Home Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy Embracing Neurodiversity: How Understanding and Integrating Diverse Minds Benefits Society

Embracing Neurodiversity: How Understanding and Integrating Diverse Minds Benefits Society

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What is neurodiversity? What causes it? Of the people who have made the best ever contributions to human life, a vast number have been neurodiverse. You probably know several people who are neurodiverse, but are unaware that they are. How can we all be better off by integrating the talents of neurodiverse people into our lives and wider society? How can neurotypical people, with no expertise, in neurodiversity, better understand and form mutually beneficial and meaningful connections with the 1 in 7 people who are wonderfully different?

With 1 in 7 people being neurodiverse, it seems odd that it took us until the late 1990s to accept a term that describes so many people. Neurodiversity is a term used to indicate the various different ways in which the human brain can function. It attempts to take a positive perspective on what was previously seen only as a problem. 

Neurodiversity celebrates the richness of cognitive styles, the variety of sensory processing modes, and alternative information processing approaches; all of which are different from, and best initially identified as being outside of the neurotypical norm. 

What exactly is neurodiversity, and why does it matter?

No two human brains work in the same way. Every one is a vast and complex ecosystem, where each individual variation is a unique expression of life. 

Neurodiversity can emerge in many different ways. There seem to be at least six categories of origin:

  1. Genetic neurodiversity. Caused genetically.
  2. Congenital neurodiversity. Caused by processes during gestation (pregnancy).
  3. Circumstantial neurodiversity. Variations in thinking patterns caused by the circumstances a person is in.
  4. Temporary neurodiversity. Overlaps with the above. Temporary variations in thinking patterns are caused by a wide range of factors, for instance, anger, alcohol, or drugs.
  5. Experiential neurodiversity. Variations in thinking patterns based on the experiences of a person, including those that are developed as a part of a skill or other ability.
  6. Trauma-acquired neurodiversity. Variations in thinking based on trauma, (physical, sexual, emotional, moral, intellectual, or social). It could be that what appear to be mental illnesses, are actually trauma-acquired forms of neurodiversity.

Here is a list of just some of the origins of neurodiversity: ADHD, ADD, autism, dyslexia, dyscalculia, depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress injury, obsessive compulsive disorder, phobias, auditory processing disorder, schizophrenia, dyspraxia, dysgraphia, Tourette syndrome, synaesthesia, bipolar disorder, epilepsy, hyperlexia, Einstein syndrome – there are many more.

Each origin of neurodiversity brings its own set of challenges and strengths, and shapes how individuals perceive, process, interact with, and experience the world.

Many of the greatest advances in human history have come from neurodiverse thinkers. 

  • Leonardo da Vinci, who is renowned for his artistic genius and pioneering inventions, exhibited characteristics associated with dyslexia and ADHD.
  • Mary Temple Grandin, who pioneered humane animal handling practices, the author of 14 books, is autistic and known for her unique sensory processing and visual thinking.
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed musical masterpieces at a young age, possibly had Tourette’s syndrome and displayed exceptional auditory sensitivities.
  • Charles Darwin revolutionised our understanding of the origin of human life (via his discovery of evolution), exhibited traits associated with Asperger’s syndrome and dyslexia.
  • Two of the most innovative thinkers in history, Michelangelo and Nikola Tesla, whose thinking you have benefited from all your life, were both blessed with neurodivergence. 

While we can categorise the origins of some neurodiversity, we are a long way from understanding the causes. Some genetic conditions lead to neurodiversity, others seem more environmentally based. Some have elements of both. Still others seem to be trained by themselves or others. Some seem to have elements of all possible causes.

While seeking to understand the causes of neurodiversity is interesting and, in some cases, medically useful, it is much more beneficial, in the here and now, to understand the vast potential that awaits, unharnessed. 

Yes, we need some people working on the “why” of neurodiversity. We need much more thinking about “how” a wider society can benefit. 

How can we, as a society, tap into this vast, untapped potential?

Understanding is the first step. Neurodiversity awareness education should be embedded in schools, workplaces, and communities. There is much to be learned about, and from, the ways in which neurodiverse people see and process the world.

Can you imagine the advances that we could all benefit from now, if there had been huge numbers of people in each field who could think using the same approaches as Einstein, Tesla, Darwin, etc.?

What huge value could one in seven neurodiverse people add to society if they weren’t subjected to prejudice and stereotyping? 

We already have some indication: the type of people who could sit in a room for weeks, or months on end, and write computer code that billions of people benefit from, only a few decades ago, would have been social misfits. Now they are leaders of the biggest companies in the world 

Right now, there are people being subjected to social ostracisation who could massively improve your life, if only their talents were understood and harnessed.

Harnessing neurodiversity in the face of widespread social prejudice is quite a challenge.

I can recall a group that I chaired. There was a person whom everyone considered awkward, and obstructive. This person was being badly misread by the group. 

The person’s neurodiversity strength was to be able to see the difficulties, problems, and obstacles in everything. With any proposal that was put forward, this person could instantly see its challenges. 

Others in the group dreaded their pet idea being instantly exposed as flawed by this person.

That was not the view I took. Every board needs someone who can see the risks, the pitfalls, the possible causes of, or routes to, failure, and the fatal barriers contained in any proposal.

I spoke to and sought to understand the person, then asked them to provide their analyses only after the ideas had been explored for their potential by the rest of the group. The person agreed. 

In the meetings, after the ideas had been more fully developed, I would then turn to the person and ask them to alert us to the things that could go wrong.

The rest of the group were then invited to mitigate the clearly expressed risks, manage the barriers, and overcome the obstacles. Their input made it much more likely that the best ideas were turned into successful results, and those that were destined for failure were identified before they did damage.

The person concerned, gradually, went from being perceived as someone resentful with disruptive weaknesses and “issues,” to being a highly valued member of the team with essential strengths. Why? Because their neurodiversity was harnessed.

Almost every neurodiverse person can make a contribution to society, if those around them identify and harness their strengths.

A weakness in one context can be a decisive strength in another. Finding the context in which a neurodiverse person can best contribute is wise, for everyone.

Each time we help a neurodiverse person harness their strengths, we take another step towards dismantling harmful, and self-destructive stereotypes. 

How can we harness the hidden magic of neurodiversity? By building rapport, by engaging in open communication, by empathising, by seeking understanding, and by reinterpreting the problem of difference as a potential solution.

Once there is rapport, inclusion is more likely. Creating truly inclusive environments requires more than just installing ramps and designated parking spaces, for those whose diversity is physical or visible.

It means adapting learning styles and communication methods and, for example, being aware of the sensory overload that can impact neurodiverse people.

It means going beyond box-ticking, making reasonable adjustments, and actively enabling the harnessing of unique talents.

Collaboration is where the magic happens. When neurotypical and neurodiverse minds come together, a beautiful synergy emerges. 

By valuing different perspectives, approaches, and strengths, we can innovate, problem-solve, and create improvements in all areas of life.

For neurotypical individuals, forging connections with the neurodiverse community can be enriching and transformative. 

Here are some suggestions.

  • Start with self-awareness. Reflect on your own biases and assumptions about neurodiversity.
  • Listen actively and openly. Engage in conversations without expressing negative judgment, seek to understand rather than “fix” the neurodiverse “problem.”
  • Ask. What can this person see or do that can be beneficial?
  • Celebrate individual differences. Recognise and appreciate the unique strengths and perspectives each person brings.
  • Seek out resources and support groups. Learn more about specific conditions and connect with diverse communities.

Integrating neurodiversity into society isn’t about political correctness; it’s about shared self-interest.

Through understanding, inclusion, and collaboration, we can create a world where every individual, regardless of their neurology, can thrive and contribute to a richer, more vibrant future, for all.

If you see neurodiversity as a limitation, you limit everybody, including yourself.

If you choose to see neurodiversity as an untapped resource, and act on that perception, you enrich everybody.

Since one in seven of the population is neurodiverse, you almost certainly have someone close to you who is in that category. By helping them to harness their talents, you help yourself.

What will you do today to begin your journey to harness the hidden strengths of the people who surround you? 

Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.


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