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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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Here we can borrow another metaphor from biodiversity in recognizing that all the animals and plants living in today’s world evolved from ancestors that managed, often through the luck of a random gene mutation, to adapt to changing circumstances over millions of years. In today’s world, we do not have the time to wait around for a random mutation to occur. We have to do whatever we can to fit ourselves into the surrounding environment if we want to survive.

Many of the conventional approaches used to treat these disorders are essentially of this adaptive type. They help individuals with diagnostic labels fit in as much as possible with the “neurotypicals” among us. The best example of this adaptive approach is the use of psychoactive medications. Drugs such as Ritalin, Prozac and Zyprexa have been invaluable in helping people with ADHD, depression and schizophrenia function in the real world. Certain non-drug strategies, such as behavior modification, also represent a way to help neurodiverse individuals adapt to a conventional environment. What’s often missing from this picture, however, are strategies that seek to discover surroundings for neurodiverse individuals that are compatible with their unique brains.

– 6 –Success in life depends upon modifying your surrounding environment to fit the needs of your unique brain

While it is true that individuals have to adapt to the world around them, it is also true that the world is very large, and that within this complex culture of ours, there are many “sub-cultures,” or micro-habitats, that have different requirements for living. If individuals can discover their particular “niches” within this great web of life, they may be able to find success on their own terms.

The truth is that we are all constantly changing our surroundings to build such niches for ourselves. A beaver building a dam or a spider spinning a web is a perfect example of niche construction. So is a bird building a nest or a rabbit burrowing a hole. When animals migrate, they are simply seeking favorable niches within which to flourish.

Scientists are just beginning to appreciate that niche construction may be as important to evolution as natural selection. What this can mean for neurodiverse individuals is that instead of having to adapt to static, fixed and “normal” environments, it is possible for them (and their caregivers) to alter their environments to match the needs of their unique brains. In this way, they can be more of who they really are.

A good example of niche construction for human beings is already underway. According to research by Simon BaronCohen, a psychiatrist at Cambridge University in the U.K., individuals with autism spectrum disorder tend to be systematizers rather than empathizers. While it is abundantly evident that they have difficulty interacting with people and engaging in other interpersonal tasks (empathizing), it is less well known that they often work extremely well with non-human factors such as machines, computers, schedules, maps and other systems.

The computer industry favors people working alone at their own workstations using programming languages and other systems. Thus, migrating to Silicon Valley in California would appear to be a good career move for a person with a high-functioning type of autism spectrum disorder, and an excellent example of personal niche construction.

Interestingly, it turns out that there are, in fact, a greater percentage of people with autism spectrum disorders living in and around Silicon Valley than in the general population.

– 7 – Niche construction includes career and lifestyle choices and assistive technologies tailored to the needs of a neurodiverse individual