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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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– 3 – Human competence is defined by the values of the culture to which you belong

Before the Civil War, a Louisiana physician named Samuel Cartwright published an article in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal claiming to have discovered a new mental disorder. He called it drapetomania (from the Greek drapetes, “runaway,” and mania, “madness”). Cartwright believed that this affliction plagued the lives of runaway slaves, and said that with “proper medical advice, strictly followed, this troublesome practice that many Negroes have of running away can be almost entirely prevented.”

We see this sort of “diagnosis” as an example of blatant racism. But at the time, it was passed off as good science. More recently, individuals who received a low score on an intelligence test in the 1930s were regarded as morons, imbeciles or idiots, and until the early 1970s, homosexuality was seen as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. These are only a few examples that illustrate how perceived “mental disorders” reflect the values of a given social and historical period. We like to think our array of mental disorders is free from those kinds of value judgments, but the reality is that in 25 or 50 years, we will undoubtedly look back on today’s psychiatric diagnoses and see the bold imprint of our contemporary prejudices.

It may be too soon to know exactly what those biases will be, but I would like to suggest that one reason each of these mental conditions has been defined as abnormal by our society is because it violates one or more important social values or virtues. By specifying precisely which human behaviors represent abnormal functioning, society essentially upholds those social values that it regards as sacrosanct.

In America, for example, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder appears to violate the Protestant work ethic. Dyslexia violates our belief that every child should read. A hundred and fifty years ago, in an agrarian society, only the privileged few were expected to be literate. But with the advent of universal education came a mandate that everybody learn to read, and those who had difficulty were seen as aberrant.

– 4 – Whether you are regarded as disabled or gifted depends largely upon when and where you live

No brain exists in a social vacuum. Each brain functions in a specific cultural setting and at a particular historical period that define its level of competence. Each civilization also defines its own forms of giftedness. In ancient cultures that depended upon religious rituals for social cohesion, it might have been the schizophrenics (who heard the voices of the gods) or the obsessive compulsives (who carried out the precise rituals) who were the gifted ones. Even in today’s world, being in the right place at the right time seems to be critical in terms of defining whether you will be regarded as gifted or disabled.

One of the things I noticed in my work as a special education teacher is that kids in special ed. classes tend to be weakest in those things the schools value the most (reading, writing and math, test-taking, rule-following), and strongest in those things the schools value least (art, music, nature, street smarts, physical skill). So they end up being regarded by society as attention deficit disordered or learning disabled: ultimately defined by what they can’t do rather than by what they can do.

 

– 5 – Success in life is based upon adapting one’s brain to the needs of the surrounding environment

Still, it’s true that people have to live in today’s complex and fast-paced world, which places demands on them to read, be sociable, think rationally, follow rules, pass tests, have pleasant dispositions and conform in other distinctly defined ways. Consequently, an important part of being successful in the world involves adapting to the environment we are given, not one that existed thousands of years ago or one that should exist today.