Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Some of My Best Friends are Neurotypical

I have what you might call inverse-autism. While people with autism often experience sensory overload and resulting discomfort, I often experience sensory under-load and resulting discomfort. While people with autism often miss social queues, gestures and other non-verbal communication, I am intensely aware of and often distracted by every random glance, change of cadence, or absent minded toe tap. While people with autism struggle with abstraction and being overly literal, I hear unintentional double-entendres in every-other phrase.

Autism is often described as a spectrum of symptoms ranging from mild to severe. The symptoms are arranged into groups with names such as Asperger's Syndrome, Classic Autism, Pervasive Developmental Delay (PDD), and so on, typically with Asperger's Syndrome playing the role of mild autism. In short, there is no such thing as autism per se, just collections of behavior patterns (responses to environmental stimuli) to which we've ascribed names.

From a more neuro-holistic perspective, Asperger's Syndrome would not be an end point but something more towards the middle. Instead, the endpoint would extend to the left passing through the neuro-typical center and out to the other extreme that I'll call Severe ADHD.

I tried googling what you might call Severe ADHD, but didn't find any terms; perhaps we could call it Teflon's Syndrome?

All this is on my mind because I just returned from an event in Washington, D.C., called the World Health Care Congress, an event I can best describe as a two-day period of extreme sensory-deprivation.

The event was billed as a summit focused on innovation in the delivery of healthcare services. Speakers used phrases like disruptive technology and social engagement. I was excited to see what the new breakthroughs were. I closed my eyes, bracing myself for the overwhelming onslaught of creative ideas and breakthrough products.

I waited.

I opened one eye.

I opened the other.

I looked around.

I searched high and low.

I couldn't find anything that a self-respecting innovator would consider innovative. The more radical "innovators" were applying decade-old technology to century-old problems.

I approached speakers who'd described the need for innovation during their presentations asking them for examples of what they meant. Some would laugh nervously saying, "Well, you know, technologies that reduce costs while improving outcomes."

Others would point to examples outside the healthcare industry, or more specifically to people outside the healthcare industry, saying things like, "We have be more like Steve Jobs at Apple."

A third group described multimillion-dollar efforts to create new, pervasive systems that would transform healthcare service delivery. For example, one system would magically interconnect all the disparate collections of healthcare information and make them available at the click of a mouse. Having spent most my work life in systems development, I was excited about these efforts. I asked lots of questions. I quickly realized that time-travel would be consumer-ready long before any of these efforts reached the trial phase.

So what did I learn? Well for one, the phrase healthcare innovation could easily displace military intelligence and legal ethics as an example of the unintentional and widely employed oxymoron.

For two, I learned that, um... Let me qualify what follows by saying that a) I am prejudicially biased and b) I would welcome informed correction. Here goes. Nothing innovative will ever come from the neurotypical. At best the neurotypical seem capable of cross-derivation, i.e., taking an idea applied in one domain and then applying it to another, or as we used to say in school, they're copy-cats.

I don't mean to offend the neurotypical and I would welcome feedback and correction from any neurotypical advocates, but frankly, I don't see it happening. I just think it's important for the neurotypical to recognize that, if they truly want to see breakthrough innovation, they may need to embrace the discomfort that often accompanies exposure to the neuro-atypical (from either end of the neurological spectrum).

On flip-side, it's time that we start viewing undesirable, neuro-atypical behaviors as the side-effects of super powers that the behavior-er hasn't yet learned to manage: that we no longer toss out the baby with the bathwater, so-to-speak.

Other than that, it's really good to be back home among the neurologically-challenged.

Happy Wednesday,

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