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Milwaukee J: Neurodiversity is a "difference" not a "disorder"; no real increase

As the scientific community's understanding of the human brain has evolved over the past few decades, there has been a growing consensus that many traits that have typically been seen as signs of disorders should more accurately be described as differences.

This improved understanding has occurred alongside a growing movement of neurodivergent people who have become empowered to advocate for themselves and to point out that, while they often need societal accommodations for their challenges, they also benefit from the different ways their brains work. . . .

What does it mean to be neurodivergent?

According to a Cambridge University study, neurodivergent people are those whose neurocognitive functions fall outside "prevalent social norms." Those neurocognitive functions include things like learning, regulating emotions, sensory processing, social behaviors, attention span and controlling impulses. . . . 

How does neurodivergent differ from neurodiverse?

The term "neurodiversity" applies to the entire population; both neurodivergent people and neurotypical people are included. Neurodivergent people are considered to have brain differences — not necessarily disorders — outside the societal norm for those traits.

As Victoria Honeybourne in "The Neurodiverse Classroom" says: "Instead of pathologizing individuals with perceived 'deficits' in the way that they think, learn and relate to others, the neurodiversity paradigm considers this diversity and variation of differences to be a normal, and totally expected, aspect of human variation."

Why have diagnosis rates changed over the years?

Diagnosis rates for neurodivergent conditions vary widely as definitions are changed and as understanding of the conditions and traits that fall under the neurodivergent umbrella change.

For example, autism diagnosis rates have changed dramatically over the decades. Most of those changes are due to subjective diagnosis criteria, changing definitions of autism and differences in reporting methodologies. . . .

Psychiatrist and researcher Lorna Wing started using the word "spectrum" to describe autism in 1988, observing that more rigid definitions had the effect of denying accommodations to people who needed them because they didn't fit previously accepted categories. Donvan and Zucker say that Wing's research showed that "autism's traits could appear in a huge number of combinations and infinite shades of intensity, 'right up to the borderline of normality.'"

Additionally, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders changed the definition of autism over the years; according to Donvan and Zucker, "people diagnosed with autism using the DSM in 1997, for example, might not have qualified for it using an earlier DSM in 1990 and vice versa."

People started referring to autism as an epidemic in the late 1990s after a study by the California Department of Disability Services compared the number of people receiving services for developmental disabilities in 1987 vs. 1998.

The study reported a 273% increase in the number of people receiving services for autism.

The number shocked people, but it was explainable both by the changing definitions of autism as well as by differing requirements for reporting to state agencies.

For example, starting with the 1992-93 school year, Congress required states to report the number of students with autism who were enrolled in special education programs. Donvan and Zucker point out that, "many of the children about to be counted were already in school by then, and some had been for several years. But previously, they had been lumped together into the category of 'other health impairments,' or perhaps other categories such as 'mentally retarded' or 'learning disabled.'"


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