Understanding Neurodiversity: Embracing the Unique Characteristics of the Human Psyche
Although it has existed since the late 90s, the word neurodiversity is now increasingly gaining ground in public debate. It provides a new way of thinking about the richness of the human race, closely linked to the specific individual characteristics that each person carries with them. Neurodiversity therefore has direct repercussions in the social life we live every day - especially when we are or know neurodivergent individuals.
But what is the history of the term "neurodiversity"? And what exactly does neurodivergence mean? In this article we will see:
How a 20-year-old neologism is changing the way we think about the human psyche
Despite being around for about 20 years, the term "neurodiversity" is still considered a neologism. It was in fact coined in 1998 by Australian sociologist Judy Singer, who drew inspiration from the Convention on Biological Diversity of 1992: in the text approved in Rio de Janeiro, "biodiversity" was defined as "the variability among living organisms of all origins [...]; this includes diversity within species and between ecosystems".
Starting from this premise, Singer for the first time applied this concept to the different forms that the human psyche can take in many of its aspects:
Although originally conceived by Singer, the term was officially proposed 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 idea that the two friends shared was that human beings are necessarily and naturally diverse 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.
Embracing differences in the human brain
The concept of neurodiversity is therefore generic and includes 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 between 80 and 85% - shares some fairly defined neurological patterns. Those who fall into this macro-category follow a path of typical neurological development - in line with the characteristics shared with the majority of people.
The remaining portion of the population - i.e. those who do not fall into these patterns - is therefore defined by contrast as neuroatypical or neurodivergent. In other words, more technical but equally understandable, the nervous system of a neuroatypical person follows, especially in some cerebral areas, different paths from those commonly identifiable. Belonging to a minority, however, should not lead us to think that these patterns are less valid or automatically penalizing.
Beyond prejudices and labels
The definition of neurodivergent person is extremely broad. Within the 15-20% of people who follow different neurological patterns, in fact, there are cases (and therefore realities) that are extremely diverse. Additionally, although the term was originally coined to describe the autistic spectrum, over time it has evolved to include other types of diagnoses. Today, for example, neurodiversity encompasses:
- Autistic people;
- People with Specific Learning Disorders (DSA);
- People with Tourette's syndrome;
- People with ADHD or Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).
It is therefore a mistake to believe that all neurodivergent people can be described with fixed characteristics. This is very important not only with regard to neurological patterns, but also - and probably above all - when it comes to social, sensory and communicative aspects.
While the purely neurological aspects (including those related to learning) usually touch the more private sphere of neurodivergent people, social, sensory and communicative patterns have a more direct influence on interaction with other people. This is precisely why it is important to go beyond prejudices and preconceived labels that are often associated with neurodivergent people in order to embrace the specific patterns of each individual.
Understanding neurodiversity as a movement for recognition and rights
One of the purposes for which the term neurodiversity was coined is to go beyond the boundaries related to psychiatry and start considering neuroatypical individuals as 360-degree individuals. In addition, according to this new model, some aspects of the above-mentioned disorders become difficulties only 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 highlighted by Harvard University, the weight recognized to the use of words is particularly important because it helps to avoid easy generalizations.
Just like for other minorities, knowing the specific vocabulary of neurodiversity allows us to communicate with respect and attention towards others. Moreover, 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 real tools to understand neurological patterns different from our own, whether they are typical or atypical.
Practical strategies for teachers to value differences and personalize education plans
Knowing what is meant by neurodiversity and how not to fall into easy generalizations is certainly important, but what are the practical repercussions on the school world? Teachers are among the first figures required to value differences among students, trying to enhance each one's strengths and smooth out the difficulties caused by different starting situations.
Creating an inclusive environment is the first step in ensuring that all students can learn freely. In addition, knowing the specific patterns of neuroatypical 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 Law 170 of 2010, which provides for the creation of Personalized Educational Plans and the use of compensatory tools and dispensatory measures.
A fundamental element in approaching neuroatypical students is to try to give them awareness of the specific means they can use, as well as the learning patterns that their mind follows - both in the comprehension and memorization phases. In this way, they can embrace the typical aspects of their neurological functioning without experiencing them as deficits.
Article by Nina Komadina, content creator.