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What is Neurodiversity? And Sidenotes.

I am going to attempt to explain neurodiversity as a neurodivergent individual. For those who read this, please know this is explanation from my lived experiences and education. Everyone who is neurodivergent is incredibly diverse in their view, experiences, abilities, communication styles, needs and challenges. There are so many topics that need to be discussed to bring acceptance and inclusion of neurodivergences to our community. Today, I am going to try and start from the beginning. What is neurodiversity?

I am known to veer onto other topics I am passionate about, like making neurodiversity and sensory friendly workplaces. Who really enjoys and works well under harsh florescent lighting? I might veer to barriers, access, education, unhoused, under diagnosed persons of color and women, along with…it all. So, as I try and tap into my hyperfocus (though the hum of the laptop is really bothering me today), let’s start with definitions.

laptop open sitting in the dark

What I feel my laptop and I look like sitting in the dark house.

Definitions:

Neurodiversity encompasses neurological and cognitive differences that exist in human diversity, including neurotypical and neurodivergent individuals. It is a neutral term.

Neurodivergent refers to those who have a brain that diverges from the norm in ways that are either genetic, acquired, or innate. It is a neutral term.

Neurotypical refers to having a mind of functioning that falls within the society standards of what is deemed “typical” or “common”. It is a neutral term.

Two men, two women and a grandma sit in front of a sign that says Love Wins.Photo of my oldest (she isn't that old though, so longest) childhood friend, mom and brother with his partner. Combined, these people know too much about me. Diversity is everywhere. 

Culture, ethnicity, age, ability, political views, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, socio-economic status and more make humans diverse. Every unlike characteristic that appears in a group of people is an example of diversity. We are all different; that is what makes this world an amazing place. Even our brains are diverse. Everyone interacts and experiences the world differently based on our diversity. Neuroscience continues to learn more and more about the human brain as we begin to understand neurodiversity. The different ways in which people experience the world, behave, and learn are differences and not deficits. I cannot emphasize that enough! 

Man and boy sit and play a game on the floor
Tahj Malone and a neurodivergent boy sit and play a game on the floor of Sensory Tool House.
 

I now have music playing to drown out the hum of this laptop. Amazing how loud it is after the house is asleep. So, with the help of Van Halen, I am going to Jump right into neurodivergence.

Australian sociologist, Judy Singer, coined the term “neurodiversity” in the late 1990’s. Viewing neurological differences as neurodiversity has given a voice to those that have been marginalized and ignored due to their neurodivergence. Using the terms neurotypical or neurodivergent are nonjudgmental looks at our differences. By identifying our neurodiversity, we can begin to be more inclusive and accepting in all aspects of our lives. Learning that ADHD is not a deficit, but a neurodivergence allows people to look beyond the diagnosis and into the strengths of the individual. Diagnosis of ADHD is important for access to resources and tools but viewing it as a “deficit” is a deficit to society and the contributions one with a diagnosis can make with simple accommodations and acceptance.

Neurodivergence encompasses those who are autistic, have attention deficit disorders, Tourette’s, obsessive compulsive disorder, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, dyslexia, and dyspraxia. It can also encompass acquired neurodiversity and mental health. All these terms have been associated with deficits.

Inclusion of those who are neurodivergent does not bring deficits, but strengths. With simple accommodations and understanding, inclusion of neurodivergent persons brings resilience, hyperfocus, honesty, creativity, out of the box thinking, innovation, authenticity, sensory awareness, advanced verbal skills, visual thinking, energy, attention to detail, passion, empathy, concentration, and more. 

Father and two boys, one of which is neurodivergent, smiling togetherInclusion brings joy and success to all. 

As these characteristics are listed, they are what most employers, educators, and leaders want in someone on their team.  So why is it so difficult for those who have some of these qualities to obtain gainful employment? That is for another time. And another thought, likely for another time, why is ADHD and ADD an attention deficit when one can hyperfocus and give their full attention. For an example of what hyperfocus looks like, see entire article.

I want to be clear. Not everyone who has dyscalculia has every trait listed above, because diversity. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) looks very different from person to person. Abilities, strengths, communication, IQ, needs, social strengths, body coordination, and more do not look the same in everyone, because diversity. Communication can be difficult for those who are autistic. The term non-verbal is used to describe someone who does not use vocal communication in the “norm”. Non-verbal does not mean unable to communicate or does not have thoughts to share. Communication can be done in many ways. That too, is a topic for another time. Yet, an autistic person can also be very verbal. Again, diversity. One might be athletic, while another may enjoy more quiet atmospheres. This is all part of diversity for those that are neurodivergent and those who are neurotypical. Much of how we prefer our environment and succeed is based on our sensory systems and how we experience our environment.

Everyone has a sensory system. We might not identify as a neurodivergent individual; however, we all have our unique sensory experiences. In the office there are pen clickers and leg bouncers. Some may like silence to work, others prefer music. Food presents many sensory differences, for example some love oysters while others are turned away from the texture. I have a good friend who hates blueberries, and I am still friends with her despite her distaste for these beautiful summer candy treats nature gives us. Differences in our sensory systems is a human condition, not restricted to those who are neurodivergent.

Two women sitting at a table making funny faces
No apologies from my good friend regarding her sensory distaste for blueberries. I guess that means there is more for me!

 

Did you know we have eight known sensory systems? Where did those other three come from? My elementary school teachers only taught me about five. Yep, eight! Another one of my side rants. And, once again, great topic for another article.

Neurodiversity is what brings about so many incredible discoveries, inventions, and creative solutions. Yet we still have a society that thinks its “weird” when an adult needs to stim. “Odd” when their coworker wears the same type of shirt every day.

What is stim or stimming? Great question. We all stim, yet there is “norm” stimming and “divergent” stimming. Twirling hair and biting your nails are examples of stimming, those are often thought of as “norm”. Those who are neurodivergent may flap their arms, click their fingers, spin, or rock. One who bites nails may do so when they are nervous to help them focus and calm down. This is exactly why others stim in different ways, sensory and emotional regulation. Remember when I talked about pen clickers and leg bouncers? Yep, that is stimming. It is just considered “typical” and accepted.

Large group of adults from Thurston County Boys and Girls Club following a training about neurodiversity.Boys and Girls Club of Thurston County staff after a neurodiversity training with Sensory Tool House, LLC.

It starts young, neurodivergent persons masking to try and fit in. For example, a student is often viewed as “rude and disruptive” because every day they sit next to a specific student whose family uses Tide to wash their clothes. Nothing against Tide, it could be a Bounce dryer sheet or any brand of laundry products. The smell distracts them so much, the “rude and disruptive” student needs to move. Would you stay in the same seat all day if a scent was overpowering and distracting? I bet you would move. This child knows it’s not kind to say you don’t like the smell of another person. That student is trying to mask the overwhelming distraction to avoid being “rude” about the smell. In place they become fidgety, inattentive, and can’t stay seated. An educator would then need to redirect and could begin to view the student as disruptive. How do we identify these behaviors as neurodivergence or sensory integration to support educators and the students they serve?

Yikes! There I go again. I was about to move into sensory regulation in classrooms. Different article. Side rants. 

photo of a squirrel Squirrel! 

These divergent behaviors are examples of behaviors that overshadow the individual. When we start to label kids and adults as sensitive, rude, odd, disruptive, weird, wild, inattentive…barriers are created and access, accommodations and support become difficult to find. Barriers to access decrease educational and employment opportunities, thus leading to a high number of neurodivergent individuals unhoused. Employers will find their candidate pool opens with qualified workers once neurodivergence is understood and welcomed. Staying on topic and leaving homelessness and employment for another day.

My focus is starting to wane now. So, to circle back, we are all part of this incredibly beautiful, diverse world. Our brains are another branch of that diversity. Neurodivergence is so common, either you or someone very close to you is neurodivergent. It’s not weird, odd, rude, or strange. It’s statistics.

  • CDC reported 1 in 54 children in the US is autistic (2016). Those children become adults.
  • I know adults who are diagnosed as autistic. Does that mean the 1 in 54 number isn’t inaccurate?
  • Persons of color and girls are underdiagnosed due to cultural and societal biases.
    • “Girls should be quiet, just like her.”
    • “Girls don’t like (insert adjective) things.”
      • Suggestions for adjectives – slimy, sticky, dirty, creepy.
    • “Boys like him are aggressive because of the music they listen to.”
    • “These boys never pay attention.”
  • 1 million children (2016) were diagnosed with ADHD. These children become adults.
  • Add in mental health and the number of neurodivergent persons in our lives increases significantly.
    • According to the CDC the percentage of adults with anxiety or depressive order increased from 36.4% to 41.5% between August 2020 and February 2021. Thank you, pandemic…
    • The mental health of our children has also declined significantly. How does this impact their neurodivergence?
  • Add in the other neurodivergent diagnoses.

You or someone near you is likely to be neurodivergent. Thank goodness for that neurodiversity. My life would not be the same without it, and neither would yours. For most, it’s better because of it.

family of 6 smiling in a photo
My incredible, fun, smart, productive, creative neurodivergent family.

 

Thank you to Lauren Howard, my sidekick, voice of reason, sounding board, and the Director of Resources for Sensory Tool House, LLC for pointing out and reigning in my sidebar/soapbox/squirrel rants, in attempt to keep me on topic.

 

Written by, Katie McMurray, CEO and Founder of Sensory Tool House, LLC

 

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