Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Neurodiversity.-A biologist’s perspective

Neurodiversity.-A biologist’s perspective

I remember wincing as I sat in the Lecture Theatre listening to a particular lecturer referring to people as being disabled by ‘having neurodiversity’.
I would not have winced if the lecture was about the implications of neurodiversity in way we educate. The way that we ought to start out is by considering ‘mixed capability learning’ or the need to consider that a population of any animal is diverse in design.’
But it is not just about ‘neuro’ diversity; unless by that we include variation in the range and capability of our sense organs.  These are not really plastic. Their design is consequential of genetics and interaction with the environment in a ‘physical way’.
On the other hand if we are really talking about the brain in terms of the way we these days look at MRI scans and extrapolate perhaps too much from them, then we are talking very much about a ‘plastic system’ which develops with us, responsive to the design of our sense organs.  
There is one basic rule in biology. If we treat each person as a ‘system’, that system will always use its capabilities to minimise the amount of energy needed to undertake a task.
For example if the visual system is compromised in any way, then you can expect the connectivity and localised energy usage (what an MRI sort of measures) to modify to minimise effort. When we see an MRI scan then much of what we see will in reality reflect sensory limitations/ capabilities rather than (or in addition to) built in neurodiversity which is genetic in origin.
There was a guy in the 1960’s who had hydrocephalus. The brain was squashed right against his skull, but with appropriate input it was able to function academically at a very high level. It was a plastic enough system to adapt to perform the tasks it was set.

If we modify, enable our sense organs to function more effectively then our brains will adjust to the new data input, if it is easier. 
My work tells me that a font 14 will enable many more people to read fluently. When I think of reading , I think about it in terms of edge detection, computing maximum visual data in each fixation, holding the edge data in memory , maximising automaticity, minimising demand on the central executive (a psychology construct) and hence liberating ‘working memory’ (another psychology construct) using the ideas developed by Baddeley at York.
 We need to consider neurodiversity in terms of maximising the number of people who can access the main means of communication….Text.   That is a visual concept. You can argue that phonological capability is reality predicated on visual performance.   But then who am I? Just a biologist.

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