Bringing Awareness and Acceptance to Neurodiversity

In the past, Autism, ADHD, and various learning disabilities were considered problems that needed to be “fixed.” Recently, psychologists and other scientists have begun to understand that these differences are simply a variation in how the brain works. Today, while there are relatively more opportunities for neurodivergent individuals, awareness and education in this area are still lacking.
Because I work in healthcare, I have had the opportunity to work with many neurodiverse patients in different capacities. When I first became a Nurse Practitioner, a potential new patient asked, “Will you be able to see my son? He’s autistic.” I, of course, said yes. I felt I could handle an office visit with any patient, especially a pediatric patient. However, I came to learn that I did not fully understand what managing the medical care of a non-speaking autistic patient would look like. I quickly realized that for effective medical care of my autistic patients, I needed to learn about autistic communication. When I began my research I came across the term Neurodiversity, which was entirely new to me. It was obvious to me that I had so much more to learn.

What is Neurodiversity?

First coined in the 1990s by sociologist Judy Singer, who herself is autistic, Neurodiversity is a term that describes variations of human brain function that affect how an individual experiences, interacts with, and interprets the world around them. Just like fingerprints, no two brains are alike. While Neurodiversity refers to all variations in brain function, the term is most often used in the context of ADHD, Autism, and learning disabilities. These diagnostic labels explain how people think, learn, process information, and behave. And like no two brains are alike, no two people with the same diagnosis are alike. This realization is indicated in the medical term Autism Spectrum Disorder through the word ‘spectrum’, as there are many variations of autistic traits. Different autistic traits result in differences in how each person thinks, feels, and experiences the world around them.

The neurological differences associated with Autism and ADHD result in various challenges and strengths that are often difficult for others to understand. These misunderstandings can lead to a lack of support and barriers to education, employment, and community interaction for the neurodivergent population. However, with increasing awareness and education, some of these barriers have been overcome, and improvements in inclusion and acceptance are becoming more common.

Why is Understanding Neurodiversity Important?

When I first met my patient’s son (we’ll call them Alex for privacy reasons), I thought I knew what to expect when starting the physical exam. I knew that Alex had a history of frequent ear infections and that they would likely have some sensitivities during that part of the exam. What I did not expect was the absolute fear Alex had when I tried to start the exam. And I was equally surprised by my inability to console them and proceed with the exam. With the majority of kids I see, I can show them the otoscope, let them touch it, see how the light works and play with it for a minute or two, and they are perfectly happy to let me proceed with the exam. Alex had zero interest in my otoscope or my trick of “making my finger glow” with the light. None of my usual tactics worked. My lack of understanding and experience was evident within a few minutes.

After this first visit with Alex, it occurred to me that there was no training or education whatsoever regarding Neurodiversity or working with Neurodiverse patients in any part of my nursing program. This issue is a major concern in all industries, not just in healthcare. While physical disabilities have been addressed in the workplace and community for years neurological disabilities have long been ignored. Companies in all industries need more awareness and training in this area and not just academic training but training from the people with lived experiences i.e. the neurodivergent people themselves.

Regarding the workplace, most managers and employers don’t understand that hiring neurodiverse employees brings a competitive advantage to their organization by bringing in various skills, talents and a whole new perspective. These skills and talents may include:
New ways of solving problems, High levels of concentrationInnovation and creativity, Ability to recall detailed information , Incredible accuracy and ability to detect errors

In education, it’s only teachers in “special education” that get any training in Neurodiversity, and even then, it may not be adequate. In our communities, few activities include neurotypical and neurodivergent people. Bringing awareness and acceptance to Neurodiversity is an essential goal organizations such as Kind Theory are working to achieve.
While I never received any formal training, through trial and error, I found methods to interact with Alex that resulted in the two of us bonding and working together to complete his exams in a way that was comfortable for them and thorough enough for me to make a diagnosis when needed. Now Alex happily comes to see me and even jumps up on the exam table voluntarily with no worries or fears. Alex opened my eyes to the importance of awareness and education in  Neurodiversity, which I never saw before. Understanding neurodiversity fosters inclusion and acceptance. Acknowledging and fulfilling support needs of a neurodivergent individual enables them to be successful in school, at work, and in their community. When a neurodivergent person’s needs are met, they can better utilize their unique skills and abilities. Embracing Autism, ADHD, and Neurodiversity allows everyone to be who they are and use their strengths in an inclusive and cooperative environment, which benefits all of us. When Alex first came for their wellness check, the treatment they required was not accessible for them. However, as I learned about how Alex’s brain works, I was able to incorporate more effective communication that made treatment accessible for them. Without an understanding for Neurodiversity, Alex would have continued to receive inadequate care. This realization has encouraged me to not only improve my own skills, but to promote education and awareness to other healthcare professionals as well.

About the Author

Amy Burden

Amy Burden is a Family Nurse Practitioner, Health Content Writer, and an ally to the neurodivergent community. She has a passion for helping people and enjoys volunteering her time to advocate for education, accessibility, and kindness.

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