Note: This piece uses both person-first and identity-first language, based on how the persons referenced choose to discuss their neurodiversity. In unsure situations, the author has defaulted to person-first language.
Science is an ever-evolving thing. As we learn more, do more, and see more, science changes and grows as well. Certainly, there are a plethora of things that contribute to the ability to do better and more efficient research; when asked, people may answer with better tools, new technology, or even funding. However, the researchers themselves play a crucial role in the evolution of science. With new researchers, of course, comes a much-needed addition to scientific study: diversity.
Laurent Mottron, a psychiatrist who specializes in cognitive neuroscience research in autism at the University of Montreal, knows exactly how important neurodiversity is to research as a whole. One of his most prolific partnerships is with Michelle Dawson, an openly autistic researcher. In his publication, “The Power of Autism,” Mottron makes a point to highlight the fact that “… autistic behaviors, although atypical, are still adaptive.” Because of this, he says that neurotypical researchers can unfortunately display a negative bias even as they seek to research neurodiversity. His partnership with Dawson, with whom he has co-authored over 13 works, has served to solidify the idea that neurodiverse perspectives are not just helpful— they are a necessity.
Mottron also points out that the diagnostic criteria of many conditions, like autism, rely on negative aspects, rather than positive ones. This underscores something that many neurodivergent researchers already know: studies on neurodivergency also have a tendency to pin their focus on its negative manifestations. Without the perspective of neurodivergent researchers, the trend towards exclusive study of negative traits can contribute, however unwittingly, to stigma. Jac den Houting, a research associate in the Department of Educational Studies at Macquarie University, echoes the this sentiment in an interview for the article “Meet the Scientists Redefining Autism Research,” saying “[t]here’s a lot of research coming out that unfortunately doesn’t take into account the fact that autistic people are going to read what you’re writing.” Reading research that is informed by stigma can contribute to a snowball effect; if new research is based on the research that came before it, it can be difficult for stigma to be broken— and as a result, a feeling of being “othered,” or an outcast, in academic environments can persist.
As neurodiverse voices contribute more and more to their fields, however, stigma has begun to show a slow, yet promising, fade. Monique Botha, a researcher with autism who studies stigma and discrimination against autistic people and is an associate lecturer at the University of Surrey, shared her perspective: “For every high-quality piece of work an autistic researcher puts out on autism, the more the autistic perspective will be valued or recognized.”
The perspective of neurodiverse individuals is a necessity in fields other than psychology. Temple Grandin, a faculty member with Animal Sciences at Colorado State University, has extensively documented her personal experience with autism. Grandin credits her ability to empathize with livestock to her neurodivergency, which has in turn led her to creating more humane methods of treating them. With over 60 published works and numerous appearances in other media (including multiple TV appearances, films, interviews, and even a song named after her), Grandin is among the most famous researchers of animal sciences.
Her prominence is a clear indicator of the benefit of neurodiverse perspectives in science. Within the realm of research on neurodivergence, researchers whose own experience mirrors elements of their research often provide insight which benefits neurodiverse individuals as a whole. Neurodiversity is also linked to higher levels of creativity in many publications, pointing towards unique research and research methods that could further shape and advance numerous different fields to amazing heights.
Works Cited/Additional Reading:
Grandin, T. (n.d.). Temple Grandin: Inside ASD. Retrieved from https://www.autism.org/temple-grandin-inside-asd/
Mottron, L. (2011). The power of autism. Nature, (479), 33-35.
Nuwer, R. (2020). Meet the Autistic Scientists Redefining Autism Research. The Scientist.
Emma McGeary is a Gallery Presenter and Natural History Interpreter in Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s LifeLong Learning Department. Museum staff, volunteers, and interns are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.
This post is part of Super Science Days: Scientist Takeover!