Understanding cultural perspectives on neurodiversity

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Understanding cultural perspectives on neurodiversity: a parent of an autistic child miscommunicate with eachother.

Understanding cultural perspectives on neurodiversity

Neurodiversity: embracing cognitive differences for a more inclusive society

Neurodiversity refers to the diversity of human minds and the natural variations in brains and neurocognition among individuals. It recognizes that these differences are typical and valuable, advocating for acknowledging and respecting neurological variations as any other human diversity. Coined by Australian sociologist Judy Singer in 1998, the term challenges the notion of perceiving people as "suffering" from deficits, diseases, or dysfunctions in their mental processing, instead emphasizing differences in cognitive functioning.

The Neurodiversity Movement

The neurodiversity movement aims to create an environment where neurodiverse individuals can contribute to society based on their own strengths and abilities, rather than conforming to societal expectations. 

Originally rooted in the Autism rights movement, the concept of neurodiversity expanded to include conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyscalculia, dyslexia, dyspraxia, various mental health issues, acquired memory losses, Tourette's, and other neurominorities.

Challenging the social model of disability

Neurodiversity aligns with the social model of disability, which posits that disability is not an inherent individual trait but a result of societal barriers. Advocates of neurodiversity seek to remove these barriers and enable neurodiverse individuals to contribute to society as they are, rather than as society expects them to be. This perspective encourages focusing on the strengths associated with cognitive differences. 

For example, individuals with dyslexia might exhibit high levels of empathy and excel in problem-solving by seeing the bigger picture, even if they struggle with reading. Similarly, individuals with dyspraxia, who face challenges with coordination and organization, may possess enhanced soft skills such as active listening.

Acknowledging struggles and celebrating strengths

Supporters of neurodiversity recognize the struggles and difficulties faced by individuals with conditions like ADHD, dyslexia, autism, bipolar disorder, and others. However, they also celebrate the strengths and positive experiences that can emerge from these conditions. 

It is important to acknowledge and address the obstacles, while fostering an inclusive society that values and embraces the unique perspectives and abilities of neurodiverse individuals.

Neurodiversity and ethnicity

Neurodiversity is perceived differently across cultures, leading to variations in its understanding and definition. Some cultures have yet to fully embrace the paradigm of neurodiversity, considering conditions like ADHD and autism as forms of mental health disorders. The classification of behaviors as different or challenging varies widely due to cultural expectations of social norms and behaviors.

For example, in Oman, studies have shown that 1 in 1,000 people are on the autistic spectrum whereas in the UK, it is believed to be 1 in 90, and in the USA about 2 in 100. Are we to believe that there are more autistic people in the UK or the USA or is there another explanation?

Cultural values and definitions of competence

One of the principles of neurodiversity is the idea of human competence being defined by the values of the cultures to which you belong; dyslexia, for example, is based upon the social value that everyone should be able to read. 

One hundred and fifty years ago, this was not the case, and the ability to read had more to do with your socio-economic advantages than your neurological ability. Similarly, a diagnosis of autism requires presenting with issues within social interactions; this reflects the cultural value that suggests a preference toward relationships rather than an enjoyment of being alone.

Racial differences and diagnostic perspectives

Cultural variations in values have implications for diagnosing neurodiverse individuals. Diagnostic tools used to assess disabilities often reflect Western norms, which can lead to challenges in accurately identifying individuals from different cultural backgrounds. 

For example, in some Asian and African communities, giving eye contact to an adult or to someone in authority is considered to be rude, and children are actively taught not to do this. Yet, not maintaining eye contact is widely considered to be an autistic trait and something most, if not all, professionals will be looking out for when offering a diagnosis of autism. This misalignment can impact diagnoses and contribute to disparities in representation.

Underrepresentation and over-identification

In the United Kingdom, Asian school pupils are half as likely to be identified with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) compared to white British pupils. This underrepresentation may be attributed to the use of diagnostic criteria that are primarily based on norms for white British children. 

Similarly, black Caribbean and mixed white and black Caribbean pupils are twice as likely as white British pupils to be identified as having Social, Emotional, and Mental Health (SEMH) needs, including conditions like ADHD. This overidentification could stem from socio-economic disadvantages within these communities or biases and low expectations among teachers.

"Cultural values and neurodiversity go hand in hand. By understanding cultural perspectives on neurodiversity, we can unlock the power of diversity and promote a more inclusive world."

Stigma and avoidance

The fear of social stigma may discourage parents, families, and caregivers from seeking help and support for neurodiverse children, particularly in cultures where conditions like autism are viewed as curses or genetic taints. In marginalized communities already facing oppression due to ethnicity, the avoidance of acknowledging neurodiversity is understandable as a means of self-preservation.

Even when the parents, families and/or caregivers are aware that their child may have difficulties, fear of social stigma may deter them from seeking appropriate help and support. For instance, in South Korean culture, some consider autism to be a ‘genetic taint’, which diminishes the marriage prospects of other children in the family – this is similar to other cultures, which may view autism as a ‘curse’. Pre-existing stigmas within ‘othered’ communities play a part in avoidance of acknowledging difference – if you are already being oppressed by society due to your ethnicity, it makes sense that you would avoid being identified as being neurodiverse.

The neurodiversity movement recognizes that there is no single correct way to perceive the world or individuals within it. However, due to dominant perspectives and beliefs about ethnicity worldwide, the movement's universal acceptance remains a challenge. Addressing the dynamics of neurodiversity requires considering racial and cultural differences and their influence on the identification and understanding of neurological differences. In striving for a harmonious society, it is essential to promote inclusivity and ensure that every individual's unique cognitive abilities and experiences are valued and respected.

"Unveiling the true essence of neurodiversity begins with understanding cultural perspectives on neurodiversity. Let's celebrate and appreciate the richness of cognitive variations for a more inclusive future."

Understanding cultural perspectives on neurodiversity” was adapted from an article “Neurodiversity: What is it and what does it look like across races?” published by The Open University. It is republished under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Article by
Mel Green

Mel Green, the author of "Understanding cultural perspectives on neurodiversity," s a member of the Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies (WELS) faculty of the Open University as an Associate Lecturer. She originally trained as a Primary school teacher and has worked in state schools, Pupil Referral Units (PRUs), and a psychiatric unit.


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