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"Differences, Not Disorders"

Answering the question “what do people need?” has been central to my work for many years. It was the question that resulted in a re-framing of human needs into The Matrix of Needs ™, and continues to be a question I think about often. In 2021 I read an article by Maurice van Gerven entitled “Computational Foundations of Natural Intelligence” focusing on what natural intelligence was so he and other roboticists (an aside: I have been fascinated by artificial intelligence ever since I read the robot series of novels and short stories by Isaac Asimov, and it is beyond cool that I can now use the word “roboticist” in my writings!!) as they work to develop artificial intelligence (AI).

What van Gerven and others are doing is to study how human beings developed this thing called “intelligence” as they work to develop AI. In the article van Gerven wrote, he said that intelligence had to overcome the challenges of a world filled with unpredictability which came from three areas he identified:

1. Partial observability – this is the idea that we only perceive part of what we observe. In trials, eye witness accounts are considered the least reliable form of evidence for that very reason.

2. Noise – this is anything that overwhelms our ability to use our senses to perceive, such as too much light, sound, smell, etc.

3. Randomness – it seems that things happen in our environments that do not follow expected patterns of behaviour.

As I read this, I thought about the people I know who are autistic, and how they have learned to build predictability by finding ways to compensate for these three challenges. Looking at these three areas one at time, it struck me that the behaviours we associate with autism can actually be seen as ways to develop intelligence.

Partial Observability – One of my colleagues talks about being able to focus for hours on a single thing which is often a detriment in and of itself. But it has also helped her in her work to observe behaviour so intensely that she sees what others miss. Dawn Prince-Hughes writes in her book “Songs of the Gorilla Nation” that her autism empowered her to observe gorilla behaviour in ways non-autistic, or neurotypical people, could not.

Noise – When I fly, I have a set of noise-cancelling headphones that do a great job of screening out the noise on the plane. I spend about 20 hours on airplanes when I fly to Australia, without these headphones I would be a mess when I get off the plane. Another autistic colleague of mine says she stims in order to be able to focus, as stimming screens out sensory inputs for her and centers her brain and body. Carly Fleischmann, a YouTuber who is autistic, talks about how she hums in order to screen out other sensory inputs from around her.

Randomness – All of my colleagues who are autistic have different ways of bring order to their worlds. Neurotypicals call these behaviours RRB’s – restricted repetitive behaviours. What they do, though, is to bring order into our random world, and this empowers neurodivergent people to feel safer, more comfortable, in a random world.

The more I think about this, the more I realize that the behaviours diagnosed as falling within the autism spectrum are actually efforts to bring unpredictability to an unpredictable world. Autism, then, is not a developmental disorder, but rather a developmental ordering of sensory inputs and life experiences that are random, noisy and have hidden components.

Rather than Autism Spectrum Disorder, we need to be talking about Autism Spectrum Differences. ASD is such a common term in educational and human service systems that we have to use the initials. But neurodivergence is not a disorder – rather, it is a different ordering of sensory inputs that build a natural intelligence which has huge benefits

.In 2017, Gary Pisano wrote an article published in Harvard Business Review titled “Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage.” More and more companies, especially those focusing on technology such as Microsoft, SAP, Alphabet and others have neurodivergent hiring initiatives. The term neurodivergent is broader than ASD, though all of the labels within neurodivergence are considered to be disorders by the people who make up the diagnostic profiles used in education and human services.

It is time to stop pathologizing people and their behaviour. The medical model used to diagnose ASD and other neurodivergent traits needs to be changed to what is known as the social model of disability, in which the disabling effects of the environment (physical and relational) are the true barriers to success for neurodivergent individuals.

In an article published by Richard Woods in 2017 entitled “Exploring how the social model of disability can be re-invigorated for autism” the author does a masterful job of explaining the disabling effects of the medical model and the possibilities for improved quality of life for people who are autistic within the framework of the social model of disability.

For a deeper discussion of this, look for a new article on ASD – Differences, Not Disorders, that will be published in the journal Health later in December.

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