The New Field of Neurodiversity: Why 'Disabilities' Are Essential to the Human Ecosystem
Continued from previous page
Like an ecosystem, the brain has a tremendous ability to transform itself in response to change. Pennsylvania student Christina Santhouse was 8 years old when encephalitis and the seizures it caused resulted in the right hemisphere of her brain being removed. Nevertheless, she graduated with honors from high school and is attending college. Her left hemisphere was able to take up the slack, so to speak, and function virtually normally.
To give another example, there is a form of dementia that destroys anterior (front) areas of the brain; patients with the disorder lose the ability to speak. However, it also results in posterior (back) areas of the brain being able to function with even greater strength in compensation, sometimes causing a torrent of creativity in art or music. Since the human brain is more like an ecosystem than a machine, it is particularly appropriate that we use the concept of neurodiversity, rather than a disease-based approach or a mechanistic model, to talk about individual differences in the brain.
– 2 – Human beings and human brains exist along continuums of competence
I used to drive from my home near the California coast to Yosemite National Park, 270 miles inland, to engage in weekend hiking and camping. As I traveled along, I’d see the watery coastal regions give way to the green fields of the agriculturally rich Central Valley, which would then transform themselves into the brown foothills of the Gold County. The hills, in turn, would slowly get higher and higher until I found myself winding along towering cliffs toward the magnificent Yosemite Valley itself.
What struck me on this journey was how imperceptible the changes from one region to the next could be. The green fields did not stop cold to be replaced by the brown foothills. The foothills didn’t abruptly become mountains. It all happened gradually along a continuum.
In the same way, the differences between human beings with respect to a particular quality—say, sociability—exist along a continuum. On one end of the continuum are human beings who exist in a state of virtually total social isolation. These are the most severely autistic individuals among us.
But the spectrum of autism disorders includes people with greater levels of sociability, such as those, for example, with Asperger syndrome. If we were to follow this continuum further, we might see eccentric individuals with “shadow syndromes” who do not qualify for a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, but nevertheless seclude themselves from their community. Some of these individuals might be diagnosed with avoidant personality disorder.
Moving further along the continuum, we might find people who can relate well to others, but are highly introverted by temperament and prefer to be alone. Gradually, we might see increasing levels of sociability, until we ultimately came to the highly sociable person (and beyond that, the overly sociable person). The point here is that people with disabilities do not exist as “islands of incompetence” totally separated from “normal” human beings. Rather they exist along continuums of competence, with “normal” behavior simply a stop along the way.
This is an important principle because it helps de-stigmatize individuals with neurologically based mental disorders. There is a tendency among human beings to take people with diagnostic labels and put them as far away from us as possible. A lot of the suffering that individuals with mental disorders go through results from this kind of prejudice. Knowing we’re all connected to each other, just like ecosystems are, means we need to have far greater tolerance for those whose neurological systems are organized differently than our own.