The Value of Neurodiversity

By Marlo Payne Thurman

March, 2011

What is this world coming to?

I want to know why roughly 25 percent of all people in the U.S. are diagnosed with a mental health disorder and approximately 60 million people take medications to treat these conditions. Why the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM) only had 60 categories, but today that number has tripled and promises to increase even more in the new edition? Why ten percent of school-age children have learning disabilities (not including AD/HD) and one in three students, on national average, drops out of school before graduation?

I have training in both education and psychology. As such, I’ve handed out my fair share of labels; and I can honestly say that our children today are not the happy, healthy kids of 20 years ago. But we can’t all be disordered. Instead of automatically assuming that our kids are just “sick,” let’s examine those educational, mental health, and medical systems that classify, label, treat, and medicate. Let’s ask some questions: When did we decide that everyone should be normal? With so many of our kids diagnosed with something, isn’t it clear that our systems may not work? And: What is the value of human neurodiversity in our world today?

A Limited View of Normal  

I often see cutting-edge medical research on the differences in brain development for children with AD/HD. Through the use of imaging data, we believe we have a picture of the “normal” brain of a child — what it should look like and how it should grow. Based on that data, medical and mental health professionals prescribe medications and therapies for children.

It all sounds convincing; but, in reality, we live under a disease-based mentality. As such, differences mean something is wrong. Researchers don’t often get funding to examine the parts of the AD/HD brain that might work better than the norm.

In the United States, we use 90 percent of the world’s Ritalin, and estimates of the number school-age children taking psychotropic medications are as high as 18 to 22 percent. All of these medications have side effects, some have never been properly evaluated for their use with children, and none has been evaluated for its impact on health throughout the entire human lifespan.

So why are so many thoughtful and well-intentioned parents putting their children on medications? The answer is simple. Their children are unhappy, they don’t function well in school, they have trouble with their peers, and the DSM has diagnosed a disorder. We are taught to believe in our teachers, our psychologists, and our doctors who are trained to know more than we do; so, because there generally isn’t another good option, we comply.  

Antiquated Systems

At one time, our compulsory school systems’ mission was to produce factory workers. In school, children learned to read, spell and write, do math, and study civics and elocution. Lessons were taught orally; and reading, writing, and recitation tasks assessed the level of memorization obtained.

Little in our schools has changed since that time, despite the call from corporate CEO’s for out-of-the-box thinkers. Today’s business leaders seek bright, creative, independent problem-solvers who can multitask. Unfortunately, our schools don’t teach that; and our mental health systems and medicines may actually be striving to cure out-of-the-box thinking.

In our schools, modern-day curriculum standards still treat information as if it were a valuable commodity, despite the possibility that learning these subjects in this way may no longer be relevant. In the past, students unsuccessful in this education model left school to help out in family businesses, or they trained in vocations or apprenticeships. Today’s children don’t have a viable out. They’re tied up in schooling and homework that have little applicability to today’s world, and they have few alternatives to school. The lives of our children are not congruent with the world they live in, and they fail to see how they will ever participate successfully in their future.  

The Value of Neurodiversity

The term neurodiversity, coined in 1998 by Harvey Blume, refers to the idea that people experience the world differently based on their neurological attributes. Blume tells us that “neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general.” 

So why the push to normalize? I learned the answer to that question on a farm in rural Wyoming . A group of normal cows is easier to herd. On the other hand, any farmer can tell us that all living species require diversity to survive; and without it, organisms lack vigor. On the farm, it’s the cows with “heart” — those who have passion, curiosity, and even a little hint of trouble-making — that often out-produce the other cows.

In today’s world, however, with all of our new medical insights, we believe we should eliminate trouble-making, find ways to fit our kids into existing systems, and strive to normalize our children if we can. I personally am not convinced. We know for certain that individuals with “different” minds often do great things. Not many of the world’s famous movers and shakers would be described as normal. Furthermore, in the field of gifted education, shouldn’t we expect that the brain of a gifted child will develop differently than the brain of a normal child? After all, we know for certain that brain development is different on the other end of the bell curve. Unfortunately, we don’t have any studies that properly examine “normal” brain development in gifted children.  


There are those who will argue that it’s too costly to change our educational, medical, and mental health systems. But what is the dollar value of eradicating our inherent cognitive differences? While the cost of changing our systems is great, the loss of cognitive diversity and the possible long-term health issues stemming from a life of medications may be even costlier.

As long as increasingly large percentages of our children are unsuccessful in schools, require treatments, and take mind-altering medications, we must continue looking for other answers. Furthermore, until schools are better equipped and funded to meet the needs of today’s children, we will be forced to rely on medication and other treatment alternatives to fix our kids. My hope is that someday soon we will recognize the financial value of neurodiversity in humans and put our money towards the earth’s most valuable resource, our children.

The author thanks Mark Jarrett Carroll for his assistance with the research for this article. The following resources were consulted:

APA Working Group on Psychoactive Medications for Children and Adolescents. (2006). Psychopharmacological, psychosocial, and combined interventions for childhood disorders: Evidence base, contextual factors, and future directions. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Armstrong. T. (2010). Neurodiversity: Discovering the extraordinary gifts of autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and other brain differences. Cambridge: Da Capo Press.

Blume, H. (1998, September 30). Neurodiversity: on the underpinnings of geekdom. The Atlantic. Retrieved 2011-02-26.

Kliebard, H.M. (1995). The struggle for the American curriculum (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Rowan, C. (2010). Unplug – don’t drug: A critical look at the influence of technology on child behavior. Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry, 12(1).

Stein, D.B. (2001). Unraveling the ADD/ADHD fiasco: Successful parenting without drugs. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing.

Marlo ThurmanMarlo Payne Thurman, M.S., specializes in assessment, advocacy, cognitive training, sensory and behavior support, and socio-emotional coaching for individuals who are both highly intelligent and asynchronously developed. In 1999 she founded the Brideun Learning Communities and built a play-based, therapeutic school. After funding deficits led to the school’s closing, Marlo founded 2E Consulting Services to provide support and training to programs that work with individuals who, despite adequate intelligence, are unable to find success in traditional settings. Marlo holds board positions with 2e Newsletter and the US Autism and Asperger’s Association, where she directs the U.S. College Autism Project. Marlo has been recognized for her work by People and ADDitude magazines, The Special Educator, The New York Times, National Public Radio, and numerous local venues.

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