Should we view difference as 'normal'?

Use of the word ‘normal’ in the context of being different from one another is now generally considered problematic. However, it has a long history of use, and has often been employed to distinguish those considered acceptable by society from those considered unacceptable or lesser in one way or another.

The word has not been used to other the Neurodiverse community exclusively, many groups have been passively criticised this way too.

In recent years its use has been increasingly called out, but this doesn’t mean we don’t still hear it used on a regular basis from people who know no better or who do not appreciate its significance for those its use renders ‘abnormal’. And while we might never be told to our face that we are abnormal, it is the flip side of normal and we are not daft!

In fact when you look at the number of Neurodiverse people, its use doesn’t really stack up in any case.

There are a lot of ways in which our brains diverge. Rightly or wrongly, these are given labels, with the common neurominorities being:

  • ADHD (5% of population)
  • Autistic (1-2% of population)
  • Dyslexic (10% of population)
  • Dyspraxic (5% of population)
  • Tourette’s Syndrome (1-2% of population)

Current estimates indicate around 1 in 10 people in the UK are neurodivergent. A British Medical Bulletin combining the incidence of Autism, ADHD, Developmental Coordination Disorder – Dyspraxia and Dyslexia puts the figure even higher:

“Given the extent of overlap between the conditions, the under-diagnosis of females who instead present with anxiety, depression or eating disorders, and the estimated prevalence of each condition, a reasonable estimate of all neurominorities within the population is around 15–20%.”

This is a significant number, suggesting as many as one in five people are neurodiverse.

The under-diagnosis of females mentioned above is now generally acknowledged by the research and medical community. Historically, the definition of Autism was driven by clinical observations of a small subset of the population i.e. white males, and we now know there is far more variation than previously understood.

People of colour, male and female, have been consistently underserved by the assessment tools used to describe Neurodiversity too, which could push the figure even higher. This all suggests there are a significant number of people likely to have been missed because they did not meet the restrictive criteria despite experiencing many of the underlying difficulties.

Unfortunately, the implications of a biomedical approach which believes there is a normal and an abnormal way to be means, among other things, the clinical experience of diagnosis can feel very negative. And while some practitioners do address this by considering the strengths and skills of the individual, in many cases the starting point is only what we cannot do and the problems we are experiencing.

This is where the idea of Neurodiversity becomes very interesting. It challenges the idea that there is one normal way to be – in fact intimating the exact opposite, that variation is normal.

The term Neurodiversity was first used in the early 1990s by sociologist Judy Singer. While the word is increasingly used in clinical and educational settings it is yet to become common in everyday life. So there is the distinct possibility some people receiving a diagnosis may have never come across the term, or the movement which has grown from it. Consequently it is entirely possible for someone to receive their diagnosis and go on their merry way without any awareness of this alternative perspective to normal versus abnormal.

Some would go further and say:

“The idea that there is one ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ type of brain or mind or one ‘right’ style of neurocognitive functioning, is no more valid than the idea that there is one ‘normal’ or ‘right’ gender, race or culture. The classification of neurodivergence (e.g. autism, ADHD, dyslexia, bipolarity) as medical/psychiatric pathology has no valid scientific basis, and instead reflects cultural prejudice and oppresses those labelled as such.” N. Walker

I believe it is incredibly important Neurodiverse people are made aware of this alternate perspective on difference. For a group of people who may have been othered much of their lives, to understand this distinction can be incredibly affirming.

Difference should be celebrated; the world would be a very boring place if we were all the same.