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What Is Neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity refers to the idea that neurological differences, such as those seen in autism or ADHD, reflect normal variations in brain development. Neurodiversity is often contrasted with the “medical model,” which views conditions such as autism or ADHD as disorders to prevent, treat, or cure.

The word neurodiversity—a portmanteau of “neurological” and “diversity”—was first coined in the 1990s by Australian social scientist Judy Singer, who is herself on the autism spectrum. It has gained significant ground in recent years, particularly among advocacy communities. The term originally referred most commonly to autism, but has since come to include ADHD, dyslexia, and other widespread learning and developmental differences.

The neurodiversity paradigm suggests that, because neurological differences are normal and have existed throughout human history, they should be respected, understood, and supported, rather than pathologized or viewed as disorders. Modifying the environment in which a neurodiverse individual lives, reducing stigma, and prioritizing each person’s inherent dignity will, proponents argue, allow for such individuals to discover innate talents and thrive within a diverse society.

Why Is Neurodiversity Controversial?


The neurodiversity paradigm has generated controversy, particularly in the autism community.

Proponents of neurodiversity—many of whom have high-functioning autism or a similar difference—argue that the traditional medical model dehumanizes people with neurological differences and strips them of the ability to determine their own best interests.

Disagreement has been voiced, particularly by parents of children with low-functioning autism or related conditions. They argue that portraying the autism spectrum as merely “different” minimizes the challenges that many autistic individuals and their caretakers face. They often point out that those with extreme neurological differences are simply not capable of caring for themselves.

Some experts, including renowned autism researcher Simon Baron Cohen, argue that a middle ground could be reached between the two views. Until then, debate will continue over what constitutes “different" and “disabled,” and what it means to have a “normal” brain.

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Hiring the Neurodiverse Employee

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In one study of child prodigies, researchers found that these children scored high in autistic traits. For example, their attention to detail was on the obsessive end, which is a hallmark of the autism spectrum. The Austrian pediatrician and medical theorist Hans Asperger—after whom the syndrome was named—even referred to children with precocious aptitude as "little professors.” People in this community may have genius IQ scores, yet unemployment or underemployment among them is exceedingly—and chronically—high.

However, some companies are waking up to the value of employing neurodiverse individuals. These people are seen as useful in areas including data, IT, and software. To increase the diversity of its workforce, Microsoft developed a hiring program geared solely toward those on the spectrum—people who would never make it through a standard phone interview. Some of the roles filled at Microsoft include software engineer, lab engineer, data analyst, and data scientist. The company has hired more than 100 people on the spectrum.

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