How We View Neurodiversity Needs to Evolve

Written by Susan Fitzell

Historically, people have viewed neurodiversity from a deficit model point of view. Unfortunately, I’d say that this is the prevailing view. The world is still very much neurotypical-centric. Consider that neurodivergent brains are the other side of the same human neurological coin.

Humans tend to categorize, sort, and normalize information. In short, we do this to facilitate our understanding of a complex world. This tendency to categorize makes things manageable so we can focus on what we need to do. Unfortunately, this approach fails us when attempting to understand humans. We desperately want human interaction to be simple, but it isn’t.

The double-edged sword: Medicine and mental health diagnoses
Medicine has done a fantastic job of defining medical pathologies that can be addressed and cured. How do we know when we have gone too far? For example, when does a trait become a pathology? Yet, humans must deal with the reality that what is not diagnosed and labeled is not supported or accommodated in most countries.

As humans, we pride ourselves on being unique. We show compassion that counters the survival of the fittest idea. We take care of each other, even to our detriment. We are charitable. We love and mourn in a way that we don’t see among other creatures. We see this most clearly in families and small communities. However, as the group grows, we see how people create divisions among themselves. This division happens when some interpersonal conflict has the potential to threaten the group’s status quo. The result is an us-vs-them mindset.

This situation can stabilize if the conflicting groups are well-matched in number and strengths. However, it can become a vastly different situation when there is a clear social minority. Without a proper understanding of differences, this approach can cause harmless traits to be pathologized, and those possessing those traits become marginalized.

Moving from a deficit mindset to a gifts mindset
This fact is evident if we consider the ideas behind the deficit vs. a Gifts Mindset. As mentioned earlier, medical diagnoses are inherently based on a deficit mindset, and that’s appropriate since the goal of medicine is to heal a problem. When does this go too far, though?

Do ALL aspects of a learning or sensory processing difference need to be viewed from a deficit point of view? No. They do not.

“In education, a deficit mindset is when teachers or school leaders focus on problems rather than potential.” I prefer to focus on strengths or a Gifts Mindset. A Gifts Mindset focuses on a person’s strengths first and teaches how to utilize a learner’s gifts while using specific strategies to overcome obstacles that get in the way of maximizing talent.

One can extend the experience of learners to the modern workplace. How do employers view neurodiversity in the workplace? Does it seem too much effort to accommodate so much “deficit?” Suppose an employer views neurodiversity through the limiting view of the deficit mindset. In that case, it can seem like “more effort than it’s worth.”

The Double Empathy Theory
Like so much of life, the viewpoint we choose matters. The double empathy theory purports that deficits in communication between autistics and non-autistics are a two-way street. In other words, the deficit in communication must be accounted for by both parties — instead of laying the “blame” on the autistic alone. An extension of the theory holds that the “problem” is not precisely the pathology of a neurodivergent individual but rather the setting or the environment. Consider this:

This (double empathy problem) model “suggests that a disability is more about external circumstances that impact a person, [and] less a set of personal attributes. So, the person with ADHD is disabled by a busy, loud office apartment. They themselves are not the problem.” Source:

The idea that the entire problem does not belong to the autistic individual is a significant change in mindset. Yet, consider the possible advantages of making an effort to review how we think about the communication challenge.

How the deficits model fails us in the workplace
Think of an octopus that ventured out of the water onto the seashore. It happens under some exceptional circumstances. The octopus will do OK for a few minutes. It has nine brains and eight legs, so it can make do and persist for a time, but not for long. Does this mean that the octopus has an inherent deficit or pathology? No, the environment limits the octopus’s ability to thrive in that situation.

OK, let’s take a classroom example I have seen firsthand many times through the years. Jayden is a first grader who is doing exceptionally well in school. His parents had been concerned because he had so much energy and could barely sit still in kindergarten. In first grade, everything was coming together for Jayden. He was thriving. He loved his teacher.

Then in second grade, everything changed. Jayden’s teacher called home multiple times to complain that Jayden was distracted, bored, and exhibiting challenging behaviors. Finally, the second-grade teacher referred Jayden to special education for an evaluation. Jayden is now diagnosed and labeled. This is the same kid who thrived in first grade with a teacher who understood how he learned. Then he went to the second grade and had a different teacher who was less tolerant of Jayden’s energy level and struggled to engage him in the learning process.

Is Jayden like the octopus?

Over the past four decades, countless stories and studies show how students who fail in one learning environment may thrive in a different one. So why is the child pathologized?

The child is pathologized because it’s easier to blame the children or parents than to fix a broken system. The system is broken for many reasons; however, it starts with an educational system that views children through a deficit model instead of a Gifts Mindset. A Gifts Mindset would focus on the child’s strengths instead of their deficits.

Environment plays a huge role, from microscopic to plant life, and without a doubt, humans’ ability to thrive. If the deficit point of view is maintained, accommodating neurodivergent talent in the workplace can seem impossible.

If we are to create conducive and kind classrooms and workspaces, we need to replace the deficit model thinking and embrace a Gifts Mindset and Dynamic Workplace Design™.

In schools, this is called Universal Design for Learning. In autistic humans, a standard defining feature is that an individual has deficits in social interaction and communication. In looking at this deficit, consider the double empathy model again. The theory holds that the communication deficit comes from both directions, autistic and non-autistic.

While this might be uncomfortable, it bears consideration. Consider marriage relationships; both parties hold some responsibility in a disagreement. It gets ugly when one party puts itself on the perfection pedestal, and the other one is always to blame.

In his article, The Double Empathy Problem, Dr. Damian Milton states, “… these issues are not due to autistic cognition alone, but a breakdown in reciprocity and mutual understanding that can happen between people with very different ways of experiencing the world.”

Why does this change in perspective matter?
Imagine a world where we lead with reciprocity and mutual understanding. Is it possible? I’d like to believe that it is possible for those who strive for it in their corner of the world — one human light at a time.

We are experiencing a world where an us-versus-them mindset leads to striations and conflict. The result is chilling. It’s tearing apart families, friendships, and countries. So how can we be the light? Let’s start with inclusion: workplaces, like classrooms, are based on an implicit hierarchy. At the school, the teacher can implicitly and unconsciously influence the culture of the classroom. The same goes for management in the workplace.

What can management do to improve inclusivity in their workplace cultures? Work toward a company culture that includes Dynamic Workplace Design™. Dynamic Workplace Design™ does not only consider physical space, corporate policies, and options for individual employee success; it makes inclusion and diversity the norm.


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