In this thought-provoking essay, Aaron Rothstein discusses neurological conditions like autism, ADHD, depression, dyslexia, and others. In recent decades, they have become quite visible for reasons that are often highly dubious (and owe more to the workings of knowledge and power that Foucault outlined in Madness and Civilization). Rothstein describes how people with such neurological conditions function, often with other heightened capacities. To what extent should their differences be seen as an aspect of neurodiversity worth embracing versus a genuine mental disorder worth fixing?
Today, some psychologists, journalists, and advocates explore and celebrate mental differences under the rubric of neurodiversity. The term encompasses those with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), autism, schizophrenia, depression, dyslexia, and other disorders affecting the mind and brain. People living with these conditions have written books, founded websites, and started groups to explain and praise the personal worlds of those with different neurological “wiring.” The proponents of neurodiversity argue that there are positive aspects to having brains that function differently; many, therefore, prefer that we see these differences simply as differences rather than disorders. Why, they ask, should what makes them them need to be classified as a disability?
But other public figures, including many parents of affected children, focus on the difficulties and suffering brought on by these conditions. They warn of the dangers of normalizing mental disorders, potentially creating reluctance among parents to provide treatments to children — treatments that researchers are always seeking to improve. The National Institute of Mental Health, for example, has been doing extensive research on the physical and genetic causes of various mental conditions, with the aim of controlling or eliminating them.
Disagreements, then, abound. What does it mean to see and experience the world in a different way? What does it mean to be a “normal” human being? What does it mean to be abnormal, disordered, or sick? And what exactly would a cure for these disorders look like? The answers to these questions may be as difficult to know as the minds of others. Learning how properly to treat or accommodate neurological differences means seeking answers to questions such as these — challenging our ideas about “normal” human biology, the purpose of medical innovation, and the uniqueness of each human being.