Upon a Diverse Continuum

Neurotribes, Steve Silberman’s 2015 look into the history of autism, weaves together science, publishing, politics, and personal experiences. Included are devastating explorations of lives spent institutionalized, of tortured treatments delivered by jaded clinicians or attendants, and promising interventions lost to political favor. But there are also essential stories of caring, dedicated researchers and parents who pushed for better support for their patients, their children, and themselves.

Most importantly, Silberman emphasizes the voices of autistics, describing how the involvement of people directly affected by the research enabled the creation of networks for support and advocacy. He describes how, more recently, the internet has proven to be an important space for autistics. This is easy to discover with simple searching. More than a communication tool, social media and the web are venues for connection and learning, paths to creating community, even spaces for building self-sufficiency.  

Neurodiversity is a big concept. The idea that brains function differently is not earth-shattering, but recognizing that those differences can be productive? That’s transformative. The book demonstrates that with appropriate understanding, societal limitations placed on autistics can be reduced. In learning about how diagnostic criteria were changed over the last 30 years, I wonder how legislation can catch up to enable better support. Where are improvements possible that will help research, and people, thrive?

If everyone thinks in the same way, if we all have the same perspective, we will never see anything anew. Answers exist for the question of how to create more paths in the workplace:

Our research suggests that a small number of systemic changes — targeted recruitment, mentoring programs, open skill and management training, and diversity task forces — can lead to significant and persistent increases in workforce diversity and opportunity.

Companies Need to Think Bigger Than Diversity Training
by Alexandra Kalev and Frank Dobbin

But existing diversity efforts can expand these solutions: they could grow to include a wider range of the forms that human intelligence takes. Can a DE&I program really be effective without considering neurological difference? Some consultants and businesses are starting to get this:

“Neurodiversity programs induce companies and their leaders to adopt a style of management that emphasizes placing each person in a context that maximizes her or his contributions.”

Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage
by Robert D. Austin and Gary P. Pisano

With work from home and online communication tools, the pandemic has already forced a reimagining of workspaces. Maybe it’s time to build on this change, to push the boundaries of these newly acceptable spaces and acknowledge how much improved the work from home environment is for neurodiverse workers (who else never wants to return to an open plan workspace?). When work from home is such a revelation, it’s obvious that there is more change needed to make workspaces more inclusive for all.

This is where autistic thinking can be powerful. Brains that can easily connect unrelated concepts might lead to innovative solutions. If autistics can feel comfortable with both bicycling and motorcycling, aspects of these activities–at least one of which has been found to reduce stress and increase focus and attention–may lend a lot to the workplace. For example, finding comfort in surroundings (sound, light, smells), the freedom to wear clothing that meets personal requirements (touch, not irritating), the chance to focus without interruption, or pursuing shared interests but having the ability to avoid face-to-face interaction, all may seem to be minor needs, but having options like these can actually have a huge impact on individual productivity.

In the conclusion of the book, Silberman defines a worthy goal:

The process of building a world suited to the needs and special abilities of all kinds of minds is just starting…

The problem at hand is how to support each other and help each of us get to, well, brilliant:

As Steve Silberman says, we can’t afford to waste a brain.