Doing anything special for Neurodiversity Day on April 15th?

Okay, so this might be the first you’ve heard of it. Being something new, it’s definitely not as well known as Tax Day. Want to know the story?

Some twenty years ago the word “neurodiversity” came into being, a gift from the autism community wanting to create a more inclusive, affirming alternative to the prevailing mindset of “disability.” In the neurodiverse framework, those whose brains are wired differently deserve to be seen as different rather than as defective.

Since that time, the concept has appealed to other groups whose labeling is similarly brain-based, such as those living with ADHD and dyslexia. It’s also been embraced by members of the educational community, most notably in Vermont at Landmark College, which just this year established a Center for Neurodiversity on its Putney campus.

It’s not a concept welcomed by all. Many education and health professionals resist it, preferring the accepted language of disability and deficiency. Disability-rights advocates are wary of its divisive potential. In each case, these are good people doing vital work; however, there are also compelling reasons to make room for the positive possibilities of neurodiversity.

The first reason might be that those sharing the neurotypical, aka “normal,” perspective are not always respectful that there are other perspectives on what is normal. A great many great minds have suffered from the imposition of this overly simplified way of looking at things, with results ranging from the incredibly courageous to the utterly tragic.

Secondly, there’s a huge potential cost to using a disability mindset where specific learning and attention issues are concerned. Consider our educational system: What happens, do you suppose, to the self-esteem of a child consistently given the message that she is disabled because she struggles to read? What happens to the sense of empowerment in a young boy when his need to move is perceived as a disruptive behavior problem? Do we in education prepare students for a bright future when we engage them in ways that consistently focus on their weaknesses, but not their strengths? Don’t they feel bad enough already, just knowing they’re not like many of their peers?

Students who learn differently are much more likely to experience bullying in school, much more likely to face social isolation, much more likely to drop out. And, in Vermont and elsewhere, they graduate from college at a rate of less than 5%—in spite of the fact that 54% of them aspire to a college degree.

Finally, there’s a civil-rights issue here. Just as diverse people of color had to fight—and fight on today—for their basic human rights, for dignity, for freedom from oppression, so must those who are neurologically diverse. Just as those with diverse gender identities had to speak out—and still must—for their right to be who they are, to love who they want, to be accepted, so must those whose brains function in ways that may differ from yours or mine. Whether it’s racial diversity, gender diversity, or neurological diversity, a familiar story seems to repeat itself: fear of those who are different influences decision-making, at least partly.

Studies indicate that prisons have a much higher percentage of individuals with learning challenges than the outside population. Research suggests that those with learning and attention issues seek professional help, including medication, for mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts, at a rate twice that of the neurotypical population. And what are the two most common reasons for health professionals to write opioid prescriptions, accounting for half of all opioid prescriptions written? Anxiety and depression. Just as surely as there is a school-to-prison pipeline, there is also one for mental anguish to addiction—and in both cases, the neurodiverse are likely to be present in substantial numbers.

This is the current reality. It impacts folks of all ages—and their families—and it is nothing new.

This Neurodiversity Day, perhaps we can work on our awareness that language choices, and mindset, do matter. A lot. Especially when guiding those who are among our most vulnerable, not merely because of their neurological make-up, but also because they are young.

I hope you’ll join me to celebrate the strengths of those who struggle because they think and learn differently. They are all around us—as many as 1 in every 5 people in Vermont and elsewhere. A mindful gesture of encouragement, a shared awareness that indeed we are all in this together, might make a world of difference. For them, and for all of us.

Brad Smith is executive director of Vermont Learning-Support Initiative, a Hardwick-based nonprofit offering strategic support, including advocacy and parent guidance, to diverse learners who aspire to a college degree. He taught writing at Johnson State for many years, and has a child with learning issues who is a recent college graduate.

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