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Are you in a NeuroTribe?

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Those of us in the neurodiversity movement are overjoyed; Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity has gone mainstream. It has been featured in the The New York Times, NPR, BBC, The Guardian, among others. It has won at least one prestigious award. And personally, I’ve teared up on multiple occasions as I’ve listened to the audiobook on my commute to and from my day job.

It’s thrilling.

And this huge neurodiversity win leaves me thinking, what’s next? Now that this issue is front-and-center, what questions remain?

While Silberman profiles many gifted people in his book, giftedness (arguably an aspect of neurodiversity) is never named as a separate tribe. As a reader who has spent more time reading about giftedness than autism, part of me bristled at the exclusion. After more consideration, I realize that I have more critiques of current gifted scholarship than I do about Silberman’s book, which is diligent and unspeakably relevant.

I ask (not of Silberman; he’s busy these days) for a similar diligent study of what The Columbus Group knew (and when they knew it) of so much overlap between the range of giftedness and spectrum of autism. Their definition of giftedness as asynchronous development paired well with the understanding (at the time) of autism as a developmental delay.

Yet many in the gifted community subtly work to distance themselves from autism, to my ears with a flavor of relief more than clarity. (GHF is the only organization of a certain size I have found that deals with neurodiversity in a way I feel comfortable with; they publish a variety of books and brochures for education and outreach). Check out discussions on social media, and you can hear the audible relief of parents having an explanation other than autism to describe what is happening for their child. So much of the current literature doesn’t help. (I don’t even want to link to the books and articles I refer to, so as to avoid sending more traffic there).

How many self-understandings have been delayed because of stigma of autism? How much better will parents, educators, and therapists be able to serve young kids with Silberman’s revelations in their consciousness?

NeuroTribes2This is probably going to be unpopular for me to say, but the label of twice-exceptionality (2e, used when one presumes giftedness as the first exceptionality) is part of the problem. People try to create a bridge between two worlds that aren’t really separate by talking about 2e. And does anyone really have only two exceptional traits? I would prefer a more integrated world that honestly looks at how all of these traits are related to one another.

I’ve written about “gifted and 2e” families myself, trying to follow existing norms. Upon further reflection, the common phrasing of 2e as “gifted with a learning disability” doesn’t even account for autism (unless you understand how giftedness is brain wiring and autism is brain wiring).

Autism is a lot of things, but “learning disability” doesn’t quite capture it. The solution is the neurodiversity paradigm.

Before I throw the rubber ducky out with the baby (pardon me, I have an infant son), I am also skeptical that the autism community supports the most precocious in their midst. “Asperger’s” is blasted as elite in some Autistic circles, which I find ironic considering how I came to it in very humble life circumstances four years ago. I want some leaders from the gifted community to talk more with some leaders in the autism community, folks like Lynne Soraya, Nick Walker and the Autism Women’s Network.

With Silberman’s NeuroTribes doing so much to clear up the history of autism, I anticipate that “I’m so glad it’s not autism” conversations will happen much less frequently. Yes, figure out how your mind works (perhaps you have a customized operating system), and what works for you (take your passion and make it happen). And perhaps don’t call a person 2e or 3e or 4e when “neurodivergent” will suffice.

Silberman, while writing about science writers who have intense social impact, extends his impact with a calm building of well-anchored arguments. I would love follow up volumes on other conditions (dyslexia most urgently), for I trust Steve to continue and extend the work of his dear friend Oliver Sacks, who wrote his foreward. At a minimum, I want his same guidance, observations, and historical insights through social movements as we live the next moments of neurodiversity.

I don’t know exactly how to respond to this book, but I am certain I will incorporate its insights into my work in the coming years. I do know that I want everybody in the gifted community to read NeuroTribes, and see themselves as a part of neurodiversity and not an island unto themselves.

Besides, more in your midst are Autistic than you admit.

{ 27 comments… add one }
  • Jade Rivera November 3, 2015, 7:23 pm

    The terms neurodivergent, neurotribe and neurodiverse offer us all a chance to pivot away from isolating and alienating practices. As a long time g/2e advocate I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with others lamenting the misnomer of the word “gifted” and the inadequacy of the term “2e”. As I’ve said in print, and elsewhere- “We are all one, we are not all the same.”

  • Corin Goodwin November 3, 2015, 8:49 pm

    Bob, I’m glad you recognize GHF’s efforts to address the neurodiversity issue. We do try hard to get that message out. And I see your point about the term “2e”, because I often struggle to find the best explanation – not just ” gifted plus an LD” but “multiple diagnoses, one of which is giftedness.”

    While I appreciate your desire to rid all of us of the term 2e, I think you are way ahead of the curve on that. We’re still just introducing the concept of “multiple diagnoses where gifted is one of them” and I think – in the mainstream – we’re going to have to approach it one step at a time. At GHF, we’re in it for the long haul. If we push people too hard up front, they’ll run screaming. It makes more sense for the work we do to gently introduce difficult topics, so people have time to truly grok it in a way that works for them. If you want to take that on, though, you know I’ll personally support you 🙂

    Your work in this arena is invaluable. I’m going to hang on to this post to think it over further. I’m also pretty ecstatic about Steve’s book going mainstream. His award is the best news I’ve heard all day!

    • byamtich November 3, 2015, 8:57 pm

      Thanks Corin. I’m touched, and will also take more time to think this through. I want to be patient with ideas, for sure. Part of what Steve’s book has given me is a sense that so many people were doing the best they knew how to. And, I wish they would have done differently in some circumstances. Steve’s book sure helps with empathy and compassion.

      • Corin Goodwin November 3, 2015, 9:02 pm

        Absolutely! And keep in mind that while biggest orgs might be wise to take a more measured approach, individuals like you have fewer constraints. You’re free to run ahead and break ground for the rest of us. 🙂

  • Paula Prober November 3, 2015, 9:29 pm

    This book sounds great, Bob. I’ll have to add it to my library for sure. I also see what Corin is saying about timing. I was just listening to someone today who was talking about how empathy is often the best approach when trying to change people’s thinking. It might not serve you or the “gifted community” to come from a critical perspective. Make sense? We’re all in this together. I always enjoy hearing what you have to say!

    • byamtich November 3, 2015, 9:37 pm

      Thanks for your comment! Steve Silberman certainly offers so much empathy in his book. I hope you find it meaningful, and that it changes your thinking 😉 It has changed mine.

    • Sara November 3, 2015, 11:28 pm

      If we can’t take a “critical perspective” in the gifted community, where can we?

      • byamtich November 4, 2015, 9:44 am

        I am reminded of Inbal Kashtan’s NVC Tree of Life, with self-connection as the roots and branches of empathy and self-expression. It takes a lot of practice to dance amongst the three. Daily practice, even. Thanks, Sara, something did rub me the wrong way about Paula’s comment. Either she doesn’t understand who I am, or she doesn’t operate at a level of abstraction that we enjoy, or some third option I haven’t yet considered.

        • Corin Goodwin November 4, 2015, 12:50 pm

          I think you guys are misunderstanding Paula’s comment. I think she was agreeing that it’s important to address issues, but also to use that empathy in choosing how we communicate. She was adding to the conversation, not criticising it! 🙂

  • Gail Post, Ph.D. November 3, 2015, 9:36 pm

    Really interesting, innovative perspective. There are so many complexities with how the mind works – you are opening up new ways of viewing giftedness. Great article.

    • byamtich November 3, 2015, 9:40 pm

      Thanks Gail! I appreciate your comment. I think the capacity to handle complexity is a central skill in giving people relevant feedback and guidance.

  • Marianne Kuzujanakis November 3, 2015, 10:17 pm

    I love Silberman’s book Neurotribes, and it well deserves all the accolades bestowed upon it.

    Yours is a needed article, and I too wish one day to see the imprecise terms gifted as well as 2e vanish in favor of neurodiversity.

    I’m, however, sadly dismayed by the depictions you post about Drs. Webb & Silverman. Both have long advocated for gifted as well as 2e individuals.

    I am myself one of the co-founders of The SENG Misdiagnosis Initiative which continues to work diligently behind the scenes to bring increased awareness of neurodiversity in all its shades and lights. I was deeply honored to have shared a panel with Dr. Grandin and the authors of Bright Not Broken at a national conference. The soon to be established Lorna Wing/Bright Not Broken Institute likewise has the heart of 2e and neurodiversity as its focus. GHF has indeed been outstanding as well.

    The world slowly changes, as most changes do come slow, and with changes comes the challenges of accepting those changes. This new era is not unlike the 1970’s era of special needs. One day the understanding and acceptance of neurodiversity will “truly” be mainstream.

    I look forward to that day.

    • byamtich November 3, 2015, 10:30 pm

      Totally. I would love to participate in more of those conversations, and I also appreciate the authors of Bright Not Broken.

      As far as the sad dismay, I was also sad and dismayed, or perhaps surprised and disillusioned. The impersonation wasn’t the centerpoint of his talk, but still ill considered. And, I’ve long loved Dr. Silverman’s work. I had an earlier preview of wanting more of a focus of neurodiversity. I point out two valid criticisms, in a context of longstanding appreciation of their long term advocacy that I would have liked to better introduce.

      • Marianne Kuzujanakis November 4, 2015, 7:18 am

        I’m sad and dismayed, but perhaps not in the same way as you seem to be. I just can’t believe your depictions.

        Would it not be more reasonable to directly speak to Dr. Webb and Dr. Silverman about your perceived concerns or impressions, rather than make a negative public and personal statement?

        Does it serve our gifted population to be divisive?

        I obviously understand your goal – it’s everyone’s goal (to increase acceptance of neurodiversity), but there is a vast perspective of history that extends many decades into the past. Both Dr. Webb and Dr. Silverman (as well as the new NAGC president Dr. Betts) are among those professionals instrumental for many decades in moving public perception forward to a place where we today can even consider embracing neurodiversity.

        • byamtich November 4, 2015, 8:31 am

          Thanks for the second comment as well; it helps me get closer to taking in your ideas. I have updated, and relegated to this comment only, the key paragraph we are discussing. I hope the switches to “surprising” (replacing “shameful”) and “could do more” show more self-responsibility on my part.

          Thank you for naming Dr. Betts as a third leader in the gifted community. This complements well the three leaders in autism that I named. I’m getting that there is progress behind the scenes that I am not privy to, and I appreciate all of your efforts to increase awareness and acceptance of neurodiversity.

          I’m not a policy person, just a guy with a baby who has spent a lot of time thinking about this.

          “The gifted community has a long and subtle pattern of trying to distance themselves from autism and other forms of neurodiversity. I’ve seen psychologist James Webb, founder of SENG, do a surprising impersonation of Temple Grandin, and he literally wrote the book on misdiagnosis and dual diagnoses for gifted kids. Even psychologist Linda Silverman, founder of The Gifted Development Center, especially her book Giftedness 101, could do more to counter the “at least they aren’t Autistic” defense of gifted kids, yet her work on visual spatial thinkers fits squarely in the neurodiversity paradigm.”

          • Marianne Kuzujanakis November 4, 2015, 9:30 am

            I’m sure Dr. Webb and Dr. Silverman would appreciate your now respectful removal of the original statements against them made in your original blog. Strangely, there is no longer even a mention of either professional in your revised post.

            Furthermore, your original judgmental statements regarding Dr. Webb and Dr. Silverman are now seamlessly replaced (as the web so seamlessly is apt to do) with a more subtle and altered version shown only in your above comment without reference to your original adjectives.

            Everyone desires full acceptance and recognition of neurodiversity. That’s obvious. Many countless people are working ceaselessly in this direction. It is yet another of a long line of human battles for equality. Each takes time and careful finesse. Divisiveness only sets back the goal post.

  • Kathleen November 3, 2015, 10:30 pm

    This is thoughtful and insightful, Bob. And I think you make a great point. We do need to know more, and to really think about neurodiversity in regards to giftedness in new ways. I like the phrase neurodiverse – it really says different not better or worse. And it’s a way of thinking that can take time to fully grok, but I also think it’s the way forward. Thank you for writing about this topic. I’ve had Neurotribes on my reading list for a while now – I think it’s just been bumped up a few places.

    • byamtich November 3, 2015, 10:41 pm

      Thanks Kathleen! “Neurodiversity” and “different operating system” have helped some parents really open up to new ways of understanding their family. Your comment makes me consider how it also takes time, as an individual, to fully grok how one’s own mind works. I think you’ll like Steve’s depth and rigor, and the book is sustained by a series of in-depth treasures of research that others have called tangents. I wish it was even longer; I know he cut a lot.

  • Kim Miller November 5, 2015, 12:06 pm

    Bob, Your words, as always land deeply, they meet a need our family has. I’m not even sure exactly what name to give that need, connection, mutuality, respect, understanding…..YES, a thousand times yes. As a mother of two amazing, sensitive, intense, gifted girls, one Asperger’s and one Dyslexic, yes. And thank you. I was just assuring my Aspie daughter the other day that her neurodiversity is special and yes she is different, and yes there are some challenges, and yes she feels different. Yet there is a whole world of connection and understanding if we just seek it out. And no she is not defined only by her Asperger’s or her giftedness, but by the whole beautiful package that she is. I have encountered a lot of well meaning resistance in regards to pursuing her diagnosis, “well isn’t she just gifted and sensitive”, “she’s so normal, she’s not really autistic is she?” For our family the label of Autism opened the door to some amazing help, and It provided a deeper understanding. We are only as empathetic as we are self aware, and for our family, the awareness of autism has been healing. It was a key piece in identifying the best path to getting our daughter’s needs met. I deeply share in your wish that the label of autism did not come so often with that hook of shame. Thank you to all who encourage embracing the fullness of who we are. Awesome words, and I am picking up the book to read!

    • byamtich November 5, 2015, 5:42 pm

      Thank you. This is why I do what I do. Your message has touched my heart, and I highlight your words: “We are only as empathetic as we are self aware.”

    • Corin Goodwin November 6, 2015, 4:06 pm

      Kim, I’d like to add that one of the issues with diagnosing based on psychology rather than neurology is that the criteria tend to be outward – behavioral or reported – rather than what is actually happening inside the person’s head. We have heard so many times about people who claim their children “outgrew” autism, when either they weren’t autistic in the first place, or what changed with the child is that they learned to behave in a way that didn’t make the person uncomfortable anymore. The person is still autistic, but they have learned to behave differently.

      As they get older, they have to hide it even more, or face the “but you don’t look/act autistic crowd.” This is a particular problem for 2e young adults – invisible disabilities at work are a nightmare. I’ve begun working with this population (and advocating for them at university and in the workplace), because there is SO MUCH that needs to be done. GHF will be expanding in that direction over time, as well.

  • Melinda November 7, 2015, 12:14 am

    I agree they are changing but those of us with kids who fit current (oxymoron) educational paradigms, we are forced to straddle the tension of knowing and living the neuro-diversity that we know – all the while advocating and educating through the current education system paradigms. It’s hard.

    My oldest is highly asynchronous 99th percentile verbal IQ with a genuine neurological structural difference (partial agenesis of the corpus callosum), SPD, mild (if there is such a thing) vision and hearing impairments. So we are truly neuro-diverse. There are a zillion lenses and paradigms to look through at human development. I just think we need to be compassionate as we educate and make the transition from a more 2e term (educationally based) to a more global description and understanding.

    • byamtich November 7, 2015, 10:11 am

      Yes! Your comment reminds me of the importance of compassion in particular when there is so much that we don’t know. What I want to take away from your point of the “zillion lenses and paradigms” is a reminder to look at if a person’s self-understanding (or a system’s understanding of them) is meeting their needs for dignity and growth, then we can begin by celebrating those intentions.

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