Neurodiversity and Glitched Perceptions Around Mental Health
Illustrated by Theo Elton Andreville
Imagine your are in the metro during rush hour. It is pretty crowded in there. The Honore-Beaugrand line stopped and the doors are not opening. It’s too hot inside despite being winter time. People complain about the terrible service in loud, angry voices. At the other end of the car a mother tries to calm her daughter down. The little girl is clearly having a meltdown. A lady, infuriated with the situation says to the man sitting next to her; ‘Oh, what terrible parenting.’ The man looks at her, condescendingly.
‘The child is clearly over-stimulated, she just needs a nap,’ he says.
‘But don’t you see, the girl looks like she is mentally disabled!’
‘Ma’am,’ he looked at her, half in disbelief, ‘whether the child has a mental disability or not, the metro right now is not the best place to be for anybody.’
Joseph-Alexandre Darrous, Special Education Technician at Dawson College, used this scenario to explain a different view or approach people can have towards others who have a different mental health condition, being aware of Neurodiversity.
Neurodiversity, is the term used to describe the variety of minds, of psyches within the human race and the way they work.
However, in society we have established a stereotypical binary that dictates how we see each other; the ‘normal’ people vs. the ones that are different, or that have ‘glitches’, dismissing completely the reality that everyone has a different perspective and, more importantly, different ways to function, interact and relate with others.
“If we can consider an adult who requires support learning the implicit rules of what’s happening in the world around as disabled,” Darrous said, “ [yet, isn’t it] us failing to explain this things explicitly in society in the first place? I don’t know if is the person who is disabled or society that is disabled, to be honest.”
In essence, neurodiversity makes it hard to say what is and isn’t a disability because each person, each case is different and each person requires different kinds of support.
Oliver Sacks, a physician and the author of books such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars, illustrates in his books the ways in which having a neurological condition “affect[s] the sense of self, our experiences of the world and how we relate to those around us.”
Sacks, in the preface of An Anthropologist on Mars, tells his readers how he wrote part of the book. Due to an injury in his right arm, he explains, he had to start from zero and re-learn how to write with his left hand, a not-so-easy task when all your life you have written the same way, over and over again.
Nonetheless, “he discovered a new balance…[developed] different patterns, different habits,” Sacks explains. “There must [have been] changes going on in with some of the programs and circuits in my brain,” he says.
Sacks’ adaptation process gave him an insight into a new view of the brain, “a sense of it not as programmed and static, but rather as dynamic and active,” he says, “a supremely efficient adaptive system geared for evolution and change, ceaselessly adapting to the needs of the organism.”
Such a view, if applied to our society, may be perhaps a means to break the binary. To, rather, see society as dynamic and active, adapting to the needs of its members.
Nowadays at Dawson the student population is vastly different and diverse In terms of ethnicity but in terms of neurodiversity as well. Nowadays we find students that may not have been able to get in CEGEP before because of lack of help, whereas it is financial aid or some kind of assistance.
For that reason Darrous suggests to look at a class as a whole, a reflection of society because a classroom is a society in itself. “Everybody [at Dawson] comes from different cultures, backgrounds, different educational backgrounds, different schools, different countries,” he says, “[and if we] look at a more universal design where we are recognizing that the student body isn’t neurotypical and nobody is really quite the same [we will understand] that ‘average’ is really a statistic and ‘normal’ is a cycle on your washing machine.”
Diversity, in that sense, has come to be applicable to different instances and characteristics of our lives. Cultural and ethnic diversity are the most appreciated and celebrated amongst many communities, rightly so, but today diversity brings us even further because of the many connotations it has today.
“To be inclusive, the first step is to realize who we are including and to talk about who these people are,” says Darrous. In the classroom, therefore, is very important to talk about the words neurodivergent and neurodiverse.
By doing so, Darrous explains, we are making everyone aware that they are not alone in being different. “We all really have one thing in common, which is we are in [a] class together, coexisting regardless of our backgrounds and in that class we are all equal, we all have a voice and we’re all valued because we are all here together to learn the same thing.”
As a generation we are going to be working and living together, cohabitating, as Darrous says. In society this inclusion is real and we have to learn how to, if not change completely, try to mold the way we think about people with neurological conditions.
“There is a negative connotation with glitch just as much as there is with disability,” Joseph says, “ [However,] we need to undo that as part of the inclusion, to undo the stigma behind mental health and behind the word disability and remembering that a ‘disability’ does not devalue a human being. They are just as human as any one of us, they are just differently abled.”
The word disability has a widespread bad reputation and connotation. Visible and invisible disabilities, such as blindness or having a neurological condition like autism or learning disabilities, are seen as a problem that we should try to change, something not ‘normal’.
On that vein, the autism spectrum is considered a disability by the medical professionals and recognized as such by Autism Canada. This categorization within the governmental systems, like schools for example, allows students to get support after they present an official assessment or documentation with clear diagnosis and access to different accommodations they may need.
However, seeing and talking about autism as a disability can lead to different misconceptions among people who don’t necessarily have to deal directly with it or any other mental health condition.