Neurodiversity Rewires Conventional Thinking About Brains

Wired Magazine | by Steve Silberman
April 16, 2013

Neurodiversity commentary
Illustration: Mark Weaver

In the late 1990s, a sociologist named Judy Singer—who is on the autism spectrum herself—invented a new word to describe conditions like autism, dyslexia, and ADHD: neurodiversity. In a radical stroke, she hoped to shift the focus of discourse about atypical ways of thinking and learning away from the usual litany of deficits, disorders, and impairments. Echoing positive terms like biodiversity and cultural diversity, her neologism called attention to the fact that many atypical forms of brain wiring also convey unusual skills and aptitudes.

Autistic people, for instance, have prodigious memories for facts, are often highly intelligent in ways that don’t register on verbal IQ tests, and are capable of focusing for long periods on tasks that take advantage of their natural gift for detecting flaws in visual patterns. By autistic standards, the “normal” human brain is easily distractible, is obsessively social, and suffers from a deficit of attention to detail. “I was interested in the liberatory, activist aspects of it,” Singer explained to journalist Andrew Solomon in 2008, “to do for neurologically different people what feminism and gay rights had done for their constituencies.”

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