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Is There Such a Thing as a "Normal" Brain? - 7.7.21

Is any single person “normal?” Is there one type of brain that represents the vast breadth of human experiences, backgrounds, and differences? 

The concept of a normative standard for human brains has come under scrutiny in recent years. Research and the life experience of Neurodivergent adults suggest that the differences in neurological makeup, such as those we have come to associate with the Autism spectrum, are natural variations found within the human population. This concept, termed “Neurodiversity,” rejects the notion that Autism and other neurological conditions such as ADHD, dyslexia, and tics are disabilities that should be fixed or cured. Rather, they are simply a part of the normal human condition.


The term Neurodiversity was coined in 1998 by sociologist and Autistic activist Judy Singer. Singer built on a body of work from Autistic advocacy pioneers, including Jim Sinclair, whose article “Don’t Mourn for Us” is considered a foundational work of the Neurodiversity movement. The term has been embraced by Autistic activists to fight for inclusion and appreciation of the Autistic brain and by extension, all brains. 


“People with Neurodivergent brains have always been here and have contributed to our world. Our greatest artists, engineers, leaders, inventors, and visionaries throughout history have more often than not been Neurodivergent,” says Jeff Newman, an Autistic advocate and Director of Community Integration at Community Connections, a regional non-profit. “When we have a society that only accommodates, values, and listens to people who have “normal” brains, we exclude and devalue these contributions. Moreover, as a matter of justice, we fail to make a welcoming society to Neurodivergent people BEFORE they prove their worth through changing our world!” 


Brain imaging and postmortem studies have demonstrated that differences in Neurodiverse brains are clearly more difference than disorder. These differences include common genetic variants such as single nucleotide polymorphisms, regions of the brain that are smaller or larger than non-autistics, greater numbers of neurons in the frontal lobe, and increased or decreased brain activity during different tasks. Similar variations in genetics and bone and muscle tissue contribute to the wide variation in human body types that are considered well within the range of “normal.”


Additionally, people with Neurodivergent brains often demonstrate superior skills that the pathology mindset fails to capture. Where the pathology mindset recognizes these skills, they are often twisted from gifts and abilities into deficits or behavior problems.


The benefits of taking this view of our brains are many. Focusing on curing a brain or fixing a deficit causes frustration and discrimination against Neurodivergent people. Appreciating the natural diversity of human brains allows us to focus on the strengths that different people have to offer. In fact, some companies such as SAP, Hewlett Packard, and Microsoft, have recognized the competitive advantage in Neurodiversity and actively recruit Neurodivergent employees whose skills can include superior memory, creativity empathy, problem solving, focus, and sensory perception.


For anyone who has ever thought they were “wired” differently than people around them, Neurodiversity should be good news. Everyone’s brain is unique and everyone deserves acceptance just as they are. Through Neurodiversity, we understand that the world is not divided into “abnormal” and “normal” brains. The variations and differences in human neurological composition are not only vast, but just beginning to be fully understood and explored.