Atypical learning and remarkable results

    Not everyone’s brain operates the same way. Shouldn’t we try to make the most of it?

    By Lewis Kelly on December 17, 2019

    Much has been said of teenager Greta Thunberg’s ascent as a climate change activist. She has read the science and is undistracted by political noise. Like other people with autism, Thunberg has what psychologists call “intense special interests,” explains Heather Brown, a professor of educational psychology. “We happily absorb enormous amounts of detailed information about those interests.” Though she’s never met Thunberg, like her, Brown is on the autism spectrum. And like Thunberg, Brown says, “Many of us are more concerned with truth than we are with social approval.”

    Brown’s research compares the abilities of people with autism to those of the general population. Her work contributes to a growing body of research that suggests in the right context, neurodiverse people will thrive. Neurodiversity is atypical neurological development, Brown says. “It is the result of natural human neurocognitive variation,” she explains. “And we deserve acceptance and respect.” With the right environment, neurodiverse people will lift up more than themselves.

    This is the narrative arc of Brown’s own career, which had a rocky beginning when she started teaching elementary school. “I struggled with parts of the job,” she says. “Mostly the social challenge of working with other teachers.” Then she learned that one of her students had autism.

    “I began to wonder, as I watched that little boy, whether I was like him.” Brown’s hunch proved correct when, as a young adult, she was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.

    She knew she needed a work environment that better matched her strengths. On the suggestion of her therapist, she tried grad school. She excelled. “The great thing about grad school for someone with autism is that you’re allowed to have an intense special interest,” says Brown. “The more intensely I studied and learned, the better I did.”

    But that doesn’t happen on its own. Neurodiverse people can struggle to find the right work environment. Brown says the accommodations each needs to thrive are as unique as the individual, but it’s worth the effort. “Society needs people with neurodiverse brains. Some of our greatest achievements have been conceived by brains that worked differently,” she says. In addition to Thunberg, examples include Pokémon inventor Satoshi Tajiri and actor Anthony Hopkins.

    Brown says one barrier to neurodiverse people finding thriving careers is a lack of appreciation for what they can bring. A second is that it can be hard for people to understand other perspectives. “Which is kind of ironic, since that’s one of the diagnostic criteria for autism.”

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