Image of Dave Cole's website
Equity and Inclusion,  Multimodal,  Professional Development

Language and Neurodiversity

As we dive into one of our primary resources for this FPLC, I am thinking more about language and the way it plays a role in defining “normal” in our society. In my first post, I noted that understanding the way “disability” is defined is important to framing neurodiversity because it indicates a way of approaching the term. If we define through a negative term like disability, we are saying someone differs from “normal.” In a follow-up conversation with a colleague, he wondered if we would need to individualize our wording to fit student preference, as we do for pronouns. Since I grew up assigning pronouns based on my assumptions, I’m still working on not assigning singular pronouns, instead trying to defer to “their/them” if the student has not indicated any preferred pronouns. When it comes to neurodiversity, what is more acceptable, “they are autistic,” or “an autistic student,” for example? Perhaps it is personal preference or folks won’t take offense either way.

As I continue to build my understanding of terminology, I’d note that in Susan Fitzwell’s Medium article, “The Language of Neurodiversity: Terms and Definitions in the Age of Inclusivity,” the author creates context for the application of terms. “Neurodiversity” encompasses all ways of thinking, for example, in the same sense that “diversity” is a general term but adding a modifier narrows the field, like in socio-economic diversity, religious diversity, or racial diversity. “Neurotypical” thinkers fit society’s norms of thinking whereas “divergent thinkers” think differently from society’s generally accepted ways of thinking. Divergent thinkers may be considered neurodivergent and may be diagnosed with autism, ADHD, or cognition that is sometimes considered a disorder, but that is another term that implies a negative rather than a difference.

“…getting done what I’m working on in the most efficient manner may not be as important as the next big idea.”

Dave Cole, Sculptor
From the documentary Normal Isn’t Real

Within the context of using accurate and respectful language, viewed the first profile from the film Normal Isn’t Real. Dave Cole, sculptor, and his parents described the struggles for him as he went through high school. Dave, who has ADHD, described going to school as an environment that “made me feel like shit” everyday. He became rebellious, starting using drugs to self-medicate, became homeless, and then eventually found his way back after a year and a half. Most remarkably, he was able to attend a school that did not treat his neurodivergence as something to be solved, and then he attended Brown University, where he was academically successful. He was able to channel his talents and interests to find a work process and organizational process that fosters his success. He notes in the film, “…getting done what I’m working on in the most efficient manner may not be as important as the next big idea,” indicating that his process allows for him to feel successful when his thoughts interrupt his process. He embraces that this may lead him to his next project idea.

It seems to me that many artists display neurodivergence of thought as they conceive and create their art. I am interested in mixed media to create meaning, and I find Cole’s use of materials, particularly in multimodal approaches, to be thought-provoking. Some of my favorite of Dave’s pieces are comments on war, such as “three generations,” which includes three types of grenades made to look like rattles. “American Flag (Bullets),” which is a collection of spent bullets to create a flag, and “Song Books of the War,” a multimedia piece featuring an “invalid’s chair” from the early 1900s with about 200 pounds of buffalo nickels stacked on it and the poem “Song Books of the War” (click to hear poem read) featured next to the image of the artwork.

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