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Nearly eight billion people live on Earth today. That’s eight billion brains and eight billion different ways of thinking. Because no two people think the same way, each mind is distinct. Some brains have innate differences that change the way they function, straying away from neurotypicality, which describes a person who develops certain social and organizational skills at a similar rate as their peers. The contrasting idea is neurodivergence, where an individual’s brain functions differently. This may affect the way they deal with change, distractions, and other stimuli on a daily basis. Neurodivergence can manifest in many different ways, with no single one “better” or “worse” than another. Diversity is the natural way of the world, and neurodivergence is a phenomenon that has introduced us to countless unique, incredibly important minds.
Cory Coleman is a Special Education teacher at Stuyvesant who specializes in neurodivergence. Coleman herself is a twice-exceptional neurodivergent. She was diagnosed with multiple learning disabilities by the age of 12 and went to college at age 16. “I knew that [neurodivergence] was an area that I wanted to go into because I felt that there were some things that definitely needed to change,” Coleman said.
Coleman explained that twice-exceptional neurodivergence is characterized by having remarkable ability in certain areas and facing relative challenges in others. If a neurodivergent student were to take an IQ test, they would likely score two clinical marks above average in one area, and perhaps two marks below average in another.
The strengths and challenges in twice exceptionality are often correlated with each other. For instance, someone with orthographic dyslexia (difficulty storing information presented visually) may have a remarkable auditory memory (the ability to repeat and recall information presented orally). Since the brain isn’t putting as much energy into orthographic processing, its plasticity allows it to compensate by putting this extra energy toward the auditory memory, making it much more advanced than what is considered neurotypical. For instance, because of this advanced auditory memory, the individual would be able to effortlessly recite quotes from a book that had been read out loud to them only once.
Coleman said that neurodivergence is much more present in elite education environments like Stuyvesant. The amount of neurodivergence at this school is atypical; an estimate of 210 to 350 students at Stuyvesant qualify as twice-exceptional neurodivergent. If a random sample was taken from the general population, there would likely be a much smaller percentage of those whose cognitive characteristics would present themselves in the same way as those of Stuyvesant students. “The level that students can engage in things like coding, and linear linguistic systems, like some higher degree of math, or can speak three languages by the time that they graduate, that is all neurodivergence,” Coleman asserted. However, it is important to note that not all students who are able to do this are neurodivergent. It's just that for a neurodivergent individual, these abilities may come more naturally.
The way neurodivergence manifests itself varies from person to person. This can affect their lives in many different ways. Not all neurodivergent people need individualized support. First of all, in many cases of neurodivergence, the gap between one’s strength and their area of challenge is not very large. Though their neurodivergence could cause difficulty in some areas, they could still learn without special support. Especially nowadays, with the countless resources that technology provides, it’s easier to deal with the various challenges that neurodivergence can create. One example of this is time-managing digital applications. These may help neurodivergent people who struggle with organizational skills and time management. Nevertheless, for some students, individualized support is necessary. These students typically receive specific services throughout their educational experiences, and Stuyvesant strives to continue this support with the best possible quality. “We have actually increased our program significantly in the last few years. And how we support the students very much depends on what each individual child needs,” Coleman shared. For example, they may provide executive functioning support to students who struggle with organizational skills and create an environment with minimal distractions for students who have trouble concentrating. Examples of support include allowing extra time during tests, giving students visual/audio aids, and providing clear, concise instructions.
Neurodivergence is far from a disadvantage—some of the most influential minds in history were neurodivergent. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the world-famous classical musician and composer, is believed to have had Tourette Syndrome, a neurological condition causing repetitive movements and unwanted noises (tics). This may have contributed to his extraordinary talent and stimulated certain behaviors, such as obsessive-compulsive tendencies, fidgeting, and facial and motor tics.
Neurodiversity is an umbrella term that describes every different type of mind. It’s an incredibly important word because, without neurodiversity, the world wouldn’t have many of the exceptional thinkers and learners we know today.