Several weeks ago I stumbled upon an article called “Seeing the Best in Every Child: The Importance of Neurodiversity” and have been thinking about it ever since. In introducing the concept of neurodiversity, author Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D., asks us to imagine for a moment that people are flowers. A psychiatrist, who is a rose, examines a child who happens to be a sunflower. After careful testing and consideration, he determines that the sunflower is suffering from a case of hugism. “It’s usually treatable if caught in time, but I’m afraid in your case we didn’t catch it early enough.” The sunflower leaves the room with his head drooping. The next child to see the doctor is a tiny bluet. After some time the doctor determines that the bluet has a growing disability. He informs the child that it is a genetic disorder, but that with appropriate identification and treatment he can learn to live a successful life. The bluet leaves the office feeling even smaller than before.
This analogy may seem strange, but it makes the point very well: We love flowers, in part, because each one is so unique. We understand that diversity is inherent in the natural world, and we celebrate it. Can you imagine it any other way? Would you even want to? Aren’t we, as humans, part of the natural world? And if so, why is human development measured using such a narrow model of normalcy?
The number of categories of illnesses listed by the American Psychiatric Association has tripled in the past fifty years. As more and more people fall outside of the “norm” of what is considered to be typical neurological functioning, we are becoming what Armstrong refers to as a “culture of disabilities.” Armstrong proposes that it is time to change the way we look at neurological challenges and shift our paradigm to one of “neurodiversity.” This is a fairly new term, only about 10 years old, and has been defined many ways, one of which is: “the whole of human mental or psychological neurological structures or behaviors, seen as not necessarily problematic, but as alternate, acceptable forms of natural human difference.”
We are all wired differently, with different strengths, weaknessness, and abilities. As living organisms, we need environments that support our growth, that are inclusive; that take our abilities and needs into consideration in order to help us fully flourish. Yes, we all need to get along and live in this world together, but it seems to me that part of this is truly understanding and appreciating, not merely tolerating our differences. Each of us has as our own paticular challenges, as well as our own perspective to contribute to our community. In shifting our paradigm to one of neurodiversity, we enable ourselves to appreciate the unique contribution of each person to the whole rather than viewing people through the lens of disorders and labels such as “challenged,” “gifted,” and “special needs.”
The week after I read the article we began doing our observational drawings of flowers at school. I was moved by the beauty of each and every flower created by the children. Every drawing gives us a glimpse into the unique perspective of the child who created it. What I found most striking, was observing two children sitting side by side, examining the same flower and depicting it in dramatically different ways.
Each drawing shows us the flower as the child saw it on that particular day and gives us a peek into who he is at this time of his life. The children are unconcerned with the wild variations in their renderings of the flower. They strive to more accurately articulate their own particular vision of the flower, not to make it look more like one another’s. Why would we want to make them look alike? They are unaware of the notion that there might be one right way, one “best” way to do it. I believe that idea does not occur to us naturally…it has to be taught. Young children have a special connection to the natural world and its innate biodiversity. Because of this, they hold an understanding and appreciation for diversity that can inspire and inform those of us who may need reminding.
A few sunflowers, as seen through the eyes of the children:
Link to the full article:
Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. is the author of the book The Power of Neurodiversity, Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain.
His website is: http://www.thomasarmstrong.com/