Seeing the Best in Every Child: The Importance of Neurodiversity

Imagine that all of the people in the world have been magically transformed into flowers. Some of us are petunias.  Others are begonias.  Still others are tulips.  Now, let’s say for the sake of argument that the psychiatrists in this culture are the roses. I want you to imagine the rose psychiatrist beginning his work day and seeing a child who happens to be a sunflower.

The rose subjects the sunflower to a thorough examination (including measuring its height) and at the end of the exam offers his diagnosis:  “I’m sorry, but you have hugism.  It’s usually treatable if caught in time, but I’m afraid in your case we didn’t catch it early enough.”  The sunflower leaves the room with its head drooping.  The next child to see the doctor is a tiny bluet.  The psychiatrist spends some time examining the bluet, and eventually comes to this conclusion:  “My informed diagnosis, bluet, is that you have a growing disability.  We believe it’s genetic.  But with appropriate identification and treatment, you can learn to live a successful and productive life in a plot of sandy loam somewhere.”  The bluet leaves the office feeling even smaller than when it came in.  Finally, a calla lily enters the psychiatrist’s office.  The doctor doesn’t even need to do a formal assessment to make a diagnosis:  “You, my friend, have petal deficit disorder.  It’s a tricky syndrome, but there are medications out there that can help.  In fact, a herbicide representative left some free samples with me, in case you like to try some.”

This little imagination game may sound a bit silly.  But, in fact, psychiatrists are doing this all the time when they label children as having “autism,” “learning disabilities,” “attention deficit disorder,” and a wide range of other mental health labels.  We have become a culture of disabilities.  Back in the early 1960’s, with the publication of the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (AKA the psychiatrist’s Bible) there were about 100 mental disorders.  In the current edition, this number has tripled, and the version slated to come out in 2013 threatens to have even more disabilities, including “psychosis risk syndrome,” “temper dysfunctional disorder,” and “hoarding disorder.”  An article in the Archives of General Psychiatry reports that over the course of their lifetime, roughly one half of all adults in the United States will suffer some form of mental disorder.  One Harvard psychiatrist says that in addition to diagnosable psychiatric conditions, there are also “sub-clinical” disorders that he calls “shadow syndromes” that afflict even more Americans.  Ultimately, we’re getting to the point where virtually everyone will have some kind of psychiatric disorder.  At this point, it is no longer meaningful to talk about disorders.  Instead, we need to shift paradigms and speak, instead, of diversities – specifically of neurodiversity.

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Thomas Armstrong is the author of fourteen books, translated into twenty-five languages, including The Power of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain. He has presented to educational and parent organizations in 43 states and 18 countries over the past 25 years.

Thomas Armstrong’s eponymous website and blog can be found here.

Seeing the Best in Every Child: The Importance of Neurodiversity previously appeared at, and is excerpted here by permission.

[image via Flickr/Creative Commons]

on 12/1/11 in Autism, featured | No Comments | Read More

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