Neurodiversity: Discovering the Extraordinary Gifts of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia and Other Brain Differences

July 29, 2010

Some marriages appear to be made in heaven. This book was one such for me, as the concept of neurodiversity is one I certainly espouse. The word is used, mostly in the US and Australia, to signal a political movement in which those who have arguably been sidelined by the disability debate - in other words, those who have cognitive differences - are demanding recognition and accommodation. In general, those who claim their human rights through the neurodiversity agenda are those on the autism spectrum, although the term is broad enough to include those with psychiatric conditions, learning difficulties such as dyslexia, intellectual impairment and mood disorders, which is the range explored here.

Thomas Armstrong understands neurodiversity well. This quietly spoken book is at its strongest when examining the ideology itself and outlining the arguments in its favour. It is sensible in examining how other cultures, past and present, have accepted forms of neurodiversity, and it is wise in its critique of the use of normative standardisations to identify objectives in education and society in general. Armstrong is also perceptive in his adoption of the evolutionary term "niche-construction" to explain how different environments can be preferred by different groups of living creatures, which in itself suggests the benefits of adapting environments to human needs rather than expecting individuals to adapt to inflexible environmental demands.

However, the book has its limitations. One is a matter of context, particularly for the British reader. There tend to be strong polarisations in attitudes in the US to neurodiversity, which will be far from the experience of most readers in this country.

For example, one school referred to by the author is highly revered worldwide for its genuine and inspiring inclusion policies. It is Patrick O'Hearn School, an exceptional elementary school in Massachusetts. But it is just 10 miles away from the Judge Rotenberg Center, a privately run school with a high proportion of students on the autism spectrum, and children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. Students in the latter school, which is run on exaggeratedly punitive behaviourist principles, are disciplined by electric shocks to their skin delivered by teachers through a device that the children wear at all times. It may be difficult for the British reader to assimilate these educational and social paradoxes, or to understand Armstrong's need to write a book that so strongly supports the fairly common-sense view that all people, whatever their cognitive profile, should be treated with respect.

This imperative that drives the book is laudable, but it is slightly counterproductive. It creates a drive to adhere to a "strengths" agenda, to counterbalance what may be understood, and often is understood in the US, as a deficit - or, as one parent of a child on the autism spectrum described her child, "a toxic train wreck". I like balance, and I believe that the strengths of those who are somehow cognitively different are consistently and disgracefully ignored, to the serious detriment of society in general. Do I want to marry a strong man? Well, yes, I'm into strength, but I also need to determine where his vulnerabilities may lie. That's human. Armstrong argues so quietly but so relentlessly for the strengths of the neurodiverse that we may begin to think there is no room for us.

"Tell us where any difficulties may be!" I shouted at the book, so loudly that the man upstairs came down to ask me if I was OK. He wanted to help. Helping is a natural human instinct. We need to find room for it, so as to find room for ourselves and accommodation for our own inadequacies. Armstrong does a wonderful job in celebrating neurodiverse figures such as Daniel Tammet, Temple Grandin, Vincent Van Gogh and James Joyce, but inspirational models can become slightly overwhelming if it is all too glittery.

Another problem with the book is that the tone never alters. It is well written, but bland; it lacks visceral passion. The range of literature to which it refers is impressive, but Armstrong's frequent recourse to quoting other authors is distancing.

There are few acceptable ways of writing about what is perceived as disability. One is to write poignantly about your personal experience of your own pointed shard of glass. Another is to give respectful space to the often-competing voices of the neurodiverse, allowing their human heterogeneity to speak for itself. It is a pity that Armstrong, despite his stab at explaining his own recurrent bouts of depression, failed in the poignancy test because he did not show us the shard, and failed in the voice test because he listened to the words of the famous, rather than those trying to negotiate the construction of their niche.

Alas, our apparently perfect marriage was over before the end of the honeymoon.

Neurodiversity: Discovering the Extraordinary Gifts of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia and Other Brain Differences

By Thomas Armstrong, PhD. Da Capo, 288pp, £15.99. ISBN 9780738213545. Published 20 May 2010

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