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The New Field of Neurodiversity: Why 'Disabilities' Are Essential to the Human Ecosystem

Differences among brains are as enriching -- and essential -- as differences among plants and animals. Welcome to the new field of neurodiversity.

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We have become accustomed as a culture to the idea that significant segments of the population are afflicted with neurologically based disorders such as “learning disabilities,” “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” and “Asperger syndrome”: conditions unheard of 60 years ago. Now, even newer disabilities are being considered for the next edition of the DSM, due out in 2012, including relational disorder, sexual behavior disorders and video game addiction.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has reported that more than one-quarter of all adults in the U.S. suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year. It seems to me that we’re moving toward a day when virtually every single individual alive may be regarded as afflicted with a neurologically based mental disorder to one degree or another.

How did we get to this place? Certainly one factor has to do with the tremendous leap in knowledge we’ve made over the past several decades regarding the human brain. Hundreds, if not thousands, of studies come out every year giving us more and more information about how the human brain works. This is revolutionizing our understanding of human mental functioning and that is a good thing. But it is also responsible for ours becoming a disability culture.

The trouble is that medical researchers generally have a disease-based perspective regarding the brain, not a view that is focused on health and well-being. Funding for brain research goes to the squeaky wheel. Studies abound, for example, about what’s wrong with the left hemisphere of the brains of dyslexics. Little research, however, exists on an area in the right hemisphere that processes loose word associations and may be the source of poetic inspiration.

The concept of neurodiversity provides a more balanced perspective. Instead of regarding traditionally pathologized populations as disabled or disordered, the emphasis in neurodiversity is placed on differences. Dyslexics often have minds that visualize clearly in three dimensions. People with ADHD have a different, more diffused, attentional style. Autistic individuals relate better to objects than to people.

This is not, as some people might suspect, merely a new form of political correctness (e.g., “serial killers are differently assertive”). Instead, research from brain science, evolutionary psychology, anthropology, sociology and the humanities demonstrates that these differences are real and deserve serious consideration.

I recognize that they also involve tremendous hardship, suffering and pain. The importance of identifying mental illness, treating it appropriately and developing the means of preventing it in early childhood cannot be overstated.

However, one important ingredient in the alleviation of this suffering is an emphasis on the positive dimensions of people who have traditionally been stigmatized as less than normal. My own definition of neurodiversity concerns itself with an exploration of seven mental disorders of neurological origin, which may represent alternative forms of natural human difference: ADHD, autism, dyslexia, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, intellectual disabilities and schizophrenia. I have come up with eight principles of neurodiversity to serve as guideposts on this journey.

– 1 – The human brain works more like an ecosystem than a machine

The primary metaphor used to describe the workings of the brain for 400 years has been the machine. The problem with this kind of approach is the human brain is not a machine; it is a biological organism. It is not hardware or software. It is wetware. And it is messy. Millions of years of evolution have created hundreds of billions of brain cells organized and connected in unbelievably complex systems of organicity. The body of a neuron, or brain cell, looks like an exotic tropical tree with numerous branches. The electric crackling of neuronal networks mimics heat lightning in a forest. The undulations of neurotransmitters moving among neurons resemble the ocean tides.