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Neurodiversity: The many states of mental health

April 10, 2024

 

For most of human history, neurological disorders have been misunderstood, mistreated or simply ignored. In fact, it wasn’t until 1998 that Australian sociologist Judy Singer first coined the term neurodiversity. 

The concept suggests that no two minds are exactly alike and that our behaviour doesn’t fit into a ‘box’ but forms part of a spectrum of behaviours. Along that spectrum, people may show aspects of one neurological symptom or another, but essentially, it’s hard to box people into one condition or another. Some show more severe signs of a psychological disorder, while with others, the typical textbook conditions may be less pronounced. 

 

How neurodiversity helps us.

The concept of neurodiversity opens up a lot of potential for the way we think about different brains. How we think, move, process information and communicate differs widely, with approximately 15-20% of the population opting in as neurologically diverse. Different labels help us distinguish prominent traits but are by no means the defining characteristics of individual personalities. How you experience the world as someone with ADHD may be very different to someone else’s experience who has the same condition.

So this week, in honour of Neurodiversity Celebration Week, we’re looking at three different neurological conditions and what they mean.

 

ADHD 

ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) was first described in 1902 but was not formally recognised until the 1960s. It was first described as ‘an abnormal defect of moral control in children’ and was prescribed Benzedrine in 1936 before Ritalin was introduced in 1955, a drug that is still commonly used today.

However, it’s still not clear what exactly plays a determining role in ADHD, although evidence points to a genetic link. What is known is that it typically occurs in young children and can last into adulthood, resulting in long-term difficulties with concentration. 

ADHD can also be divided into two categories. Those with hyperactivity usually get assigned the ‘H’, while those with inattention or reduced ability to concentrate only may be better described as having ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). 

ADHD is not curable, but it is treatable. It also depends on the degree to which ADHD is present. Many young children (including the author of this piece) have been labelled as ADHD and prescribed Ritalin, only to find themselves ‘growing out’ of their condition during or after puberty. So, the degree to which ADHD is genetic or environmental is still a topic for debate. 

What is clear is that those with ADHD can be divergent, creative thinkers with an abundance of energy and adaptability, picking up new hobbies and interests as they develop.

 

Autism

Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) describes a condition which impacts an individual’s ability to communicate and interact with others, as well as recognise emotional behaviour.  Those with autism may engage in repetitive behaviours, interests or activities. However, autism also has a wide sliding scale of behavioural patterns, from mild to extreme, with only the most severe cases requiring constant observation. 

Although many individuals may have difficulty recognising facial expressions and behaviours and understanding their own emotions, autistic thinkers can be very successful in other areas. In particular, autism has been linked with higher intelligence and cognitive or problem-solving abilities. Those with autism may recognise certain patterns missed by other thinkers or display considerable memory storage capabilities. 

However, it’s important to acknowledge that the portrayal of autism in the media is often one-sided and typically characterises those with the condition as being ‘isolated geniuses’, often in scientific or mathematical fields. In fact, these fields are no more representative of autism than any other. Autism refers to a wide spectrum of thinkers in all fields, and those with the condition may experience intense interest in many different subjects. 

 

Dyslexia

Dyslexia is a condition where individuals have trouble recognising word patterns in speech and writing, and it affects around 1 in 10 people, on average. Once, it was commonly thought that dyslexic thinkers tended to see words in reverse, but in truth, the condition affects the ability to distinguish and order common letter and sound groups.

Typically, as we grow up, we learn to associate certain sounds and symbols with objects, people and ideas. In essence, we learn language rules on a subconscious level, even if we can’t vocalise what we learn. These word groups will just sound ‘right’. This learning ability helps us to formulate new words and sometimes rules that come into our language as it evolves.

Dyslexic thinkers struggle to do this, as sounds or word combinations don’t often hold together or make instinctive sense. This can lead to a disconnect between abstract symbols (word/letter or word/sound) and their physical properties.

For example, the picture below is of a cat. ‘Cat’ is the symbol that, in the English language, stands in for the object in the picture. It’s a symbolic representation, composed of other symbols, which together convey a meaning  — in this instance, cat.

Dyslexic thinkers process information in more abstract, non-linear ways. While most thinkers naturally express themselves in these symbolic groups, dyslexic thinkers may get different sense impressions about the cat, thinking in a nonverbal/symbolic way. This can lead to differing creativity and often quicker, subconscious thinking, even if they have trouble expressing their ideas.

Dyslexia is in no way indicative of intelligence. Dyslexic thinkers can be great at problem-solving and often excel at creative expression, maths or other forms of thinking.

 

Celebrating neurodiversity

Neurodiverse thinkers face many challenges. They may experience trouble processing their own and other people’s emotional behaviour or simply understanding the problem in the standard, linear way we’re normally taught. Because of this, many struggle with schooling, social situations and careers that typically reward thinking in a certain prescribed fashion. 

But without different ways of thinking, many solutions wouldn’t be apparent. Neurodiverse individuals can excel in numerous fields, and, in most cases, intellectual capabilities aren’t impacted or lead to different adaptive abilities. 

Neurodiversity also describes a scale. No one individual is the same, and so the labels we use to describe conditions help describe common traits, but not all the people who fall under them.

Having greater patience and learning how to communicate with neurodiverse individuals is essential to unlocking new ways of thought or expanding our ability to succeed as a society, by allowing different individuals to flourish. 

 

Sources:

  • “A Parent’s Guide to Neurodiversity” on Children’s Hospital Colorado. Date Accessed: 18th March, 2024. Site Link: https://tinyurl.com/mv6rpjer
  • “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)” on Lexxic. Date Accessed: 18th March, 2024. Site Link: https://lexxic.com/resources/adhd
  • “Autism Spectrum Condition (ASD)” on Lexxic. Date Accessed: 18th March, 2024. Site Link: https://tinyurl.com/mr25n4ap.  
  • A. White, Marney. PhD, Holland, Kimberly. “The History of ADHD: A Timeline” on healthline. Last Updated: 28th October, 2021. Site Link: https://tinyurl.com/54pw2d34
  • Crystal, David. How Language Works. Penguin Books: Victoria. 2005. 
  • “Dyslexia” on Lexxic. Date Accessed: 18th March, 2024. Site Link: https://lexxic.com/resources/dyslexia
  • Laurie, Margaret. “The Autism Spectrum: Are scientists at the top end?” on TheGist. Date Published: 4th November, 2014. Site Link: https://tinyurl.com/7shma96f
  • Miller, Caroline, Martin, Cynthia, PsyD, Lee, Stephanie A., PsyD. “What Is Neurodiversity?” on Child Mind Institute. Date Accessed: 18th March, 2024. Site Link: https://tinyurl.com/yc5r79cx
  • Neurodiversity Celebration Week. Date Accessed: 18th March, 2024. Site Link: https://www.neurodiversityweek.com/
  • Pinker, Stephen. The Language Instinct. HarperCollins Publishers: New York. 2007.
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