Why the world needs neurodiverse people

Neurodiverse people tend to feel bad about themselves, often considering themselves deficient. And yet, it is neurodiverse people to whom humankind owes its greatest achievements. We often can only speculate about past personalities, but sometimes it is pretty obvious they were neurodiverse: Leonardo da Vinci (dyslexia), Isaac Newton (ASD), Thomas Edison (ADHD), Vincent van Gogh (schizophrenia), Kurt Cobain (bipolar).  

If you ask me why the world needs neurodiverse people, I can put the answer in one word: innovation. We tend to think of ourselves as an extremely intelligent species, and yet the number of innovators among us is surprisingly low:

When innovation researchers ask representative samples of people whether they have modified any products at home or created anything new from scratch (such as tools, toys, sporting equipment, cars, or household equipment), about 5 percent report that they have done so in the last three years. * The innovative species, one in ten or twenty seems awfully low. William von Hippel, The Social Leap (2018)

When we think of innovators, we typically think of technological innovation. However, innovation concerns all areas of life. The world urgently needs innovators. The economy needs innovators to come up with new products, the health system needs innovators who come up with new medicines and vaccines, politics needs innovators to keep tribalistic tendencies in check and maintain peace. Society needs innovators to come up with new stories and movies that influence our values and make living together harmonious.  

We can broadly distinguish between technical and social innovators, with social innovation including diverse ideas such as “queuing/standing in line”, programmes to help the homeless and new teaching methods for the 21st century. The vast majority of these innovators come from a neurodiverse background: hunter-gatherer type people (with neurotypicals being mostly farmer-herder type people). Common to all those innovators was their unwillingness to accept reality as something given, something passed on by tradition and something unchangeable. Unwillingness to conform and doing things the way they have always been done. 

Without these technical and social innovators early farmer-herder societies would have never been able to scale up. Indeed many didn’t and were ended by diseases, depletion of resources or violent conflicts. The past couple of years have shown that our world is much more unstable than we used to think. Innovators of all kinds are necessary for a sustainable future.