The Concept of Neurodiversity: Embracing Differences in Human Brains
Understanding Neurodiversity: Embracing Differences in Human Brains
Despite existing for about 20 years now, the word "neurodiversity" is considered a neologism. It was actually coined in 1998 by Australian sociologist Judy Singer, who drew inspiration from the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity: the approved text in Rio de Janeiro defined "biodiversity" as "the variability among living organisms from all sources, including diversity within species and between ecosystems."
Based on this premise, Singer first applied this concept to the different forms that the human psyche can take in many aspects:
The term, although originally coined by Singer, was officially introduced to the general public for the first time by journalist and writer Harvey Bloom. He, a friend of the Australian sociologist, did not mention her but drew inspiration from their conversations about autism to write an article published on September 30, 1998, in The Atlantic.
The human brain is very complex, which is why the patterns it can follow are naturally very diverse.
The idea that the two friends shared was that human beings are necessarily and naturally different from each other, which is why the neurological paths they adopt are never perfectly overlapping. In this context, the idea of "diversity" aims to indicate that there is no right or wrong way of thinking and feeling, but that there are only different ways of perceiving and interacting with the surrounding reality. Consequently, all neurological paths have equal dignity and can be perfectly functional, even when they do not correspond to those adopted by the majority.
Neurodiversity and neuroatypicality
The concept of neurodiversity is therefore generic and encompasses human beings as a whole, without creating any differentiation based on specific characteristics. Despite human heterogeneity, however, it can be observed that a significant portion of the population - estimated to be between 80 and 85% - shares some fairly defined neurological patterns. Those who fall into this macrocategory follow a path of typical neurological development - in line with the characteristics shared with the majority of people.
The remaining portion of the population - those who do not fall into these patterns - is contrastingly defined as neuroatypical or neurodivergent. In other words, in more technical but equally understandable terms, the nervous system of a neuroatypical person follows, especially in certain brain areas, different paths from those commonly identifiable. Belonging to a minority, however, must not lead to the belief that these patterns are less valid or automatically disadvantageous.
Neurodiversity: an umbrella term
The definition of a neurodivergent person is extremely broad. Within the 15-20% of people who follow different neurological patterns, there are indeed extremely diverse cases (and therefore realities). Additionally, although the term was born with the idea of describing the autistic spectrum, over time it has evolved to encompass other types of diagnoses. Currently, neuroatypicality includes:
- Autistic individuals;
- Individuals with Specific Learning Disorders (DSA);
- Individuals with Tourette's syndrome;
- Individuals with ADHD or Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).
An error to avoid is to believe that all neuroatypical people can be described with fixed characteristics.This is very important not only in terms of neurological patterns but also - and probably most importantly - when it comes to the social, sensory, and communicative aspects.
Neurodiverse individuals may have sensory perceptions and/or communicative systems that are different from the typical majority. While the purely neurological aspects (including those related to learning) usually touch on the more private sphere of neurodiverse individuals, social, sensory, and communicative patterns directly influence interaction with others. This is why it is important to go beyond prejudices and preconceived labels that are often associated with neurodiverse individuals in order to embrace the specific patterns of each individual.
Going beyond psychiatry
One of the purposes for coining the term neurodiversity is to transcend the boundaries of psychiatry and begin to consider neurodiverse individuals as well-rounded individuals. Additionally, according to this new model, some aspects of the aforementioned disorders only become difficulties in relation to the surrounding environment and the need to adapt to a system tailored to the majority.
This idea makes it particularly clear why, at the beginning of its history, neurodiversity was not just a word; on the contrary, it immediately represented a real movement that fought for the recognition of the rights of "neurological minorities". In this context, as emphasized by Harvard University, the weight attributed to the use of words is particularly important because it helps to avoid easy generalizations.
Just like with other minorities, knowing the specific vocabulary of neurodiversity allows for respectful and attentive communication with others. Furthermore, it is important to remember that the linguistic systems we use are fundamental in shaping our perception of reality. This is how the words we use become tools for understanding neurological patterns that are different from our own, whether they are typical or atypical.
School and neurodiversity
Knowing what neurodiversity means and how to avoid falling into easy generalizations is certainly important, but what are the practical repercussions in the educational world? Teachers are among the first figures responsible for valuing the differences among students, seeking to enhance each individual's strengths and mitigate the difficulties arising from different starting points.
Customizing educational plans allows for a truly formative educational experience for neurodivergent students. Creating an inclusive environment is the first step in ensuring that all students can learn freely. In addition, understanding the specific patterns of neurodiverse students allows for the construction of a personalized educational path, in line with what is promoted by national pedagogical-educational guidelines. Traces of this modus operandi can be found, for example, in the 2010 Law 170, which provides for the creation of Personalized Educational Plans and the use of compensatory tools and dispensation measures.
A fundamental element in approaching neurodiverse students is to give them awareness of the specific means they can use, as well as the learning patterns that their minds follow - both in terms of comprehension and memorization. This way, they can embrace the typical aspects of their neurological functioning without perceiving them as deficits.
Article by Nina Komadina, content creator.