Neurodiversity, Not Learning Disabilities

The current governor of Connecticut, Dannel Malloy, caught my attention last year when the Associated Press ran a story about his dyslexia: “I’m embarrassed all the time about that,” Malloy is quoted, referring to his writing disability, and I was puzzled: Why would a successful politician feel embarrassed because of a lack of writing skills? After all, most politicians usually hire writers. Upon reading the story, one sees the school wounds that are still with Governor Malloy: his memories of the teachers and students who thought or said he was mentally retarded and his public embarrassment about his struggles as a late bloomer. It is clear these wounds still hurt, and it is inspiring that Governor Malloy is willing to speak freely about them, not only to the press, but to students labeled with learning disorders, too. Unfortunately, the governor is reported to commiserate about how, like him, the students are likely to be embarrassed throughout their lives by their inability to write well, rather than provide them with examples of his innovativeness for creating a niche where his strengths could take root and overcome his weaknesses.

This is what Dr Thomas Armstrong calls positive niche construction, and it is one of the many successful strategies that he describes in his groundbreaking book, Neurodiversity: Discovering the Extraordinary Gifts of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Other Brain Differences . Governor Malloy, and others like him, might not feel their dyslexia is a gift, and Dr. Armstrong isn’t trying to put lipstick on a pig. He writes:

By focusing on the “hidden strengths” of mental disorders, I am not attempting to sidestep the damage that these conditions do. I am not saying that these really aren’t disorders or that somehow calling them “differences” will make all the pain go away. It won’t. But there is merit in focusing on the positives. The term “neurodiversity” is not a sentimental ploy to help people with mental illness and their caregivers “feel good” about their disorders. Rather, it is a powerful concept, backed by substantial research from brain science, evolutionary psychology, anthropology, and other fields, that can help revolutionize the way we look at mental illness.

By mounting a huge campaign on the strengths of people with mental disorders, some of the prejudice that exists against mental illness might be diffused. It also seems to me therapeutically useful for people with mental disorders (and their caregivers) to focus on the positives as much as, or more than, the negative. Seeing our own inner strengths builds our self-confidence, provides us with courage to pursue our dreams, and promotes the development of specific skills that can provide deep satisfaction in life. This creates a positive feedback loop that helps counteract the vicious circle that many people with mental disorders find themselves in as a result of their disabilities.

I wrote this book because I wanted to start a serious campaign to begin researching the positives among people who are defined in terms of their negatives.


I’ve had the honor of hearing Dr. Armstrong speak on several occasions, and in one keynote speech Armstrong noted that while modern science views the brain as a computer, he and others view it more as an ecosystem—a brain forest—a metaphor I immediately liked. Thomas expands this idea further with Neurodiversity:  “ . . . we need to admit that there is no standard brain, just as there is no standard flower, or standard cultural or racial group, and that, in fact, diversity among brains is just as wonderfully enriching as biodiversity and the diversity among cultures and races.”

Governor Malloy deserves lots of credit for speaking out about his learning issues, though it is clear he feels his brain is less than standard. However, as with the many examples Dr. Armstrong provides in his book, I think you will be impressed by how Governor Malloy used his auditory skills and “passions for public speaking and government, and refused to . . . be defined by his learning disability.” In doing so he provides us all with a real example of personal achievement, often despite of his schooling, and one he should not be embarrassed about.

NOTE: When Neurodiversity came out in paperback its title was changed to:

The Power of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain (published in hardcover as Neurodiversity)