Neurodiversity has to be communicational and empathetic

THOMAS ARMSTRONG, PhD — THE POWER OF NEURODIVERSITY, UNLEASHING THE ADVANTAGES OF YOUR DIFFERENTLY WIRED BRAIN — 2010

The author attacks seven conditions of mental disorder: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), autism, dyslexia, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, intellectual disabilities and schizophrenia. Why these seven and only these seven? What about the Down syndrome or other syndromes of the same type, basically genetic? But we have to follow the author to understand his approach that has to be limited to the cases he studies, and we are going to discover that some chapters are in fact kind of catch-all vessels and many cases are thus covered as side cases of a wider case.

He states eight basic principles and it is important to just list them here.

1. Principle 1: The human brain works more like an ecosystem than a machine.

2. Principle 2: Human beings and human brains exist along continuums of competence.

3. Principle 3: Human competence is defined by the values of the culture to which you belong.

4. Principle 4: Whether you are regarded as disabled or gifted depends largely on when and where you were born.

5. Principle 5: Success in life is based on adapting one’s brain to the needs of the surrounding environment.

6. Principle 6: Success in life also depends on modifying your surrounding environment to fit the needs of your unique brain (niche construction).

7. Principle 7: Niche construction includes career and lifestyle choices, assistive technologies, human resources, and other life-enhancing strategies tailored to the specific needs of a neurodiverse individual.

8. Principle 8: Positive niche construction directly modifies the brain, which in turns enhances its ability to adapt to the environment.

Before entering the chapters on the seven disorders considered here I think it is very important to state one thing missing in this approach and I would consider it is the basic principle, Principle number 0:

0. Principle 0: Human beings are basically beings that cannot survive without communication and this communication should — or that is at least an objective that has to be adapted to the possibilities of each individual — go through human articulated language, a human invention in constant development: communication has to be developed along various practical channels that depend on the individuals concerned from oral communication to symbolical or even artistic communication, always with an important empathetic and emotional content.

The people concerned in this book are going to be characterized by their difficulty at communicating most of the time either orally or with one or several material media: writing or representing in a way or another. I insist on this principle because communication is the way the brain develops the mind along with this communication that has to be linguistic in a way or another, even if it is neither oral (uttered) nor written (with pen and paper). Without this dimension the brain cannot develop its conceptualizing power that is the door to the development of the mind. Concepts can be images if you want or absolutely abstract elements, but conceptualizing has to be, has to develop if the mind is to become anything.

I would like to insist here on the six stages of this conceptualizing path. The first three are shared with many animals, if not all, but the next three are purely human.

1. To sense with the five physical senses (and in a more advanced stage with the mind as a sixth sense, a meta-sense): sensations.

2. To perceive with the brain that transforms these sensations (purely nervous influx) into patterns, small or big, simple or complex: perceptions.

3. To identify or to recognize which leads to “naming” even if it is only with a mental image: it is important to see that one item cannot be mixed up with another: identification based on the originality of the item hence based on its differences with other items.

4. To experiment is the first stage of properly human mental work and it is first of all practical: it is a practical experimentation with what you have identified. That’s the very first stage of conceptualization according to Vygotsky. It can be manual like planting identified seeds to see what happens on the basis of some observation or just inspiration: planting glasses to grow glass trees, or playing “Mutter da, Mutter fort;” in Freud’s terms.

5. To speculate comes next since on the basis of this experimentation you come to some conclusion like “a glass” cannot grow into “a glass tree.” This speculation is fundamental again since it is personal, hence deeply rooted in us, in our consciousness, and once again this does not require oral language. This speculation can be exclusively existential and non-linguistic.

6. To conceptualize finally will bring the mind into an abstract concept corresponding to the concerned item and containing all the properties we have attached to it experimentally and existentially: abstract conceptualization and there some form of language is necessary since the very finality of this conceptualization is communication.

There is only one dimension to add to this, our principle 0: communication is going to facilitate and make effective this development. Communication does not need to be linguistic though the adults we are should always know they have to meaningfully speak to the person, new-born, child, teenager or adult, neurotypical or neurodiverse, when they are in contact with him or her. He/she may not react to that language but except if he/she is deaf he/she will hear it and if he/she is deaf he/she will feel it, sense it, at times with no reaction whatsoever. Beyond this oral production of the caregiver all other levels of contact and communication have to be developed: physical contact, eye contact, contact through objects, food, toys, and even contact with lips and hands movement, body language. A smile and a soft word are worth millions of empathetic moments even if the child does not respond the same way. We have to find the proper media where that communication can get some response, but we must always maintain the media that do not get a direct or immediate response. By just hearing a language spoken to them, all children are learning that language even if they do not use it to respond.

That’s for me essential as a starting point and you can experience that communication with a deaf and mute child: he/she sees your language even if he/she cannot integrate it or use it. He/she sees the care, the empathy, the love even, and yet he/she might get angry and restless because he/she cannot do the same though he/she cannot hear it. Communication is basic, which does not mean it is easy, spontaneous and simple.

I will not follow the book in the details of the seven conditions the author considers chapter after chapter: ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), autism (and within autism, Asperger’s syndrome), dyslexia, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, intellectual disabilities and schizophrenia. There could be other cases. But the general approach is basically the same for all cases: consider each “disorder” as a specific mental or physical case that can be seen from a positive point of view or from a negative point of view. The author insists on looking for the positive aspects, the positive competences, the positive qualities each case has. We have to be careful with such a voluntarily biased approach. It can be as dangerous as the reverse and standard negative approach that only sees the lacks, the wants, the missing pawns in the mental-physical outlay of these people. The negative standard approach does not see or does not want to see the positive aspects. But the positive approach may also refuse to see the negative aspects. If you only consider half the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle you will never rebuild the whole picture. The personality of an individual is just such a jigsaw puzzle with thousands of elements or pieces that are supposed to fit together though most of them are growing with time, starting in the fetus and going on all along one’s life. The fact that these pieces are growing enables the articulation of every single one to the others because they are flexible in their growth. That’s what we say about “normal” people and that is not entirely true. In all individuals the flexibility of the neurons, brain cells and even all other cells in the body is limited in scope and in time. The flexibility diminishes with time except for the cells that are heavily worked upon. A musician, trained as such, may and/or will remain flexible in that field for a very long time, whereas he may get very frozen in some other fields. And that’s just the point.

All human beings can learn something and develop some capabilities or knowledge provided we understand they can do this only by using the capabilities that are at their disposal to start with. Some people, in fact most people use routines, routine procedures and habitual methods because it is easier. The people we are talking about here, the people who have some mental or physical characteristic(s) that makes them different (differently-abled, differently-wired, neurodiverse or physical-diverse), may seem to be blocked in one stance, one attitude, one approach, one field of interest. It is by using this field of interest, approach, attitude, stance that we can help these individuals to develop their own knowledge, their own minds, their own mental strength. But, and the author only insists on this point at the end of the book, what is good for those who have such obstacles on their roads to self-development is a lot more useful to those who do not have these obstacles on their own roads. In other words it is these neurodiverse individuals who can help us build a diverse pedagogy meaning a pedagogy adapted to each one in a group and at the same time shared by all: what’s good for the special individuals in the group can be good for all others and might even speed up those others. But we have to keep in mind that what is good for the most flexible individuals or for the special super-developed competences some of the less flexible individuals might not be possible for the others, other individuals or other competences. An Asperger patient can learn a whole book in no time because of a very special instant scanning visual memory (instant memory of what is seen and at the same time the scanning of what is seen into text enabling the subject to remember it as text, hence to recite it as text and not as image). But this very Asperger patient may not have the same capability with sounds, music for example, or oral languages, and that particular capability is mostly not available to most other people who do not have the Asperger’s syndrome.

In the same way some people have a tremendous flexibility in their fingers and with training, as early as possible, can develop a mental flexibility coordinated to that finger flexibility which will enable them to become great pianist for example if they have good hearing if not perfect or absolute pitch. It is quite obvious that everyone is not going to have this finger flexibility, to get the early training necessary to develop it, may not have the mental or cerebral flexibility to coordinate the fingers and may not have perfect pitch. The first one might develop into a great piano soloist. The other one will remain a piano player who will entertain himself or at times his family and friends, but no more. Some might even never be able to play the piano. But it is true that training children early on a keyboard of any type might enable some to become musicians in a way or another though if they had not been trained early they might never have become musicians at all. What is good for any particular group of people with one recognized characteristic is necessarily good for many others and may even reveal in some of these others the characteristic that was not seen at first. It is obvious we cannot speak in positive or negative terms. What is good for an ADHD individual who is essentially active in physical terms and needs to walk, run, and work physically in any environment of his choice, particularly nature cannot be bad for other individuals since it would give them a better physical health and that might even speed up their learning capabilities. It will not make it easier. To believe that you can learn without an effort is an absurdity. It might give to this effort more fun and excitement. Even a library rat likes fun and excitement at times, be it only a cat suddenly running after that library rat to enhance its supper.

I will then jump to the eight principle the author proposes to develop a neurodiverse classroom in his chapter nine.

1- The neurodiverse classroom contains students with many types of diversities. . . culture, race, gender and sexual orientation. . . language and communication delays, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, spina bifida, cystic fibrosis, blindness, deafness, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, stroke, and multiple disabilities. . . gifted and talented. [Note the learning and physical disabilities are not the same as those that were considered in the previous chapters: some had not even been mentioned.]

2- The neurodiverse classroom uses multiple intelligences instructional strategies and other universal design for learning methods. [Note this can be both material means and mental or intellectual means: tools as well as conceptualized methods used by a teacher.]

3- The neurodiverse classroom contains people who have been given various labels encompassing cognitive, educational, emotional, and behavioral issues, [Physical is missing] and also people who have not been given those labels.

4- The neurodiverse classroom celebrates and teaches about diversities of all kinds. [I am critical about the use of words like “celebrate” or “teach”: my approach of diversity is essentially to enable these diversities to be expressed and to be discussed in the neurodiverse or simply diverse classroom: any difference is at stake here, like religion, race, culture, gender (that should be taken as covering sexual orientation, hence in its more than twelve identities), national origin and many others including of course all personal or social characteristics.]

5- The neurodiverse classroom possesses a rich collection of assistive technologies to enable individuals with diverse special needs to access information, engage in learning, and express themselves cognitively, emotionally, artistically, creatively, and spiritually. [Physically is missing here again.]

6- The neurodiverse classroom pays attention to the environment, the use of space, and other ecological consideration. [Physical considerations are missing: space is the very basis, along with time, of lateralization, which is an essential dimension of a child’s growth, long before his or her birth, and definitely as soon as he or she is born and can be trained into that space lateralization at first and space-and-time lateralization afterwards]

7- The neurodiverse classroom contains a rich network of human relationships that support each individual’s journey of learning and development. [That’s the main point: more about it further on.]

8- The neurodiverse classroom believes in the natural, organic development of each individual. [I am very critical of terms like “natural” or even “organic.” Human development is natural of course but mediated by so much non-natural means and procedures that is has to be seen as human and social, cultural and ideological, mental and spiritual a lot more than natural and organic.]

When reading the book and these final considerations we are impressed by the fact the author follows the trend in one element: he describes the various cases he envisages from a “clinical” point of view: he only describes the symptoms but never wonders about the causes, apart from the genetic causes which are more symptoms than real causes. We are dealing here with development and that development is basically dependent on communication and an active empathetic relationship with the caregiver, nurturer or teacher (they can and must also be the parents). The author does not consider the problem of language which is neither hereditary, not spontaneous, even in the most gifted children. Language is built in the mind by a brain that conceptualizes what it discriminates using the resources of the body (very deep larynx, highly developed articulatory capabilities and vastly available and developable coordinating power of Broca’s area in the brain that develops along with the work it performs. The problem here is how can you unblock these resources the child has when they are blocked by some “heritage” that can be genetic, traumatic, or whatever. Find the cause and then look for the proper procedure to unblock what is blocked and alleviating the cause. Aspirin cannot cure pneumonia (bacterial infection) though it is practically the only thing you can use against a plain cold (viral infection). I am thinking of a doctor who gave an antibiotic to cure a fungus infection in the ear of a patient.

This is even more important with the active empathetic relationship the caregiver, nurturer and teacher (and these can and must be the parents) have to entertain with the children. First there is no rule apart from this general consideration. In fact this relationship can only be special and particular with every single caregiver-nurturer-teacher and every single child or individual when they become teenagers and adults. They need empathetic contact like ALL CHILDREN. But each one will develop that contact on his own and in his own way. Some will look for eye contact: don’t refuse it. Some will try to attract the auditory attention of the caregiver-nurturer-teacher: respond to it. Some will need physical contact of some type and the adult knows that physical contact has to respect some limits that some kids will not respect or at least will not be conscious they exist: never refuse or reject that physical contact, but keep ot within the limits we are speaking of here. We also have to teach these limits in full clear consciousness. I am of course speaking of what is considered as child abuse or child molesting. The problem is that if a child needs to be hugged, we have to hug him or her, but that hug must be a welcoming hug when arriving and a farewell hug when leaving. It can also be a reassuring solace in some stressful situations, and that is true for all children all people (American series at times overdo it with cops hugging traumatized people in some public events). But the problem is that what you do with one child in a class will be seen by the others who will either be jealous because they want it but dare not ask for it, or aggressive because they will identify this as something they hate: that hate has to be expressed and even dealt with in the class itself, and probably not by the teacher but by the students themselves. Some children, and I am speaking here about all children, find it natural to kiss the caregiver-nurturer-teacher, at least at a young age (kindergarten or primary school). That too has to be controlled: kept within some meaningful limits, limits that give some clear meaning to the contact itself. But the main problem is that these physical elements have to be seen by all in the class as natural, reciprocal, meaningful, and that will mean these elements will have to be kept within quantitative moderation. That is the most difficult part of a neurodiverse or simply pedagogically open classroom. What is needed and natural for one student is not the same as what is needed and natural for another student. The teachers have to be trained to respond to the needs of the students and not to impose their agenda. And on this point the author is mistaken when he says:

“In fact, the greatest change that can be made is one that costs little or nothing: changing the attitude of educators toward kids with labels.” (p. 201)

First what I have just explained shows that it is not only towards the kids with labels but towards all kids, kids in general. The teacher has to become pedagogically diverse and empathetically diverse. The first one is mostly a question of technical training and available means. The second one is the most difficult enterprise you can imagine: it goes against the grain of the educational system in most countries, against justified campaigns against child abuse and child molesting (when it is not child slavery), against the desire of any educator to remain the master of his or her emotions and private feelings. The quotation of Jean Jacques Rousseau does not reflect Rousseau’s real pedagogy which is very progressive but also extremely individualized (private coaching and teaching) and extremely authoritative (if you want to teach the value of a window pane to a child, let him sleep in a room whose window panes were broken by his carelessness or even intentionally, especially if it is the winter: that is plain torturing.). His quotation of Friedrich Froebel is for me totally mis-inspired. Children are not plants or animals. Even a metaphor of that type is for me a crime against the humanity of children. And the quotation of Maria Montessori is not better that compares education with sowing seeds in the field of intelligence. Education has to be defined as human and thus has to be based on communication, hence all means that enable a teacher to communicate with children taken as all different individuals with their needs and their limits. Some limits have to be kept and some have to be negotiated. That requires a completely different training system for teachers and educators. That will take many years. That will cost a lot of investment. That will put into shambles a lot of supposedly universal principles like a teacher must not get emotionally involved with his or her students. If we mean an involvement that would lead to child abuse or child molestation I would agree. But this should mean empathetic involvement. Empathy can go as far as love but that love cannot in anyway become physical. It is an emotion children need for their maturation but the physical activity too many people unduly attach to it or reduce it to is of course out of scope here.

Children love many people. We love many people. Starting with family and friends. And we would not develop this love or these loves into anything of the physical intimate nature some reductive minds may be obsessed with.

The last chapter about mutants and mutations is certainly interesting but I will oppose any cultivation of mutations, be it selective or scientifically assisted, just as much as I will oppose any eugenics of any sort: eugenics are still in the air. H.G. Wells was a strong defender of such vast eugenics and his views are mostly reproduced, and that is only one example, in the “philosophy” of a man like Ron Hubbard, both in Dianetics and in Scientology with the ambition to make everyone “clear” and eliminate all those who cannot be made “clear” or are not worth being made “clear.” The concept of “clarity” for all is absurd. Development and value producing and value adding for all is the only human approach I would and will support. Every person must have since long before their birth the chance to fully develop their potential, and to become full citizens that can add value to the world by adding value to what they do or produce with their work. That value-adding procedure should become universal for everyone in proportion and correlation with their capabilities, their development, their potential that must be fully enhanced and encouraged to flourish by the means proposed and by the efforts mobilized by each individual.

I am absolutely convinced all differences are an asset for humanity and that all differences have to be brought to full maturity knowing any point reached in that perspective will always be lower than another potential point in the future of this perspective. We can always go farther and further, always expand wider and deeper. There is no one more boring than a person who has reached a certain point of development and requires to be given a protected and privileged position till his death without ever trying to improve his or her capabilities or competence. I was, the other day, listening to people from the Justice Department before their taking a selective and promotional test to go up in their administration: one of them was expressing the idea that he was doing that only to get to a safer and easier position and that he never did and never would do anything more than the 35 hours he owed the Justice department. The Peter Principle is here transformed into the step ladder to some kind of farniente or aristocratic nonchalance, not competence and as for competent work, maybe, as long as it is a very well timed routine.

Dr Jacques COULARDEAU

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Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, PhD in Germanic Linguistics (University Lille III) and ESP Teaching (University Bordeaux II) has been teaching all types of ESP

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