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Celebrate and Support Neurodiversity

By Lora Lee

Those of you who have perfect 20/20 version might never experience the headache of going a day without your glasses. In recent weeks, I forgot my glasses a few times and in each instance I discovered something new. Some of my patients thought that I wore glasses to look more professional and it was only when in session—especially during parenting class—when I needed to take a picture of what I wrote on the board that they realized I could not see past half a meter without my corrective lenses.
On those days, I would not be able to see street signs until I got up close, to the point that I often drew attention. I would upset people when I would not respond to their smile, as I could not see it. And at the end of the day, I would have a splitting headache, as I had been squinting for hours in order to keep things in focus and guess what was going on around me.
Lately, I have been thinking how lucky I am. All I need to do is remember to put my glasses on—which I hate—or eventually have the operation to correct my eyesight. Best of all, most people who know me have come to know of my bad eyesight and habit of walking around half-blind when I’ve forgotten my eyewear. They accept and accommodate my needs or my aloofness, understanding the root cause is simply that I can’t see.
What if, instead of poor eyesight, I were suffering from mind-blindness? What if my condition implied a delay in the development of reflective reasoning, which allows an individual to imagine how others feel, and to conceptualize and predict people’s emotional states? Now combine those challenges with oversensitivity and heightened anxiety. Would I be comfortable disclosing that I am on the Asperger spectrum? That there are no corrective glasses or quick operations that can solve my daily struggles? That I have to work extra hard in decoding the social mysteries around me every day in an environment that makes my brain go fuzzy, as if I am trying to study for an exam at a heavy metal concert that is loud, overcrowded, and blindingly bright?
My patients have to learn to navigate a world they can’t see, to negotiate the complexity of non-verbal social communication, facial expressions, metaphors, and social banter, combined with an environment that is way too loud and moving at lightning speed. Being an adolescent is never easy, even for the neurotypical (those hard-wired to social interaction). But for those on the spectrum—coping with changes in school structure; increased competition, pressure, and complexity in peer relationships; ever-changing pop culture or fashions—such challenges can make them feel even more out of sync.
In order to thrive, children and adolescents need protective environments. The lucky ones will be in schools that have zero tolerance for bullying. Mirror neuron studies show that social and conversation skills and reflective reasoning can be taught explicitly and repeated through role play until the individual internalizes those skills. Instead of focusing on what our children and teenagers cannot do, maybe we can help strengthen those weak neurons with learning and experiences, like handing these children and teenagers a pair of invisible glasses they can use to decode situations.
Most parents are baffled by asymmetrical development, or “autistic intelligence,” as Asperger dubbed it: clusters of extraordinarily enhanced ability in particular cognitive areas such as science, mathematics, memory, or music but deficiency in social skills to the point of affecting the quality of life of those close to them. Not to mention the escalating level of anxiety and depression often experienced by those on the Asperger spectrum. Maybe we, the neurotypical, should try to wear glasses fitted with the wrong prescription for a day to see what it is like to have to guess what is going on around us.
We now know that Asperger syndrome and autism are rooted genetically and have nothing to do with the “refrigerator mother” or toxic parenting as Kanner first identified autism in 1943. The big question is, when will neurodiversity become acceptable and more resources be provided for intervention instead of institutionalization? What would have happened if the mother of Dr. Temple Grandin did not have faith in her daughter, despite the fact that Dr. Grandin’s impairment was so great that she did not speak until she was four and was the classic autism case from the start? What would be missing in the field of animal science?
Don’t just label those who think differently, give them the corrective glasses so that they can see, and at the same time, so they can show us what we are missing. Let’s “help them develop an awareness of themselves” (La Brie Norall 56) and celebrate their differences.
La Brie Norall, Cynthia. Quirky, Yes. Hopeless, No. Practical tips to help your child with Asperger’s syndrome be more socially accepted. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2009.

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