Why Neurodiversity in STEM?

by Jodi Asbell-Clarke

The world is changing more rapidly over time. Our problem solvers require flexibility and ingenuity to deal with this uncertain future. Our society needs nimble thinkers who look at problems from new perspectives, pay attention to salient details, and consider unintended as well as intended consequences. We need thinkers who imagine beyond what others have already envisioned and are so passionate about an idea or a question that they will persist until they find an answer. We need problem solvers who will speak up for their solutions no matter what it makes others think of them.  

When we look at some of the greatest intellectual disrupters in history and today—people such as Isaac Newton, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Wolfgang Mozart, and Greta Thunberg—we consider their creativity, innovation, and ingenuity as remarkable. Each of these ingenious people also exhibited indicators of what we now call autism, ADHD, or other differences related to thinking and learning. That may not be a coincidence. 

Neurodiversity is a term to describe the differences in how people’s brains operate. While educators and psychologists often talk about autism, dyslexia, and ADHD as deficit-based learning disabilities or disorders, a neurodiversity perspective emphasizes the unique set of assets and deficits associated with each person’s brain. Neurodiversity assumes natural variation in the structure and functioning of brains, analogous to the variation in height, weight, hair and skin color among individuals. Neurodiverse advocates often see brains as having individual “fingerprints” where one person’s brain is no more correct or typical than the other, just different.  In 1999, Harvey Blume wrote in the The Atlantic; “Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of wiring will prove best at any given moment?”

Global companies in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), such as Microsoft, SAP, and EY (formerly known as Ernst & Young), are adopting a neurodiversity perspective. They want to add that diverse talent to strengthen their workforce. They see neurodiversity as a competitive advantage and aim to strengthen their companies by hiring and supporting people whose brains work in different ways.  

STEM problem solving in the workplace requires well-honed disciplinary approaches to a problem. For example, a scientist often asks questions about the world around us and designs experiments that can gather evidence to answer those questions. An engineer often designs and tests products and systems to enhance our lifestyles and to keep us healthy and safe. These STEM practices require foundational habits of mind including creativity, persistence, and systems thinking—which play to the strengths of many people who are considered neurodivergent. 

Unfortunately, neurodiversity is often seen in our educational systems as something to fix, or at least something to mitigate for the sake of education. In today’s US schools, about 20% of students are diagnosed with a learning difference resulting in an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or equivalent. This is a plan arranged between the school and parents or guardians, along with specialized experts when requested and available, to provide accommodations and supports for the student in school. While there are many dedicated and talented people working for the education of these individuals—special educators, learning specialists, paraprofessionals, speech and hearing pathologists, and occupational therapists, to name a few—our education systems are largely not designed to help neurodiversity thrive.  

Many children with IEPs are highly intelligent. Many have talents surpassing their peers in specific areas important to STEM problem solving, such as creativity and systems thinking. Their education, however, often focuses on reading and other basic skills, not on the authentic STEM problem solving where they may be able to reveal their important and unique talents.  

In a 2006 TED talk (to date, the most viewed TED talk of all time), education scholar Sir Ken Robinson said: “Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won’t serve us.” Robinson described our schools as products of an industrial age where we sort our children by manufacture date and educate them with an assembly line mentality. While I think schools may be slowly moving away from that bleak factory vision, in some places more than others, Robinson’s call for school reform that emphasizes creativity and flexibility remains largely unanswered. 

Recognizing neurodiversity for its strengths as well as weaknesses can transform our workplaces, schools, and future society. The schoolchildren who are in elementary school today will be the ones responsible for solving society’s problems in just a few short decades. Students today are the ones who will deal with sheltering, feeding, and providing for my generation in our older age. They are the ones who will find new sources of energy and medical interventions that carry our species onward. They are the ones upon whom we will depend for innovation and informed decision making. I hope we do well in preparing them.