time is the primary reason. I used to consider it a matter of morality because everyone complimented me on my work ethic. But I now understand it to stand outside ethics and simply be a produce of an Asperger’s-driven ability to concentrate.
  • A key way of enabling people to reach their potential is to involve them in activities that bring out their strengths and minimize their differences. An autistic child or youth, for instance, may thrive in online environments in which judgments about their asocial tendencies may not be available, because without face-to-face interactions, they may become valued contributors to groups in meeting their goals. Becoming an accepted member of a social group through a medium that accentuates positives and minimizes social struggles may lead to a stronger sense of self through the affirmation of peers in the process of working together.

After graduating from Kenyon College in 1974, Smagorinsky worked as a hall monitor and substitute teacher in Trenton, NJ. He began his teaching career as an English teacher in the Upward Bound/Pilot Enrichment Program in Hyde Park on Chicago’s South Side, where the University of Chicago is located. He taught in UB/PEP while attending Chicago’s master of arts in teaching program in English Education, studying under George Hillocks. After he received his M.A.T. in 1977, he went on to teach in several high schools outside Chicago: Westmont HS (1977-8), Barrington HS (1978–1985), and Oak Park and River Forest HS (1985–1990). He was the assistant varsity track coach for his one year at Westmont HS and the assistant sophomore basketball coach for three years at Barrington HS. A year after receiving his doctorate (awarded in 1989), Smagorinsky accepted a position as assistant professor of English Education at the University of Oklahoma. Smagorinsky moved to The University of Georgia in 1998.

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