What is ‘neurodiversity’?
NATHAN WALLIS:The old-fashioned idea was that ‘normal’ people all have the same brain, and those whose brains were atypical (different) were considered neurodiverse. We’re now understanding more and more that everyone’s brain is unique – but we use neurodiversity as a catch-all term for autism, ADHD, mood disorders (such as depression and anxiety), and special needs. We’re also stepping away from the idea of ‘deficit’ and ‘disorder’… these brains are just different.
The term ‘neurodiverse’ covers the full spectrum, from people who are highly intelligent to those who have intellectual delays. Intelligence has to do with your temporal lobes, whereas emotional regulation (as experienced by those suffering with depression or anxiety) involves issues in your frontal cortex. That’s why you can have a super smart person who teaches at a university but has no social skills or emotional intelligence – because those things involve different parts of the brain. It depends on how the brain is wired, whether the individual’s experienced trauma, and all kinds of things.
What are some of the differences you might see in the brain scan of someone who’s neurodiverse?
NATHAN: We can usually see similar patterns in the brain scans of individuals with specific diagnoses. The person doing my brain scans for a documentary was able to see that I have ADHD (which I’ve always known about), for instance. But it’s not a sure-fire way to diagnose someone.
In terms of observable brain scan patterns, someone with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) would tend to have a larger emotional brain (amygdala). People are surprised by this, because there’s this stereotype that autistic people don’t have emotions. In truth, it’s a matter of self-preservation … autistic people are often so overwhelmed by their emotions that they just shut down. That’s very different from not having emotions in the first place.
In ADHD (hyperactive type), you’d tend to see reduced function in the frontal lobes, which affect executive functioning, but often enlarged temporal lobes (associated with higher intelligence). But in ADD (inattentive type), you’d often see reduced activity in both areas, because of their inattention (which is more accurately a matter of giving attention to a million things at once).
What are some of the challenges faced by neurodiverse people?
NATHAN: Emotional regulation is a big one … and we all have trouble regulating our emotions at times. But for most neurodiverse people, that job is much harder to do because the executive functions are reduced.
Then there are the unhelpful stereotypes that neurodiverse people deal with on a regular basis. Children with ADHD are often labelled as ‘lazy’, because they struggle to find motivation for tasks they find uninteresting or unrewarding. Distractibility also means they sometimes have trouble finishing projects; but it doesn’t mean they’re incapable, and it doesn’t mean they’re not trying.
Research shows that when people with ADHD are put in charge of their own programme, and they’re able to do things they choose to do, they’re often incredibly motivated and productive. Some of our best leaders, innovators, and inventors have ADHD. But trying to control them, and forcing them conform to the ‘norm’, can lead to neurodiverse people becoming quite defiant – which leads to mistaken beliefs about them being rebellious or oppositional.
Speaking subjectively (because I have ADHD), I personally only found it to be a problem at school, when everyone was trying to tell me who to be and what to do. As an adult – now that I’m allowed to decide for myself what career path I want to follow, when I want to work, and who I want to be – my ADHD is a superpower. It helps me to be successful and productive – because I can get about four times as much done as everybody else! But as a child in school, it was impossible …
Having other people try to impose expectations and control on me just led to misbehaviour, disruption, and defiance.
What are some of the benefits of neurodiversity?
NATHAN: Creativity is really the best advantage of neurodiversity. Any innovation, any invention that’s going to advance society, comes from a creative brain. The type of brain that does best at school is an accountant-type brain – very logical but not necessarily creative. Those types of brains can excel at STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) because they’re good at retaining and regurgitating information. But neurodiverse brains don’t tend to be stimulated by that sort of process – they tend to be more wired for creative, out-of-the-box thinking. Albert Einstein partly attributed his own genius to his playing the violin; he figured that other mathematicians looked at maths from a fixed perspective, whereas he approached the subject with an artist’s brain.
So, if you have ADHD, you’re probably not going to be a very good accountant – but you may well be a world-changer or a genius inventor, if you learn to harness your creativity. To me, the difference between ADHD being a disability or a superpower is self-control.
What is the value of medicating for neurodiversity?
NATHAN: I’m not pro- or anti-medication, but I am against the overuse of medication or the medication of someone who actually needs a different intervention. For people who are physiologically wired for ADHD (rather than having ADD attributes as a consequence of trauma), medication can be very beneficial.
It stands to reason that if someone’s in a constant state of stress or anxiety, they’ll tend to act impulsively – so medication can calm their amygdala and allow their frontal cortex to actually engage. That works, because practice becomes biology; by using their frontal cortex more in a calm and logical state, they’re developing and strengthening the neural pathways to make that happen more readily – at which point maybe they can ease off the medication. Some people are wired in such a way that they’ll have to stay on medication for the rest of their lives – and that’s OK, too. But there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer to the question of medication.
In general, today’s medications have come a long way from the ‘zombifying’ treatments of the past – we’ve become better at figuring out effective doses and not over-medicating – although we could still improve upon the titration process (where they work out the correct dose for a particular individual).
Are you aware of any alternate treatments or programmes that are beneficial?
NATHAN: Meditation and mindfulness are helpful – and yoga, even more so. If a neurodiverse individual’s challenges are extreme enough, they will need medication – but meditation can help further. Personally, I don’t medicate – I meditate. But that takes years of practice, and an adult brain. It’s a constant discipline, because you’ll always want to skip it.
But anything that teaches you to self-calm and slow down your internal motor is going to be useful. It could be Tai Chi, it could be mindfulness, it could be going to the gym … whatever it is that slows down your internal hamster-wheel.
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