Jewish tradition has long valued and nurtured neurodiversity

We need to build on our long history of cherishing unique minds and be champions of a societal change in attitudes


German born American physicist Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955), 1946. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

November 23, 2023 16:33

Human cognition is a beautiful tapestry of complexity, with an astonishing range of processing styles and profiles — a phenomenon eloquently described as neurodiversity. This principle upholds the recognition of, and respect for, neurological differences, considering conditions such as ADHD, autism and dyslexia not as diseases or defects needing a cure but as natural variations in the vast landscape of the human brain.

Society often fails to appreciate the full spectrum of this diversity, especially when it deviates from conventionally accepted norms. As a neurodiverse individual diagnosed with ADHD and autism later in life, my experiences have provided insights into the profound influence that recognition can have on personal development and professional success.

My academic pursuits fuel my interest in neurodiversity. I seek to contribute to the discourse within psychiatry, advocating for broader recognition of neurodivergent individuals and the need for tailored arrangements that suit their unique cognitive needs.

The last few years have seen an unprecedented upsurge in scientific research on neurodevelopmental disorders. This has prompted significant discussion, urging society to reconsider traditional attitudes towards individuals with neurodivergent conditions. It’s also leading us to re-evaluate ingrained beliefs such as viewing ADHD and ASD as distinct disorders caused by brain dysfunction.

An emerging counter-narrative challenges these entrenched views. This alternative perspective posits that ADHD and ASD exist on a spectrum, reflecting traits distributed across the population rather than falling into rigid diagnostic boundaries. This perspective compels us to shift our focus from one of deficits to one of differences in functioning. It underlines the unique capabilities and strengths of neurodivergent individuals, recognising that these differences can offer advantages, even though they also pose challenges.

There is a centuries-old Jewish tradition of nurturing unique minds, which has spurred many individuals to make remarkable contributions. This culture of acceptance, understanding and guidance harmonises with the principles of neurodiversity.

Indeed, understanding and accepting neurodiversity holds special relevance in the Jewish community due to a higher prevalence of certain neurodivergent conditions linked to specific genetic factors. Ashkenazi Jews are known to have a higher prevalence of certain genetic disorders due to historical patterns of endogamy (marrying within one group).

While these conditions might be more prevalent, it’s important to point out that prevalence doesn’t imply disadvantage. It instead reflects the rich diversity within our community and the array of cognitive profiles it represents. And with our deeper understanding today, it is possible many of these minds have been on the autism spectrum. Albert Einstein, for example, is often speculated to have been on the spectrum due to his documented eccentricities and focused interests.

There are numerous other Jewish figures. Isaac Asimov, the science fiction writer, had such an intense focus and was so prolific that he may have been on the spectrum. The acclaimed Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein displayed traits throughout his life that have been interpreted as indicators of autism. Woody Allen, the iconic filmmaker, has long depicted characters with neurodiverse traits in his movies. Some have suggested Allen himself might be on the autism spectrum based on his self-described anxieties. And Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook, has been speculated as on the spectrum, though this has never been acknowledged by Zuckerberg himself.

But if we are to genuinely embody these Jewish values of acceptance, understanding and guidance, we must broaden our understanding of neurodiversity. We need to advance beyond mere tolerance and accommodation towards a more encompassing embrace.
In London, organisations such as the Langdon Foundation and Kisharon have been leading efforts in support of neurodiverse children and adults. They offer educational opportunities, support services and inclusive environments that foster independence, personal growth and seamless integration into the community. Internationally, bodies like the Friendship Circle have built nurturing networks, crafting platforms where neurodiverse individuals can flourish and make meaningful societal contributions.

But there remains substantial room for improvement. Jewish wisdom encourages us to expand our efforts. Judaism has traditionally celebrated diversity, considering it a reflection of the Divine. Our teachings promote understanding, acceptance and recognition of the inherent value in all individuals. The Jewish tradition underscores the value and sanctity of every individual life, extending this respect to people with neurodivergent conditions. The concept of “B’tzelem Elohim”, being created in the image of God, underscores the inherent worth of each individual, irrespective of their neurocognitive profile.

Religious leaders occupy pivotal roles in this. They can mould perceptions, cultivating a more profound understanding of neurodiversity within our community. Their advocacy can help champion a cause that resonates deeply with our faith’s teachings, promoting a more inclusive society.

I recently submitted a petition to the UK government, advocating for the recognition of neurodiverse individuals as a distinct minority group. However, this petition was redirected towards another proposal aimed at recognising neurodiversity as a Protected Characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. But although enhancing legal protection is vital, this approach leans towards a defensive stance, categorising neurodiversity under the umbrella of “disability”.

While we mustn’t downplay the importance of legal protection, the narrative about neurodiversity must transcend defence. We need to celebrate neurodiversity as a source of richness and potential.

Promoting neurodiversity inclusion within the Jewish community and beyond requires a comprehensive strategy. We need to engage in conversations about neurodivergence, including openly discussing it in schools, synagogues, community gatherings and other platforms. This will encourage a shift from seeing neurodivergent individuals as “other” to recognising them as integral members of the community.

Schools can play a vital role in promoting understanding and acceptance of neurodiversity by including related topics in their curricula. By integrating this knowledge, we ensure that younger generations grow up with an understanding and appreciation of neurodivergent individuals, paving the way for a more inclusive future. Community leaders, including rabbis and teachers, can receive training to better understand neurodivergent individuals. With this knowledge, they can accommodate neurodivergent congregants or students and foster an environment that celebrates neurodiversity.

We should focus on building inclusive spaces, ensuring synagogues, community centres, and schools are accessible and comfortable for neurodivergent individuals. This could include offering quiet spaces for those who might be overwhelmed by noise and crowds or providing resources in different formats to accommodate various learning styles.

Providing resources and support for families with neurodivergent members can help them better understand and support their loved ones. This could include educational resources, support groups or counselling services.

By championing this cause, the Jewish community can lead the charge towards a society where neurodiversity is viewed as a strength, a key component of human diversity that should be celebrated rather than stigmatised. In doing so, we fulfil our commitment to Tikkun Olam, contributing to making the world a better place, one mind at a time.

Dr Eugene Nivorozhkin is Associate Professor in Finance at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, UCL

November 23, 2023 16:33

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