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Appropriate 21st Century Education: Neurodiversity: More than Just a Good Notion
Thomas Armstrong, PhD
Armstrong Turner Consulting
Two recent articles highlight the positive dimensions of mental
health conditions such as autism, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.
In the journal Nature, an article by Canadian neuroscientist Laurent
Mottron, emphasizes the advantages of autism (Mottron, 2011). Mottron
suggests that, in addition to the well-known savant abilities of a
small sub-section of autistic individuals, there are also assets in a
broader segment of that population, including their ability to process
large pieces of perceptual information. This results in among other
things, an often-superior performance on non-verbal, highly visual
assessments such as the Raven’s Progressive Matrices.
In New Scientist, science
writer Kate Ravilious reports how the genes for schizophrenia, bipolar
disorder, and other psychiatric conditions may have given our ancestors
an evolutionary advantage by providing unusual ways of thinking that
helped spark the development of culture (Ravilious, 2011).
These two articles hint at a theoretical concept—neurodiversity—that
has been emerging over the past decade, one that promises to
revolutionize the way we think about mental illness and developmental
disabilities. This new theory suggests that we should celebrate
differences in brains just as we honor differences in flowers
(biodiversity) and societies (cultural diversity). We don’t say that a
calla lily has “petal deficit disorder,” but value it for its own
intrinsic worth. Similarly, we don’t say of people from Holland that
they have “altitude deprivation syndrome,” but rather we appreciate the
country’s unique geographic features.
Neurodiversity similarly suggests that we honor differences in brains,
even when those brains initially appear to be defective. Interestingly,
the term neurodiversity did not originate within the scientific
community as a “top down” phenomenon, but rather came from the
disability community, and in particular, the autistic community. It
thus represents a “bottom up” grassroots movement (Solomon, 2008).
In a seminal article for the neurodiversity movement, “Don’t Mourn for
Us”, autism rights activist, Jim Sinclair, suggested that autism is not
a disease or a life sentence, but rather, something positive and worthy
of exploration and development (Sinclair, 1993). The actual use
of the word “neurodiversity” first occurred in a 1998 Atlantic Monthly
article in which journalist Harvey Blume wrote: “Neurodiversity may be
every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in
general” (Blume, 1998). Since that time, neurodiversity has been the
subject of, among others, bloggers (Seidel, 2004-2011), journalists
(Harmon, 2004), essayists (Antonetta, 2007), public policy experts
(Baker, 2010), educators in higher education (Pollock, 2009), and
special educators (Hendrickx, 2010).
Neurodiversity as a 21st Century Challenge
This new approach to human differences strikes at the heart of the
medical model, which has been the primary 20th Century discourse used
to talk about people with mental health labels. Instead of focusing
purely on defects and deficits, the field of neurodiversity proposes
that equal attention be given to the assets, advantages, and abilities
of individuals who are wired differently from those who are
“neuro-typical” (Armstrong, 2011).
While the rapid growth of knowledge about the human brain in the past
two decades has given us more information about the regions of the
brain that are damaged or diseased in individuals with psychiatric
conditions, this research also promises to reveal something about the
positive dimensions of those with mental and developmental
disabilities. Mottron (2011), for example, includes fMRI images
depicting the perceptual regions of the brain activating more among
autistics than non-autistics during a non-verbal intelligence test.
Similarly, research suggests that individuals with dyslexia utilize
more of their right hemisphere when reading than non-dyslexic readers
(Eide, 2011). In the field of genetics, a “novelty-seeking” gene has
been identified and associated with individuals diagnosed with ADHD
This new look at the positive side of what have traditionally been seen
as negative conditions does not mean that we should glorify what are in
many cases very challenging disorders. But it suggests that we should
complement what we already know about the difficulties and problems
associated with mental health diagnoses, with a look at the strengths
and capabilities of these individuals. Such a project is perfectly in
line with the new field of “positive psychology” championed by Martin
Seligman (2002), the “capability approach” of Amartya Sen and Martha
Nussbaum (1993), and the “strength-based approach” utilized
increasingly in the fields of social work, counseling, and
psychotherapy (Rudolph and Epstein, 2002).
The practical implications of neurodiversity are considerable,
in that a positive approach to mental health provides an opportunity
for researching the optimal conditions for growth that can promote the
well being of individuals with autism, dyslexia, ADHD, schizophrenia,
and other conditions. Since neurodiversity is basically an ecological
conception, I’ve used the evolutionary term “niche construction” (e.g.
a spider spinning a web, a beaver building a dam etc.) to designate the
process of building environmental supports to help negatively labeled
individuals lead full lives (including the use of key learning
strategies, assistive technologies, environmental modifications, and
One excellent example of niche construction can be found in Denmark at
a computer software firm called Specialisterne, which hires 75% of its
employees from individuals on the autistic spectrum (Austen, 2008).
These individuals are particularly adept at computer programming, enjoy
detailed work, get to work alone, and are being rewarded according to
their strengths rather than penalized or patronized because of their
Educators who wish to help individuals flourish who are beset with
mental health labels would do well to investigate this emerging field
of neurodiversity, and work to design programs and environments in
schools that will assist such students in reaching their fullest
potential. The use of iPads for children with autism, rubber ball
chairs for students with ADHD, speech to text software for students
with dyslexia, and self-monitoring devices for students with emotional
and behavioral disorders, are just a few of the many strategies that
can be used to build positive and nurturing environments for those
whose brains are “differently wired” (Armstrong, forthcoming).
Resources and Further Reading
Antonetta, S. (2007). A Mind Apart: Travels in a Neurodiverse World. New York: Tarcher.
Armstrong, T. (2011) The Power of Neurodiversity:
Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain, Cambridge,
MA: DeCapo, (published in hardcover as: Neurodiversity: Discovering the
Extraordinary Gifts of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia and Other Brain
Differences). Reviewed from Information Age Education Newsletter:
Armstrong, T. (forthcoming) Neurodiversity in
the Classroom: A Strength-Based Approach to Teaching Students with
Austin, R., Wareham, J., and Busquets, X. (2008)
Specialisterne: Sense and Details, HBS case study 9-608-109, Cambridge,
MA: Harvard Business School.
Baker, D.L. (2010). The Politics of Neurodiversity: Why Public Policy Matters, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
Solomon, A. (May 25, 2008)“The Autism Rights Movement,” New York Magazine.
Thomas Armstrong Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. is a keynote speaker and workshop leader
who has written 14 books that have been translated into 25 languages.
These include: The Power of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages
of Your Differently Wired Brain, The Human Odyssey, Multiple
Intelligences in the Classroom, 7 Kinds of Smart, The Myth of the
A.D.D. Child, and In Their Own Way. He can be reached at: email@example.com. His website www.thomasarmstrong.com contains additional articles on his work with neurodiversity and other issues related to learning and human development.
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