The term neurodiversity has become quite popular in the last 10 years and implies that there is an enormous range in how we perceive, process and express ourselves and that we should honor these differences instead of labeling certain groups as disabled or mentally ill. This movement really has its roots in the autistic community, some of whom feel that their unique ways of seeing and experiencing life should be honored and not regarded as an illness to cure. But the term has now spread to embrace wide segments of society who consider themselves neurodivergent, such as those labeled with schizophrenia or bipolar. Those who see themselves as neurodivergent differentiate themselves from those who make up most of society, or neurotypical people.
The emphasis on neurodiversity comes in part as a response to what is perceived as a dominant society disenfranchising large groups of people by labeling them as ill or disabled, instead of uniquely gifted. There is intersection with those who are critical of psychiatry for vastly emphasizing labeling, medicating and treating a large portion of society as having a mental illness. Some in this community may object to standard psychiatric diagnoses being legitimate and may not self-identify as having a label such as ADHD or Borderline Personality Disorder.
There is also a great deal of cross section with communities who are oppressed such as people of color, women and the LGBT community. The word neuroqueer has been used to both honor neurodivergence and also to mash up the term with people who have been traditionally maltreated. Some people in the LGBT community object to anyone who is straight taking on the term neuroqueer.
But there is complexity because while the term neurodiversity honors varied ways of experiencing life, that does not necessarily mean acceptance of suffering. Most who are labeled with a psychiatric disorder, or are going through profound torturous psychosis, may consider themselves neurodivergent, while still wanting to reduce or eliminate symptoms of distress. There is a fine line between accepting divergence while also wanting to lessen suffering.
Evolution and Neurodivergence
As an herbalist I tend to see things through the lens of the plant kingdom. The evolution of plants and flowers took place over hundreds of millions of years, and they adapted to their environment in a way that improved their survival and reproduction. We see in the plant world an enormous amount of variations in flower morphology from the simplest delicate violet to the blustery and showy sunflower. Each plant adapted to its environment and established a niche where it could best thrive. These plants have also adapted to carry complex and unique arrays of phytochemicals including polysacharides, alkaloids, volatile oils and glycosides that act to strengthen, defend and communicate information to the wider environment. Like plants, people express wide differences in morphology and in neurochemistry.
There is a difference, however, between underlying variations in neurochemistry and changes derived from stress and trauma. One is integral and the other has to do with environment. Just as a plant grows with a unique shape, color and taste, it can be easily altered by the landscape. For example, the yarrow plant grows low to the ground and tastes stronger, more acrid and potent when it grows high in the hills. But at a lower elevation, it grows taller but also appears to be a little less intense and strong as an herb. Essentially the tougher conditions of wind and cold affect the shape and flavor of the plant. People who grow wine grapes have long known this and have a word for it- terroir- the way that landscape and climate impacts the shape, flavor and taste of the grapes.
Sometimes a tougher climate and environment creates the template for stronger, more vibrant plants, but sometimes those conditions can cause damage and bring about disease and even death. A little stress tends to build resiliency in both plants and humans, but too much is weakening and leads to collapse.
Trauma and Healing
So when we talk of neurodiversity, we are talking about two different things. We are talking about the underlying neurochemistry of a person, or what people from traditional medicine backgrounds call one’s temperament or constitution. And we are also talking about the neurodiversity that can develop from stressful and traumatic conditions. In the first case, we are talking about an underlying predisposition, something to be honored and not considered a malady or a disability. Some people are born with extreme sensitivity. Some are born more restless and excitable. Some appear shy and some verbose and forceful. Some are born with autistic traits that are inseparable from their personality.
But in the course of time, as stress and trauma impact the individual, there is the potential that these events can lead to greater imbalance, the potential for emotional distress and illness. Essentially, these are conditions that hopefully can be changed. Just as a plant can thrive after being replanted in soil filled with a substrate of dense nutrients, humans can also thrive when offered a highly nutritious diet and given love, care and company. We are not so unalike plants and man- just give us a window near the sun, enough water, some good food to eat and a few companions and we are likely to do quite well.
So yes, stress and trauma can impact neurodiversity, leading to complicated illness states and an exacerbation of underlying traits towards deep imbalance. There is a place for intercession, for honoring the intact essential constitution and temperament while still attending to the effects of stress and traumatic wounds. If we watch a tree that has been struck by lightning, we can see that over time, the tree bark grows around that wound, encapsulates it and carries on. The wound never leaves, but the tree remains strong.
Where the modern mental health system and traditional concepts of healing have diverged is that in the former, illness is perceived as a lifetime condition. That person has schizophrenia, or that person is bipolar. This implies permanence and the need for a life time of treatment.
Instead, in folk and traditional forms of healing, one would say that a sensitive person with a propensity for unusual perceptions and cognition has experienced stress and trauma that has led to an extreme state. They may be momentarily challenged, but that person does not have integral “mental illness” or a disability that is inescapable. Like a Douglas Fir, each one of us can be scarred by the fire and storms of our environment, go on to heal and stand tall and strong again.