Three years ago, my understanding of autism changed. Before that, autism was a disorder I encountered in my practice. Three things shifted my conceptions.
First, I developed a friendship with an autistic person who seemed entirely “normal” to me. I needed to keep a few things in mind — he disliked sudden schedule changes, was honest to a fault, and took what I said literally.
Second, I picked up several books on autism and felt frustrated as I read; autistics were disordered and ALWAYS the problem according to non-autistics. According to non-autistics, autistics were not social enough; they spoke at length about things that interested them; they lacked empathy; etc. etc. etc…
And third, a few months later, I was diagnosed with autism.
Australian sociologist Judy Singer and American journalist Harvey Blume mirrored my frustrations. Judy Singer coined the term neurodiversity in her honors thesis by merging the words “neurological” and “diversity” to challenge the idea that those with different brain wiring are inherently broken. Instead, Singer and Blume believed societal barriers disabled us (embracing the social model of disability).
As a result, the neurodiversity movement emerged in the late 90s, Autistic Self-Advocacy and the Neurodiversity Movement: Implications for Autism Early Intervention Research and Practice, Kathy Leadbitter, 2021 and perceptions of who we are, began to change. Daniel Tammet’s abilities with numbers wowed audiences. Stephen Wiltshire’s ability to draw a landscape from memory after seeing it just once drew worldwide attention. While savants might have started a conversation, the neurodiversity movement emphasizes the importance of accepting differences regardless of extraordinary talents.
Autism has evolved from a condition characterized primarily by impairments into a multifaceted one, possessing both strengths and challenges.
When we look at our strengths and challenges, we see autism as more than a disorder; in fact many of us reject the very term. To Embrace Autism, then, is to Embrace our Autism Spectrum Difference.
This perspective is the essence of the neurodiversity movement. It is a study of ourselves seeking our full potential individually and as the human race.
Ways of seeing
When I found out I was autistic, my world changed. I had spent so much time trying to fit in that I had missed out on enjoying many things that my autistic strengths afforded me — talents I had overlooked for a long time.
I began to understand that the way I experienced the world was unique. How I see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the world differs from other people’s experiences.
I can see visual representations of memories in my mind as clearly as in my everyday world. For example, I can watch my daydreams on the ceiling as if I were watching a movie. My ability to smell is above average, too — I can often tell the last meal a person ate when I am across the room from them in great detail. I also have sound–sight synesthesia, which means that I see music—that is definitely a wonderful .
These are exciting times as it dawns on us that humans are more diverse than we could have ever imagined. Judy Singer, autistic herself, believed that sensory experiences are different for everyone. We do not see, feel, hear, smell, interpret, or process the world in the same way at all.
None of us experience reality as it truly is, but instead as a version filtered through our brains and bodies. This filtered reality is called the phaneron.
It is extraordinary to think our mind creates our worlds — that reality is created, not objective. Our reality is a personal experience, a private world that no one else can experience. Imagining our unfiltered world must be as challenging for neurotypicals as it is for us to imagine tolerating their underwhelming sensory one. But then we are comparing a drizzle of rain to a downpour.
One of the features of autism is filtering out less sensory information Distinct Patterns of Neural Habituation and Generalization in Children and Adolescents With Autism With Low and High Sensory Overresponsivity Shulamite A Green This filtering process is called sensory gating. You might argue the reality of the autistic’s experience is more “pure,” less adulterated. We experience reality differently. Does less filtering mean we have a more genuine experience, or is it better described as a uniquely shaped subjective experience? In either case, these distinctive experiences can add to our collective understanding.
Whether or not the sensory experience of autistic people is broader or has a different focus, our human perceptions still constrain us. To better understand how our reality is limited, think of animals with senses humans do not have — such as turtles who have magnetic field sensors and use the perception to tell which direction they are facing Evidence that Magnetic Navigation and Geomagnetic Imprinting Shape Spatial Genetic Variation in Sea Turtles , Brothers & Lohmann, 2018; or what about tetrachromacy—having 4 colour channels rather than our 3 allowing them to see many more colours than us Colour vision and background adaptation in a passerine bird, the zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata), Lind, 2016. How might that alter the reality they experience?
An excellent example of the limitations is the way we perceive light. We see only a fragment of the electromagnetic spectrum, appropriately called the visible spectrum. Our human eyes see only 0.0035% of the entire range! Other detectors can convert gamma rays, X-rays, ultraviolet, infrared, microwaves, and radio waves and turn those signals into the visible spectrum. With these tools new worlds open up, allowing us to see parts of the universe we couldn’t see before.
Similarly, with neurodivergent people’s help, we can open this unseen world to all of us. They reveal a rich and largely untapped source of information and offer insights into the human condition and possibly even reality itself. They can make sense of or advance the world in ways that may not be as accessible to neurotypicals.
So what exactly are these differences?
Researchers have suggested 8 main differences*.
- We tend to see and hear in a way that focuses more on the details than the gestalt.
- We use what is known as spotlight attention, meticulously searching inch by inch, as well as pattern finding.
- From an early age, we find ways to decrease and regulate the amount of sensory information we take in.
- Autistics tend to be faster than non-autistics on seeing individual pieces of the whole, as we are field independent.
- Autistics can perceive the world and its contents accurately as well as the way the world appears to be.
- Savants become experts in the specific area that they have super-perception.
- Savant syndrome or specializing is an autistic model for subtyping PDDs.
- Enhanced functioning of primary perceptual brain regions may account for autistic perceptual atypicality.
*In 2001, researchers Laurent Mottron and Jacob Burack proposed the enhanced perceptual functioning model (an alternative to the weak central coherence model), which outlines eight principles of perception in autism.
The enhanced perceptual functioning model has since been updated, so rather than list the eight principles from the original paper, the above list is a revised version from a 2006 paper by Laurent Mottron and Michelle Dawson et al., based on 5 years of research Enhanced Perceptual Functioning in Autism: An Update, and Eight Principles of Autistic Perception, Laurent Mottron et al., 2006.
As the neurodiversity movement gained traction and awareness of various conditions increased, companies started to hire neurodivergent individuals for their specialized talents.
2013 – The international information and communication technology consulting firm Auticon launched. They exclusively employ autistic people and currently have more than 150 employees.
2015 – Microsoft created an Autism Hiring Program to attract the marketplace’s untapped potential. Though their program may not be the most diverse, at least in terms of PR and the exclusion of specific demographics, it’s good to see big companies make an effort to be more inclusive.
2017 – The Hague police in the Netherlands started hiring autistic people to analyze security camera footage to identify suspects and evidence. With their exceptional ability to concentrate and attention to detail, these autistic detectives analyze and identify the images that can be crucial in an investigation much faster than their neurotypical colleagues. In 2018, the organization of autistic people that worked with the police force AutiTalent, won the Cedris Waarderingsprijs (Cedris Appreciation Award).
2017 – The accounting firm Ernst & Young has long valued neurodiversity. As it states on its website, “Companies are finding that people with autism approach problems differently and that their logical, straightforward thinking can spur process improvements that greatly increase productivity.” Ernst & Young steps up recruitment of disabled and autistic employees
2023 – The Neurodiversity Hiring Program at Microsoft offers job recruitment and career development strategies related to diversity and inclusion. Based on a multi-day, hands-on academy inspired by an employee with an autistic son, the program focuses on job capabilities, team projects, and skills assessment. According to Microsoft, people with autism have been successful in various full-time and part-time jobs, including software engineer and data scientist. 10 Autism-Friendly Employers.
Autistic people are not the only neurodivergent people companies seek. While the characteristics of dyslexia include processing issues that affect reading and writing, dyslexic people are also highly creative and intuitive and excel at three-dimensional problem-solving. They can utilize their specialized minds in a variety of ways. For example, given their spatial abilities, some architecture firms hire dyslexic people predominantly, and many famous architects are, in fact, gifted with dyslexia.
The British Intelligence Agency uses dyslexics’ ability to analyze complex information in a “dispassionate, logical and analytical way” in the fight against terror. As of 2014, they have employed 100 dyslexic and dyspraxic intelligence agents.
United under neurodiversity
What is so beautiful about the neurodiversity movement is that it sees all people in the context of their unique functioning and subjective experience. Based on that mindset, people are more readily respected as individuals in their own right. All neurodiversity types are seen as valuable under this framework and should be recognized as a natural form of human variation.
On the other hand, the pathology paradigm risks being a judgmental mindset. Everyone is compared to a baseline of normal functioning, and anything that deviates from that ought to be corrected. This mindset may be understandable when considering people that are suffering. Still, we must be careful not to overlook or ignore the individual’s experience.
As you can see in the Euler diagram below, neurodiversity comprises all of us, with a smooth transition between neurotypicality and atypical neurology.
There is a threshold where you qualify for or are excluded from a specific diagnosis. However, the terms you see here are discrete categories we use to model and approximate human diversity’s complex multidimensional spectrum.
For example, people with broader autism phenotype (BAP) have personality and cognitive traits similar to but milder than those observed in autism. Depending on the diagnostician, they may not qualify for an autism diagnosis. So while these people fall somewhere on the autistic spectrum, they may instead be classified as allistic.
Who is neurotypical?
We assume the population consists primarily of neurotypicals but is this actually true? Below are listed a few statistics of various neurological conditions and personality disorders.*
- Autism: 2.6% Prevalence of autism spectrum disorders in a total population sample, Kim et al., 2011
- ADHD: 9.4% Prevalence of Parent-Reported ADHD Diagnosis and Associated Treatment Among U.S. Children and Adolescents, Danielson et al., 2016,
- Schizophrenia: 0.32% Schizophrenia, WHO, 2022
- Dyslexia: 9-20% Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, 2023 European Dyslexia Association, 2023
- Personality disorders: 9.1% NIMH, 2023
This incomplete list already totals a neurodivergence prevalence of 30.42%. That means that approximately 69.58% of the world population is neurotypical, though neurotypicality may be substantially less depending on how many conditions you include in the neurodiversity framework and at what thresholds you measure.
So yes, neurotypicals are still the majority. But, even at a prevalence of 30.42%, that’s about 2.4 billion neurodivergent people walking on this planet! Think of all those different perspectives and experiences! Imagine the collective expertise and insights these people can bring!
Do we want to “fix” over 2 and a half billion “broken” people, or are we ready to see their neurological variance as a natural function of nature? It would be particularly conducive if the shape of society reflected some of the principles of the neurodiversity paradigm. Because if we are more inclusive and accommodating, more people can contribute.
Perhaps we should address issues in our environment to accommodate people and ameliorate impairments rather than address perceived problems individually.
Do we sustain our environment and reject the people for whom that environment is lacking, or do we change and welcome humanity in its diverse manifestations?
Let us know what you think!