Saturday, May 17, 2008

New Concept: "Context Disorders"

I don't normally bother reading articles on MSN, as most of them are pretty vapid, but this one caught my eye.

It's titled "The Upside of ADHD," and while it only spends a little while discussing those advantages (it's a very short article, and, this being MSN, most of that text is spent introducing the One Famous Guy who serves as the illustrative anecdote), the trend it describes among ADHD researchers --- thinking of ADHD more holistically, as a different cognitive style with both strengths and weaknesses, and not inherently pathological --- sounds an awful lot like neurodiversity. I hope this trend is for real, and isn't just being extrapolated from a few books that happen to come out all at once; psychotherapy would be a lot more useful if it moved away from trying to shoehorn everyone into the same mold of "normalcy" and instead tried to help people make the best use of the minds they do have.

I have to say, though, my conversations with mental-health professionals give me reason for optimism. Although the media coverage of autism continues to be deplorable, every one of the four psychologists/psychiatrists I've spoken to about this (the psychiatrist I'm seeing now, the psychologist I saw in college, and my college abnormal- and general-psych professors) has agreed enthusiastically that autism should be seen not as a disorder but as a difference. Here's hoping the public discourse catches up with what autistic people and (most) mental-health professionals already know!

Still, as awesome as that whiff of neurodiversity-promoting from MSN was, the thing I really wanted to post about was this quote from author and radio personality Thom Hartmann:
If a left-handed person has a job cutting origami with right-handed scissors, that doesn’t mean they have a disability; they have a context disorder ... Short people trying to play basketball have a context disorder.

I really like the idea of the "context disorder." The operative principle seems to be that there's nothing inherently wrong with people who have such "disorders;" they just happen to be in circumstances that do not favor their particular idiosyncratic mix of traits. As I demonstrated in my previous series of posts on "Employment Issues in Autism," autism is a context disorder in that so much of life depends on social interactions, which are both unintelligible and irrelevant to us. Similarly, a person with ADHD will find it hard to succeed in an academic system geared toward rote learning, seatwork and passive receptivity. This doesn't mean the person with autism or ADHD is stupid or pigheaded; it means they're as out of their depth as you would be if you were to find yourself whisked into a milieu dominated by a different type of mind.

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