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  • Sian Virtue-Griffiths

Neurodiversity affirming psychology practice: a fresh perspective on human evolution and understanding neurodivergence.

Thanks to some excellent researchers, psychologists, and webinars, I recently experienced a seismic shift in my understanding of neurodiversity.


Unlike past models that pathologised the neurodivergent brains of autistics, ADHDers and dyslexics (to name just a few), this new understanding encourages a celebration of the diversity within neurodiversity, while still acknowledging the challenges that neurodivergence can bring.


From biodiversity to neurodiversity

To help express the concept, psychologists Sandhya Menon and Monique Mitchelson, have both used the comparison of biodiversity in the natural world to the neurodiversity in the human world.


Let’s delve into this a little more and think about the biodiversity of a rainforest, with all of the different plant and animal species that comprise this ecosystem.


An image of the rainforest showing biodiversity which is used to help introduce the concept of neurodiversity

Some of the plants thrive in the shade, while others require daily, bright sunlight, some plants will grow very tall and create the canopy, but others like to stay low and provide ground coverage. Similarly, some animals are master climbers, others are swift runners, and others might not move very much at all to preserve their body temperature. These biodiverse differences are never considered flaws, but instead a natural part of life and key to the strengths of the ecosystem. Now, if we then move onto the human ecosystem, neurodiversity is essential to the strengths of humans.


An advantage of neurodiversity from evolution

Seeing neurodiversity as a strength, can then allow us to reframe the concept of neurodivergence from describing “disorders” to instead identifying specialisations, each contributing to the success of the human race.


To use an awesome example from Sandhya Menon, let’s picture our hunter-gatherer early ancestors. Some hunters needed to remain focused to repetitively track patterns of animal movements and be comfortable alone for extended periods while hunting prey (some skills often associated with Autism). Other hunter-gatherers were essential to survival because they were attuned to changes in the environment, alerting their attention constantly towards anything that could be a threat or an opportunity (much like ADHD). While others found it easy to explore new territories, creatively solve problems and come up with plans to adapt to changing conditions (which sounds a lot like dyslexia).


After hearing this hunter-gatherer analogy, I then discovered multiple peer-reviewed journal articles that described the hunter-gather origins of Autism and ADHD and the specialisation of exploration in dyslexia. This means that the neurotypes that have typically been viewed by health professionals as “disorders” and “deficits” might actually represent evolutionary advantages and specialised skills – what a perspective change!  


The Rainbow Infinity Sign a symbol of neurodiversty movement

A fish out of water or a tiger in a tree

I absolutely love the reconceptualisaton of neurodivergence as a specialisation; however, it’s remains important to acknowledge both the strengths and the challenges that come from a neurodivergence. Ultimately, we’re all neurodiverse and, when our neurotype is different to the typical (i.e. divergent), this can present with both fantastic skills and difficult challenges. Going back to the rainforest example, a Sumatran tiger thrives in its rainforest home where its swift movements, and sharp vision, are a supreme advantage. However, if the tiger has to live and hunt up a tree, suddenly these skills cannot be utilised as effectively, and it will experience significant challenges. Applying this to an ADHDer, those skills of rapidly scanning the environment, switching attention to environmental demands, and being primed to quickly pounce or run away, don’t mesh as well within the school or office environment. Acknowledging both the strengths and challenges is a key part of neurodiversity affirming practice in psychology.

 

My final take home is that being different is normal, so let’s celebrate the evolutionary differences that have made us who we are today, while also supporting with resources and environmental modifications to manage any challenges these differences present.


This blog was prepared by Dr Sian Virtue-Griffiths, Clinical Neuropsychologist at Yarra City Psychology.


If you are an adult who is interested in clarifying whether you have a neurodivergence or want support managing the challenges associated with your neurodivergence, please give our team a call on (03) 9429 0050.


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