If everyone had their brains scanned by an MRI machine, the findings would report observable differences in how each brain functions. There’s a term for this: neurodiversity. If we dig deeper into the world of neuroscience, we learn that brain differences are categorized as functional or structural, the latter being the physical, observable differences in the brain that characterize the traits we assign to disorders such as dyslexia, ADHD and autism. For parents, helping their children navigate how their particular brain functions can be highly impactful for their futures.
Struggling with Structural Differences
In 2017, Shawn Brown, an award-winning engineer and star of YouTube’s Kids Invent Stuff, took to the TEDx stage to explain how, as a dyslexic, his accomplishments and career trajectory happened despite the education system, not because of it.
Brown’s form of dyslexia impacts his memory, making education elements like testing difficult. To compensate, Brown focused on practical work and written assignments. His workarounds got him into engineering school and garnered him the 2010 UK Young Engineer of the Year Award. Brown was able to accomplish these things through decoding how his brain works.
“It’s been widely suggested that dyslexia and other learning differences ultimately have stood the test of time because they’ve overcome and stood beyond natural selection,” Brown said in his TEDx talk. “They’re there because they’re advantageous.”
Neurodiversity and Evolutionary Advantage
According to the American Medical Association’s (AMA) Journal of Ethics, it’s widely believed both behaviors and differences in the brain are considered “adaptive” rather than a collective “disorder.”
In Thomas Armstrong PhD’s AMA article, “The Myth of the Normal Brain: Embracing Neurodiversity,” he states that “a growing number of scientists are suggesting that psychopathologies may have specific evolutionary advantages in the past as well as in the present. [For example] the abilities of individuals with autism spectrum disorder might have been highly adaptive for the survival of prehistoric humans.”
Despite suggestions that neurodiversity is beneficial and may be prudent to evolution, it’s often perceived as a liability. Others view neurodiversity as opening up a world of opportunity, innovation and unique problem-solving for those who step outside the box.
“One notable study in the US observed that 35% of entrepreneurs identified themselves as dyslexic,” Brown said in his talk. “Dyslexic people often have strong visual, creative and problem-solving skills, and are prominent among engineers, inventors and architects, as well as in the arts and entertainment world.”
Similarly, some people on the autism spectrum can look past emotional bias to faster solutions for problems. Those with ADHD can focus periods of high energy to come up with creative, spontaneous ideas.
Neurodiversity and Traditional Education
Taking into account the numerous advantages of observable differences in the brain, these very traits are still perceived as flaws in traditional education models. Often given the most weight when evaluating a student’s performance are memory and literacy skills.
If Brown’s academic capacity had been determined this way, he likely wouldn’t have racked up his myriad accomplishments. His take, “If you’ve been assessed predominantly on the basis of your reading and writing ability and how much you can remember in an exam when your skills lie elsewhere, is it surprising that many neurodiverse young people end up unemployed and struggling to find work?”
Brown points to the UK’s prison system, where approximately 50% of inmates have dyslexia, as opposed to 10% in the general population. “We’re alienating and persecuting neurodiverse children instead of supporting them.”
For parents, this could mean encouraging modalities of learning based on the child’s interests that foster growth and creativity. In other words, work with their child’s differences rather than around them.
Perhaps Brown put it best when he said, “It’s our collective responsibility to ensure that young people in schools can learn in ways that embrace and support their creativity and their neurodiversity. If we don’t, we’re going to miss out on the innovators, problem-solvers and inventors that we need in our ever-changing world.”