The two faces of neurodiversity

Neurodiversity is the movement that proposes that autism, dyslexia and ADHD are not only considered disabilities. It suggests the recognition of innate neurological differences, respect for individuals without seeing them only as subject to a cure.

Language is important when it comes to putting a label on people. And in the United States, 1 in 59 children are labeled with autism, and 6.1 million with ADHD.

Describing someone as “disabled” implies that they have no capacity. Saying someone is “dysfunctional” implies that they do not function. Maybe not everything is going perfectly for individuals who are neurologically atypical, but describing them in such negative terms does not help them find and develop what they have the “capacity” for.

When we think about diversity, we think about things like ethnic differences or sexual orientation. But there is another way: neurodiversity. Little attention is paid to accepting people who have neurologically different minds, discovering or celebrating their strengths, or valuing their differences.

The autistic mind, for example, has an unusual ability to detect patterns, something the technology industry highly values. You can concentrate better than the average mind and experience deeper sensations. Since autism is a spectrum, there are also extreme cases where they need help with their daily functions.

The strengths and special interests face needs more attention. Dominant perspectives stigmatize more than they help. People with neurodiversity should be encouraged to put their energy into discovering what they are good at and what they like to do, and finding a place where they can be successful and contribute.

Since 2021, a project has been developed in our country, Argentina, that can resolve a paradigm on mental health anchored in society since the industrial revolution. It is an initiative that can change the destiny of thousands of young people who suffer from isolation.

It is an adjective that includes everything from autism to children born very prematurely with maturational commitment and others with specific challenges.

Several fears haunt the parents of young people who grow up, once they lose the space of school insertion. The main fear is what will happen to them when they are not there to help them. The greatest distress is seeing them enter adulthood without having a clear purpose.

There is a postponement of adulthood, the lack of a job and therefore a lack of integration into social life. Young people with neurodiversity become neglected children.

Families live in contact with psychologists, teachers, therapists, directors; who always has something to say without concrete solutions appearing. It is good and important to paint public monuments blue on Autism Day or establish a mandatory employment quota for people with disabilities in state companies or in the private sector. But none of these strategies change the lives of the kids who are left alone waiting for transportation to take them home when their classmates go out to have fun. Well-intentioned advances calm society's conscience; but they do not solve the problem of those who need to feel integrated.

It was the decision to think about integration by understanding its language and its perspective. For society, neurodiverse young people are like illiterate people.

Dr. Fernando Polack had the brilliant idea of ​​creating a restaurant he called Alamesa operated entirely by neurodiverse young people. In March 2024 it opened its doors after a long time of rehearsals for workers to learn their trade.

At Alamesa they have a menu designed by chef Takehiro Ohno, and a kitchen that does not use fire, knives, or scales, which applies the sentence of the little mouse from Ratatouille: 'Not everyone can devise a menu, but everyone can. cook. Each dish is served on tableware that is identical to the color of the ingredient jars. For example, for a loin milanesa with fries, a burgundy plate is used, the same color as the jars of breadcrumbs, eggs, and flour, which allow the production of that meal for the week.

The dishes have competitive prices with those of the restaurants in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Las Cañitas, where it is located. You can only go with a prior reservation since the number of diners is limited for organizational reasons.

Their strategy allows them to compete on equal terms with top-level restaurants in our specialty area, generating a profitable venture. And thus become a reproducible experience in every corner of the world, where thousands of disabled children and their families anxiously spy on the future. The program dispels the idea that people with 'another' understanding of our world can only perform minor, simple and banal tasks, and that excellent service cannot be expected.

Although the initial idea and conception of the development came from Polack and his project directors, Sebastián Wainstein and Raúl Borgiali, other people joined the process due to interest in the project. Among them is the filmmaker Juan José Campanella, who has recorded Alamesa minute by minute. This is how the first training sessions, the first meetings have been filmed until reaching the first tables served with dishes cooked without edges and without fire.

Campanella and his team of professionals completed a documentary that will go to a top streaming platform in the short term, in which the entire process of creating the program and training the kids is recounted.

Martín Churba designed the uniforms: the typical kitchen whites were used, which reflects equality between everyone, and an explosion of colors that communicates diversity. The plates are designs by ceramist Natalia Marín and they hide many secrets that make the work easier.

The computer systems are designed from scratch, according to the particular needs of the place. This facilitates distribution through different carts designed with letter and color codes for customer service.

The project is profitable and the surplus goes to a trust that, with suggestions from the kids, is allocated to a collective project. What he does started as a difficult idea, it started behind closed doors. The 40 restaurant workers have been training for a long time according to their assigned tasks and from this something emerged that made everyone happy.

The most extraordinary thing is that Alamesa is a party. Today, after work or on weekends, the young people who work there get together to go to the movies, play bowling, do karaoke, go to a plaza or have an ice cream with friends. Something that, like society, only makes it easier for typical people, without these challenges. And that is living life to the fullest.

Instead of seeing them as a disease, we must see that these differences are a gift and a disability. Society needs exceptional thinkers who produce diversity in the world. Neurological diversity, or neurodiversity, is a new addition to the already familiar categories of class, gender or ethnicity

Writer Robison described neurodiversity “as an emerging civil rights movement” in the article that compares it to the fight for LGBTQ or African-American rights. And specialist MacEachron agreed: «Yes, I think it is similar as a category to define people. It is the diversity of brain connections. It is often hidden, not perceptible to the eye like gender or ethnicity.

For parents of children with autism, ADHD, dyslexia or Asperger's, those labels confront them with a decisive choice: change the child to fit the environment in which they live, or the opposite. For neurodiversity advocates, there are many ways parents can try to change the environment so that each person thrives with their characteristics.

Children could be given breaks to get their energy out, they could be allowed to walk around the class, they could be spared the requirement of sitting at a desk for hours. Sometimes those options are not available.

Children are educated at home, for example, or must cope with an environment that is constantly challenging. But even then things can be done to help the son or daughter be who they are and thrive. Part of that is accepting that the son is someone original who may not live up to expectations, but he is nonetheless an individual who deserves respect.

The genes for autism and ADHD are not errors but the result of variations in the human genome and our evolution, which have advantages for our society.

For example, people with dyslexia can understand the big picture of conversations and the connections between things more clearly and quickly. There are researchers who theorize that this advantage of panoramic thinking may be due to the fact that the neurons of dyslexics are more elongated.

Some genetic variants linked to autism could be the result of positive selection as well: they favored extraordinary memory development and intensified perception of sight, taste and smell, as well as the understanding of large systems.

Tech companies specifically seek to hire and accommodate individuals with autism, who are especially good at working with systems and details.

The Israeli army has a special unit for individuals with autism that is dedicated to breaking codes. Being an entrepreneur is a kind of micro-habitat that usually welcomes individuals with ADHD. Subcultures also exist in gaming communities and among artists. People who think differently.

Even in those who do not present these dysfunctions, diversity is a competitive advantage. This is seen in the performance of work teams. If all members were creative, the result would be a mess of ideas without execution. The ideal is to bring together creative people who generate innovative ideas, analysts who select the best ones, executives who implement them, and socializers who promote them. Neurodiversity is an advantage.