World Autism Month is an event each April focused on sharing stories and providing opportunities to increase awareness and acceptance of people with autism. A core part of that message is the concept of neurodiversity—the idea that autism, and other neurological differences like ADHD and dyslexia, are natural variations of the human genome rather than "diseases" to be cured.
My five-year-old daughter Bo has autism. She is bright, curious, loving and enigmatic. Like many parents, much of what I thought I knew heading into this gig has turned out either wrong or less-than the whole picture. Bo has shifted my perspective on many aspects of life, but the most profound lessons have revolved around human connections. She's helped me see parenting as a relationship to be nurtured rather than skill to be mastered. She has showed me that being a good example is more impactful than providing good instructions. And she's highlighted that being present, fully, is table stakes for building and maintaining a personal connection. Looking back, I'm humbled at how far I had drifted from these fundamentals and how facile my understanding of neurodiversity was before our badass Bo came along.
Advocating for a neurodiverse child shines a harsh light on how we, as a society, view neurological differences. How these differences, which may be hard to see as an outsider looking in, so often go unnoticed, and how that ignorance can lead to intolerance and confusion. How we've only scratched the surface of fully understanding autism and other neurological differences. And how our collective lack of knowledge can make fitting into the world a herculean task for the neurodiverse. Bo opened my eyes to the potential of neurological differences in those around me, and in turn helped me gain a deeper understanding and acceptance of my own neurologic idiosyncrasies. As someone with sensory processing disorder (SPD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), how I think about these conditions has shifted from a furtive suppression to a sincere sense of gratitude. My own differences are not something to be cured or embarrassed about, rather, they are core elements of what makes me 'me.' The idea that these elements of myself are somehow divisible is a fallacy. And through this growth in perspective I've been able to embrace and even feel empowered by my differences.
Neurodiversity brings real challenges, but also many gifts. There is no shortage of examples of innovators whose contributions to society are a result of the way they think differently. Many of the most influential scientists and creative geniuses in history are believed to have been on the autism spectrum. Is the unique way these people experience the world what led to their innovative ideas? At El Cap, out-of-the-box thinking is at the heart of what we do—supporting innovators as they find creative and novel solutions to big problems. And it's exciting to see companies that have embraced different types of thinking in a more formal way. A great example of this is Ultranauts, a QA services business where over 75% of professionals are on the autism spectrum. Ultranauts is on a mission to demonstrate that neurodiversity is a competitive advantage, and their progress to-date is encouraging.
Academic thinking and research around neurodiversity is rapidly advancing, but we still have a long way to go. The idea that neurological differences are natural variations in the human genome—like height or eye color—is still a novel concept for many. And better understanding how these variations can convey extraordinary skills and aptitudes will have vast ramifications; from how we educate and foster the neurodiverse, to a deep cultural shift that embraces and celebrates human intelligence in a wider range of forms. My hope is that increased awareness will help us interact with more empathy and acceptance. And overtime, will change not only how we talk about neurodiversity, but creativity and innovation as well. Understanding that the differences in how we see, process, and interpret the world are sources of strength and the commonality that makes us human.