I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the concept of “strengths”, and the way we define them, in relation to neurodiversity.
There are a few ways in which I think strengths are referenced, by people using the language of neurodiversity to talk about differences between people.
First, there are approaches that remind us to see the strengths in individuals. I don’t argue with this. Of course we should take the time to get to know each other’s abilities, passions and talents. They should be appreciated and nurtured in school and at work. I expect that growing up as an dyslexic person in an education environment heavily mediated by written material must be exceptionally demoralising at best, and a shift of focus onto areas of ability may be a welcome reprieve.
The second way in which neurodiversity interfaces with strengths, is in strength-informed approaches. This approach to practice builds on the identification of individual strengths, focusing on using those strengths both to foster self-esteem and confidence, and to compensate for challenges. Again, no argument with the approach here. It makes sense to work out what someone is good at and to ensure that this is valued and given due credit – in school, in a workplace. If their skills can also be deployed in a way that helps to overcome hurdles, then all the better. Though it is also important to note the toxic effect of approaches that leverage a young person’s passions as rewards or motivators. A strengths-based approach should never mean identifying what someone loves and forcing them to jump through hoops to access that thing.
So identifying strengths, and consequent strengths-based approaches, both seem fine to me – if done well.
However, I don’t think that the transformational power of the neurodiversity paradigm resides in a simple shift from a focus on difficulties to a focus on strengths. As Jesse Meadows says in their critique of much of neurodiversity discourse:
“Discussing autism, ADHD, and dyslexia, this Forbes article claims the term neurodiversity was created to “shift the focus from the negative connotation of these conditions toward the positive,” a statement that waters the entire concept down into a floppy milquetoast version of its former self.”
When we talk about adopting a neurodiversity perspective, and rejecting the language of deficit, it doesn’t mean “focus on people’s strengths instead”. It means “don’t assume a difference between two neurotypes is a deficit” or more generally “accept the differences between people without judging them”.
So, while we should reject a default pathologisation of neurodivergent people, this rejection should not rely on individuals having to demonstrate compensatory strengths nor should it exclude people who identify as disabled, unwell or in need of support.
As Robert Chapman writes in this excellent piece, responding to Meadows’ writing cited above:
“I am … concerned to construct the neurodiversity paradigm in a way that avoids the imposition of a single story. Thus for me, once we recognise that the boundaries of health are intimately intertwined with and reflect oppressive power structures, as Meadows rightly notes, we should still not jump to rejecting the very possibility of mental pathology, or of a “wrong” brain, as they conclude. Rather, we must work on allowing more space for individuals and groups to self-define as healthy or ill, different or disordered, perfect or broken, in need of either medical or political intervention, or whatever combination of these.”
So, why does this mean neurodiversity is anti-capitalist?
If you’re using a system that doesn’t value all human life equally, the system is wrong. The wrong-ness is not situated in the people whose value your system fails to recognise.
The capitalist system is a case in point. Capitalism pushes us to value people by their actual or potential earning power. Quality of life metrics are bound up in employment and productivity.
It isn’t difficult to see how ridiculous these metrics are. Do we think a highly-paid hedge fund manager is more valuable than a poorly-paid nurse? Is Harper Lee – author of just two books in her lifetime, including the powerful To Kill A Mockingbird – less valuable than Barbara Cartland who wrote over 700 novels?
Applying capitalist metrics to human lives results in a number of toxic outcomes. Neurodivergent young people who don’t think they have a “super-power” may feel they are doing neurodivergence wrong. A focus on earning power reinforces existing prejudices based on gender, ethnicity, education and disability. The pursuit of capitalist-defined strengths risks excluding people with a learning disability from the neurodiversity narrative. And researchers are driven to use economic arguments to demonstrate the value of their work.
None of this is meant to suggest that neurodivergent people cannot be high-earners (look at the actor Emma Watson, or the entrepreneur Richard Branson), and of course we should work on breaking down barriers to achievement that result from the inaccessibility of much of education and employment. But if we do all this in an effort to prove that neurodivergent people can be good contributors to capitalism, we will be failing the truly inclusive goals of neurodiversity.