5 Truths About the Beauty of Neurodiversity That I Had to Live to Learn
“Throughout history, when human beings haven’t understood something, they have become suspect and even fearful of it. That begs the question: How many African-American children are written off in the classroom as unintelligent when ADHD or other learning deficits are actually the culprit?”
I was hit over the head the day I finally realized my oldest child Laila is in the 20% of people who learn differently. This awakening was a shock — one that most parents don’t expect and feel ill-equipped to navigate. The same goes for employers and businesses.
However, if we can resist the urge not to change these different learners, but instead take a step back and appreciate them, I’m convinced we can all learn a great deal from the 20%. Here are five lessons that changed my life, personally and professionally, when I did so. I welcome the opportunity to hear yours.
LESSON #1: Neurodiversity is a Thing to Embrace
In a culture where “different” isn’t always embraced, the 20% wired to learn differently are often criticized or dismissed. We hear about diversity when it comes to ethnicity or gender or the color of our skin, but few people discuss openly the differences that result from differently wired brains.
So I looked this up and found out that neurodiversity is actually a scientific and psychological thing. From an article titled “How To Use ADHD To Your Advantage, According To A Psychologist” by Melody Wilding1, psychologist Dr. Perpetua Neo points out, “As a psychologist and coach, I champion the concept of neurodiversity, which means celebrating how we are different and being able to leverage these differences as our superpowers.”
Who doesn’t like having superpowers?
LESSON #2: Seek to Understand More Than You Seek to be Understood
The movie “Night School,” in my opinion, is a phenomenal cinematic expose on people living with learning disabilities — the ups and downs of their neurodiversity and how it impacts relationships. (Disclaimer: This movie is inappropriate for young children.)
Striving to understand others creates joy, success, confidence, and so many things that make life full and rich. The act of seeking to understand costs nothing. It requires awareness, a little patience, a little time. It takes intentionality, work, and some humility.
Misunderstandings easily happen when talking with people living with ADHD and other learning deficiencies. This confusion can cause a conversation to quickly spiral out of control, taking on an unhelpful tone that was never intended.
But it doesn’t have to go that way.
LESSON #3: ADHD Triggers Unhealthy Coping Skills
I’m not a physician, but life tells me that some coping skills are healthy and some are not. With ADHD, I’ve seen Laila read just enough to get by, procrastinate until the midnight hour before a paper is due, and avoid social situations or even relationships for fear of not measuring up.
When a sibling corrects her, sometimes I hear her snappily respond “whatever.” Her response is clear: “I don’t need or want your advice.” Laila’s defenses are always on standby. When her words don’t align — and people are picking up on that — frustration follows.
Unhealthy coping skills are great clues for parents and co-workers to identify there’s something much deeper under the surface.
LESSON #4: We Have a Huge Opportunity to Educate the African-American Community on Learning Disabilities and Mental Illness
What I’m about to say is probably politically incorrect and definitely taboo, but we can’t bury it anymore: Many in the African-American community do not openly acknowledge, talk about, or recognize learning differences or mental disorders. They just don’t.
In my experience, for example, there’s always a quiet undercurrent of assumptions when a family member with a learning disability or mental disorder is in the room at a family gathering. Most are uncomfortable discussing the person or what they see as “different” in an open, healthy manner. The stigma is often never addressed honestly with compassion and understanding.
First, a lack of education about learning disabilities and mental illness exists among many people, African Americans included. Throughout history, when human beings haven’t understood something, they have become suspect and even fearful of it. That begs the question: How many African-American children are written off in the classroom as unintelligent when ADHD or other learning deficits are actually the culprit? Where are the resources to help them?
Second, I was raised by a single mother of three. My amazing mom took care of me, my younger sister, and my older brother, who suffered brain damage at the age of eight due to a prolonged bout of spinal meningitis.
My mother held down two jobs, including cleaning people’s houses during the day. Sometimes, the neighbors of the houses she cleaned would chase her out of their community due to racism, but she endured these challenges to provide for her children. By the time she got home, she was exhausted. Her focus and energy were expended on surviving, not exploring topics like mental illness and coping mechanisms.
My mom loved my brother immensely. Unfortunately, my sister and I both shunned, ostracized, stigmatized, and dismissed our older brother because he simply didn’t fit the 80% mold. Today, my siblings and I have a loving, healthy relationship and I’m thankful that I learned to appreciate my brother’s gifts with time. With studies showing the black-white wage gap widening, economic empowerment becomes another profound motivation for us to understand and address learning deficits and mental illness.
LESSON #5: Your Career and Business Win When You Understand How Others are Wired
Understanding learning deficits and neurological disorders like ADHD in the workplace is a subject all on its own. Suffice it to say that employers sensitive to the reality of the 80/20 rule will build vibrant, thriving workspaces. Why? At the end of the day, business is ultimately all about relationships. If relationships are at the core of every successful business, then a more informed understanding among participants is a winning strategy.
Real change happens when we stop trying to fix what isn’t broken, step back, and ask: What’s the real problem here and how can we solve it together? It’s then that we use our superpowers to save the world one conversation, one act of random kindness, one positive word, one small step at a time.
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1Danielson ML, Bitsko RH, Ghandour RM, Holbrook JR, Kogan MD, Blumberg SJ. Prevalence of parent-reported ADHD diagnosis and associated treatment among U.S. children and adolescents, 2016. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. 2018, 47:2, 199-212.