08 June 2011

Book Review

Neurodiversity by Thomas Armstrong

In this book, Thomas Armstrong relies on his experience in medicine as well as his personal experience to make a case for a concept termed “neurodiversity.”  Neurodiversity describes an intellectual ecosystem that is rich in diversity, and is conceptually similar to biodiversity.  This term is important, Armstrong argues, because there is too much emphasis placed on neurological normalcy, which in turn leads to stigmatizing abnormalities.  Such stigmatism poses a problem in that it largely ignores the neurological gifts that the “differently abled” have to offer.

Armstrong briefly looks at seven so-called neurological disorders and examines the benefits each one brings.
The first disorder examined is ADHD.  Armstrong notes that ADHD is often associated with positive traits, particularly entrepreneurship and creativity.  He also notes that ADHD is somewhat of a misnomer, in that those with ADHD are actually quite capable of focusing for extended periods of time, in many case with more intensity than “normal” people would.  This suggests that sufferers of ADHD do not actually lack attention control, but rather they are often understimulated in school and at work.  Thus, ADHD should seek work and schooling that plays to their strengths which, as noted, are entrepreneurship and creativity.

Armstrong next examines the upside of autism.  He makes a compelling case that the symptoms of autists can be put to use in highly mechanistic or ordered areas of life, such as engineering or writing software.  Autists do have much to offer society, but they must carve out their own niche.

Armstrong also tackles dyslexia, depression, anxiety disorders, and low intelligence (as measured by IQ tests).  As before, he turns the standard views of these disorders on their heads.  However, one should note that this doesn’t mean that he glosses over or otherwise ignores the downsides of these disorders.  He simply does what might be considered a cost-benefit analysis and notes how these disorders can be used for social benefit.

While Armstrong takes a rather PC approach to defending the “differently abled,” he does make several good points about the failings of the modern American education system.  For one, this system is ill-equipped to handle neurological systems that differ significantly from those that function well within an industrial country such as the United States.  Additionally, there seems to be an ill-deserved prejudice against those who mental functions do not translate to high IQ scores.  Really, Armstrong’s critique of the modern American education system could be taken as a defense for homeschooling.

Additionally, Armstrong’s observations on the natures of so-called disorders sound like something an economist would, which simply means that Armstrong seems to grasp the concept of tradeoffs.  ADHD children have certain weaknesses, to be sure, but they also have certain strengths that are worth nurturing.  The same holds true for Autistic/Asperger people, chronically depressed people, and even among the non-retarded low-IQ group.

Anyhow, the broader point that differing gifts should be nurtured instead of eliminated is almost heresy among educators, for it is assumed that human neurology has an ideal instead of a spectrum.  As such, as sad as it sounds, the education system has spent an unfortunate amount of time trying to pound square pegs into round holes instead of finding square holes.  As such, neurodiverse individuals are short-changed by the education system and have diminished prospects as a result.  The saddest part is that this outcome could have been avoided and society would likely be better off as a result.  Thus, neurodiverse individuals have been sacrificed at the altar of conformity.

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