The Value of Neurodiversity

A few weekends ago, I decided to go for one of my somewhat over-the-top running adventures. I found a way to take a bus to the western edge of Harriman state park, a beautiful forest less than one hour from New York City. On the eastern edge of the park runs the local commuter train along the Hudson river. Traversing these two forms of public transportation allowed me to create a significant day-long trail run with lots of route options and some decent ups and downs. On the first part of the run, I had a cell signal, and I decided to give my mom an overdue call. While we were talking, she was saying how I have always loved hiking. We talked about how my dad introduced us both to hiking and how much we appreciated him for that. At one point, I explained, “Hiking is such a big part of my life, and a significant aspect of hiking for me is how it affects my attention.”

My mom paused for a few moments and then asked, “Are you talking about your Attention Deficit Disorder?” When I was in middle school, I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). For me, the ADD diagnosis was mostly about finding ways to deal with being in traditional classrooms where my mind did not behave properly. I was fortunate to get a lot of help finding strategies to develop organization skills, meet deadlines, read text, produce coherent writing, etc. Over time I was able to overcome many challenges and even become successful in a school setting.
Interestingly there was nothing I needed to overcome regarding my hiking life. I replied, “You know, mom, the funny thing about it is that when I am hiking I don’t have a disorder. My attention works just fine.”

When I hop over rocks and roots, way-finding on an unfamiliar trail, and use my peripheral vision to take in the surroundings, my attention feels very much in its element. I seem to have a proclivity for this kind of stuff. I wonder if this is precisely what my brain was wired up to do. When I am in the wilderness is when I feel most relaxed and at peace. It is a form of meditation that I crave. Even when I am quickly descending a rocky slope, and I need to gauge every step carefully, every upcoming rock, every possible trajectory to ensure that I don’t lose balance or misstep or get hurt, I feel a deep calm come over me that I don’t feel as intensely anywhere else in my life.

Now I am not trying to deny that I have ADD or that attentional differences are not real. When my wife tells me a story and stops me from saying that my questions sidetracked her from the story she was trying to tell, I know that my peculiar attentional profile is at work. I even have cognitive strategies to address the situation. I can apologize, slow down, consider her perspective, and alter my natural responses to be more in tune with what is needed in a particular situation. Learning to address my attention involved the development of targeted strategies, particularly in situations where my style of attention was not best suited.

I found the book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman provided a powerful framework to think about this idea. Kahneman describes two different types of thinking in our brains. System 1 thinking is automatic and feels instinctual. An example given is recognizing faces. It feels almost as if your brain is not doing any work, even though the recognition of faces is an incredibly complex and challenging task. This type of thinking seems to come naturally to us and be the default. System 2 thinking is slow and deliberate and requires a great cognitive load. The book mentions mathematical calculations as an example of System 2.

When I was sitting in a middle school classroom as a child some students seemed to get through the period primarily with a System 1 approach, fluidly managing normal classroom activity with ease. Of course, there were many times when System 2 was required for learning, but other structures in the class were meant to provide recovery from the challenges of learning and were therefore meant to be easy. In contrast, I seemed always to be using my System 2 brain to stop looking out the window, focus on what the teacher was saying or just complete my homework. It sometimes felt like my attention was broken.

Hiking through the forest, gauging terrain, calculating water availability, and monitoring my breath and level of exertion have always felt very natural for my brain, very much a System 1 experience. I think that is why the outdoors is my safe space and where I find comfort and happiness that sustains and nurtures me as a person. So I would argue that attention and its functionality very much depend on the context and environment where that attention is being utilized. As a learner, I have found ways to alter my attention in situations where I struggle. More importantly, I have found ways to leverage the strengths of my attention in various situations. When it comes to neurodiversity, too much of the focus is on overcoming challenges, such as the strategies I employed in school to pay attention and get work done. I would like there to be more focus on the strengths of neurodiversity, such as how I so effortlessly run along trails in the forest. Maybe then we could better understand that neurodiversity, like any type of diversity is an asset rather than a liability. When I am trail running, I celebrate my neurodiversity. That is probably why it feels so self-affirming.

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Greg Benedis-Grab

exploring the intersection of coding, education and disciplinary knowledge