Accommodating Neurodiversity: A Mental Health Guide for the Neurodivergent
During a conversation about Neurodiversity with Suraiya Khanom, founder and principal of School of Joy, a school for children with Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) based in Sylhet, Bangladesh, she shared her views,
“Recognising neurodiversity is important because it not only refutes the notion that people with autistic/ADHD characteristics are ‘sick,’ but it also emphasises that neurodivergent individuals are simply different and require empathy just like any ‘neurotypical’ individual.”
A guardian of one of the students conveyed that their ward struggled to concentrate on anything and “made a fuss” when forced to focus, yet they showed an unusually high interest in drawing and painting and anything colourful. That is not to say that the children were all skilled in drawing, as not all neurodivergent people experience the same issues. While Abdullah, 9, struggled with being social and interacting with others, Fariha, 8, on the other hand, was a social butterfly.
Just like fingerprints, no two brains — not even those of identical twins — are exactly the same. As a result, there is no definition of “normal” capabilities of the human brain. Thus the term “Neurodiversity” was coined for when someone’s brain processes, learns, and/or behaves differently from what is considered “typical.”
What is Neurodivergence?
Neurodivergence, or ND, is an umbrella term that describes differences in the human brain and cognition, such as sociability, learning, attention, mood, and other mental functions, as compared to that of the “neurotypical.” The concept basically calls into question the generally held belief that certain neurodevelopmental abnormalities are inherently pathological.
For a very long time, we have been considering neurodevelopmental disorders as inherent disabilities. It is high time we change our social perception of such misconceptions. Just like people having different skin colour, sex, gender, sexuality, etc., does not make them any less of a person; neurodivergent people have some other patterns and filters of how their brains process information.
We need to understand traits of neurodivergence are often not illnesses themselves but might lead to illnesses, anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia.
Neurodiversity vs Neurodivergence vs Neurotypical
Before exploring these conditions, we need a little linguistic explanation of these terms because just a simple grammatical misuse can result in a well-meant statement coming out as alienating, condescending, and hurtful.
Neurotypical is a person who is considered by the society to be able to function or perceive the world “normally” or “typically.” Diversity is the quality of a group with variety in its members. Hence neurodiversity indicates the inclusivity of people with different neurodevelopmental conditions including the neurodivergent and neurotypical, whereas neurodivergence refers to a specific condition of an individual which can be considered neuro-atypical. This is why when someone says that “The kid/person is neurodiverse,” even though it may sound like the politically correct term, it can result in further alienating them.
Common Neurodivergent Signs and Symptoms
- Struggling with reading and writing
- Finding it hard to cope with crowds, bright lights, loud, sudden noises, or social situations
- Difficulty with focusing or keeping still
- No smiling or social responsiveness.
If you answered yes to any of the above, you might be neurodivergent and should look into it further with professional guidance.
Common Neurodivergent Phenomena
The autism spectrum refers to a range of neurodevelopmental conditions characterised by severe social impairments, communication challenges, and rigid and repetitive behaviour.
While psychiatry traditionally classifies autism as a neurodevelopmental disorder, certain advocates see autism as part of neurodiversity, the natural diversity in human thinking and experience.
Why is Neurodiversity in Autism So Important?
People with ASC can face various forms of issues like most neurodivergent individuals do. ASC is estimated to affect 1 in every 160 children worldwide (Autism Research, 2012). Autism Spectrum Condition affects about 1% of the global population (CDC, 2014), though statistics vary across studies as the definition and diagnostic criteria of ASC have evolved significantly over time. It is crucial to be aware before implementing any special resources for the “differently abled.”
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder. It is characterised by excessive amounts of inattention, carelessness, hyperactivity (which can turn into inner restlessness in adulthood), and impulsivity that are pervasive, disruptive, and otherwise out of character for one’s age.
Prior to the 1980s, the medical term for ADHD was attention deficit disorder (ADD).
One more section of neurodivergence that often shows up in childhood, but our society tends to disregard —sometimes even stay in denial, is learning difficulties. To name some of them:
- dyslexia (difficulty in reading, writing or spelling words),
- dyspraxia (difficulty in motor coordination)
- dysgraphia (deficiency in handwriting),
- dyscalculia ( difficulty learning or comprehending arithmetic)
Symptoms of these kinds of conditions can show themselves in various degrees, and often, most of them are fairly treatable with a range of therapy and a little bit of compassion.
Other instances of neurodivergence can include Tourette’s syndrome, Down syndrome, epilepsy, etc., and in rarer cases, chronic mental health illnesses such as bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder, anxiety, and depression might also result in long-term neurodivergent traits and vice versa.
Neurodivergent is a nonmedical term for people whose brains develop or function differently for unknown reasons. This means that the person’s strengths and struggles differ from those of people whose brains develop or function more typically. While some neurodivergent people have medical conditions, it also happens to those who do not have a medical condition or diagnosis.
Criticism and Controversy
The neurodiversity paradigm primarily stands to challenge contemporary views of certain neurodevelopmental variations being inherently pathological and fight the societal barriers that come with such ways of thinking. Still, the narrative is sometimes criticised in that it risks downplaying the suffering associated with some disabilities and calls for the acceptance of things some would wish to see treated.
While such arguments do contain merit regarding cases of clear impairment, neurodiversity proponents argue the disabilities and strengths conferred by neurological differences may be mutually inseparable, just like we often see people with autism sometimes exceedingly excel in a very specific field or a range of tasks. Neurodiversity advocate John Elder Robison argues,
“When 99 neurologically identical people fail to solve a problem, it’s often the 1% fellow who’s different who holds the key. Yet that person may be disabled or disadvantaged most or all of the time. To neurodiversity proponents, people are disabled because they are at the edges of the bell curve, not because they are sick or broken.”
— “What Is Neurodiversity?” Psychology Today, September 17, 2020.
Hence, pathologising some people’s basic ways of life and how they operate seems quite comparable to alienating people for their skin colour or sexuality.
Neurodiversity and Mental Health
Neurodivergent people are not sick, nor do they have a syndrome; they simply have a difference. Someone who is neurodivergent does not necessarily have a mental health condition. However, this distinction can make people more vulnerable to mental illness, which can be caused or amplified by unsuitable environments.
The National Autistic Society explains that “mental illness can be more common for people on the autism spectrum than in the general population.” Those with neurological differences frequently suffer from mental health difficulties such as depression and stress, and they are frequently victims of bullying.
Why is Neurodiversity Important?
Neurodiversity provides numerous advantages to neurodivergent individuals. It not only promotes greater equality, but it also opposes viewing the neurodivergent as “different” from the neurotypical. Embracing neurodiversity can lead to positive outcomes in society, such as:
- It accepts people for who they are and does not make them feel inadequate.
- It deviates from the ‘suffering’ perspective that is unfortunately linked with people with disorders. Instead, it celebrates their uniqueness and encourages them to live fully.
- The disability employment gap will be decreased as organisations will encourage more neurodivergent people to apply.
- It can aid in the creation of more equal and representative schools and workplaces.
- It encourages a more balanced perspective on neurodivergent people.
- It raises people’s awareness of the language they use while discussing neurodivergence and helps remove stigma regarding it, such as the Autism Spectrum.
How to Create a Neurodiverse Environment
Destigmatising Their Needs
Some neurodivergent people find it difficult to open up, especially in a setting like Bangladesh where the concept is relatively new and still not welcomed readily. When everyone is treated equally, it is much easier for them to discuss their differences and needs and, as a result, it is much easier to support them.
Using Correct Terminology
The terminology that we use to discuss neurodivergent is integral to both the neurodiversity and the autism rights movements. This is due to the fact that how we speak about it is inherently linked to how we think about it.
Educating Ourselves and Caregivers
It is important for people in Bangladesh to be educated in this particular subject, as findings have shown that about 300,000 children are neurodivergent in Bangladesh, and in the Southeast Asia region, it is estimated that every 1 in 160 children has ASC. Thus, learning about the nuances of Neurodiversity will open up more opportunities in the country and create a positive environment.
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