Last time, I discussed neoteny and its relation to neurodiversity. Included there are the characteristics of physical neoteny and psychological neoteny, how neoteny evolved, where neoteny is most evident, and its similarities to neurodiversity.
“But a lot of neurotypical people have neotenic characteristics. Why relate it to neurodiversity?”
Yes, some neurotypical people have childlike characteristics, whether it be in interests or physical aspects or acting like a dependent child with no sense of responsibility or even physical neoteny by having a baby face. But neurodivergent (ND) people are seemed to have more childlike traits than most people psychological, mentally, and neurologically. I didn’t say neoteny is similar with neurodiversity. They just have some commonalities, which are harmless and creative in a sense but can be destructible depending on the situation. I cited ADHD as an example where it retained its childlike characteristics of curiosity, playfulness, wonder, creativity, flexibility, inventiveness, and humor. Childlike traits in autism spectrum include childlike naivety and inquisitiveness. The childlike traits may be good in religion (humility and innocence), but not necessarily good in education, employment, and social arena, courtesy of modern living and neurotypicals (NTs).
Are neurotypicals to blame?
It’s not that NTs are the fault why neurodivergent (I’ll abbreviate this as ND for short. This is not official but just for the sake of convenience…) people suffer discrimination. (Fellow NTs do also experience that). The problem here is that people with ND brains are not fit in the 21st century type of 9-to-5 employment (the multitask, highly verbal, multiple intelligence, highly social sort of work). It’s as if NDs are useless, slow, and immature in this complicated and fast-paced world. (Even NTs do find it hard to live today, but not as severe as ND).
What are the problems associated with “neotenic” traits of neurodivergent people?
In our modern way of life, ND brains are too “immature” and “childlike” that are considered “not good” or “ill-fitted” to the “one-size-fits-all” criteria for NT people to cope well at school, work, and social arenas. Too bad. Because of this norm, NDs are labeled and are isolated and prejudiced as if they are the problem but actually are not.
Problems faced by ND children when mingled with NTs:
Lucky are the ND children who are diagnosed and identified right away. Special education programs are offered to help ND children cope with learning styles (and also managing behavior). For the undiagnosed ND kid, trouble usually follows. His childlike (or “age-inappropriate”) quirk may appear as rude behavior to classmates and teachers and may be subject to reprimand by teachers, suspension or expulsion by the school admin, or bullying by peers without truly understanding why the “childish” ND kid acted that way and how it affected his school environment. This scenario may be too much; let’s say his wandering mind can cause rejection by peers that could cause mood disorders and ill-coping mechanisms (sorting to displacement or acting out, denial, suppression, etc.) just because the ND kid is different and childlike in behavior.
But even ND children are managed in SpEd schools, when they mix with NT children, situations are still similar.
Problems faced by ND adoloescents when mingled with NTs:
AS NDs enter junior and senior high school, things become more complicated. Autonomy, peer pressure, conformity to pop culture, fashion trends, and sexual experimentation pop up so do add up to the challenges the neotenic ND has to face. The common denominator of having learning disabilities, ADHD, and autism spectrum is social isolation in childhood, where they already missed the “hidden” social rituals, and when they become adolescents, their time bomb explodes and suffering has become a commonplace. Being childlike here at this stage of life is a big no-no; otherwise, you’re out. An outcast. This results in either withdrawal of the ND adolescent to depression and social isolation or rebellion to parents in order to fit in the neurotypical world like forcing to fake oneself (shapeshifting) just to be accepted by peers.
Another problem in ND adolescence is their naivety. NDs almost always have black and white, linear thinking that either follow authorities’ preaching religiously or rebel with peers squarely with no gray area in between. Their literal thinking then become subject to bullying, sexual abuse, and sometimes teenage pregnancies and parenthood.
Not good. Low self-esteem, suicidal tendencies (or actual suicide), mood and eating disorders, teen pregnancies, educational underachievement, or criminal tendencies to cope with feelings of inadequacy or to act “mature.”
This is even when NDs in SpEd mingle with NTs.
Problems of adult NDs when mingled with NTs:
ND adults face a Herculean problem in college and further in employment. They are no longer part of the state or private run special education (though some colleges offer these but not post education). This becomes more complicated if the ND is not diagnosed. Wrong career/vocation choices could lead to further educational underachievent like dropping out or repeatedly getting different college courses. This also poses a problem in employment because the “childlike” traits of impulsivity and/or literal thinking is a major cause of low productivity output, which of course, is not good for the employers, causing them to reject ND adults. (I repeatedly experienced these prejudices resulting in my constant termination from all but one of my jobs.)
Social environments are way harsher than in the younger years. Especially in office settings, where all sorts of “invisible” social cues are present combined with multitask employment, poof, the adult ND’s neotenic traits absolutely suck in this type of environment. Plus, adult NDs (especially those with autism spectrum) are “not that attractive” (nice guy/girl loser sort and juvenile looks, though not all possess that) when it comes to dating and relationships.
Niceness (read: socially naive, innocent, literal, childlike thinking) and honesty (bluntness) are not attractive to the neurotypical lover nor diligent to the neurotypical employer. Especially in the fast-paced world where neoteny is not the ideal.
Unfortunately, what modern society lacks is the creative, analytical, novel approach of the neotenic neurodivergent mind, which is very much needed in employment and relationships.
In an article by The Guardian, the UK National Autistic Society (NAS) launched a campaign called “Undiscovered Workforce” where it aims on autistic adults to increase employment opportunities.
Below is an excerpt:
According to Jane Asher, who is president of NAS, autistic people often make better employees than those known in the word of autism as “neuro-typicals” – ie, the rest of us. She explains: “People with autism tend to be very reliable and punctual. They like routine, and most won’t mind doing repetitive tasks. Many are very good with maps and figures. They are usually scrupulously honest – they just don’t have the guile to be anything else, and they can’t lie.
“There is a huge lack of imagination on the part of employers who are missing out massively by ignoring this untapped pool of labour.”
Proponents like Asher say it’s not about pushing the charity card – or even corporate social responsibility – but about a real benefit to employers of taking on loyal, talented people with unique skills. They also say that what is good for those with autism, can be good for us all; for example, the need for employers of autistic people with autism to brush up on communication skills, which can be beneficial to everyone.
“People with autism tend to be very reliable and punctual. They like routine, and most won’t mind doing repetitive tasks. Many are very good with maps and figures. They are usually scrupulously honest – they just don’t have the guile to be anything else, and they can’t lie…”
Being totally honest and not able to lie is a neotenic trait. Isn’t that great? Unfortunately, bluntness is bad for businesses, as this drives clients away.
So neotenic childlike traits are really bad at all?
No. Wrong image. But I sometimes think that nice guys are way similar to neurodivergent people
in discrimination and isolation.
So neoteny is bad and so as the neurodivergent too? The world doesn’t need them; they suck, right?
As stated, neoteny is theorized as an evolution process. This means the prolongation of a brain’s development may have given us extra invaluable time with which to pick up knowledge and skills. You may notice that children are naturally curious, “can’t be tamed” (not the Miley Cyrus song, eh), creative, detailed, playful, and “out-of-the-box” imaginative traits as well, are the very characteristics of the keen learner, usually the child.
The ability of the brain to learn is apparently greatest before full maturity sets in, “and since neoteny means an extended childhood, you have this greater chance for the brain to develop,” says molecular phylogeneticist Morris Goodman of Wayne State University, who did not participate in this study. In other words, human evolution might have been advanced by the possibilities brimming in youth.
Now, as the child enters puberty, his brain becomes dramatically reorganised and our grey matter actually starts to shrink, as unused connections between neurons are trimmed in a bid for efficiency. This means the neotenic traits of learning are being trimmed also but skills and knowledge have already been honed. There is an advantage here. An adolescent’s skills can now become his career choice in adulthood. That’s good. Because it will be easy for a neurotypical person to pick any career he wants, mingle with people, and build his sense of identity. But there is also a disadvantage: the sense of childhood is lost, so does it contribute to less curiosity, which may lead to inflexibility of the mind to adapt to changes or conceive novel ideas as innovative solution, which could lessen his inclination to learn new things.
On the other hand, the neotenous neurodivergent’s seemingly more advantageous brain is actually a deficiency in 20th and 21st century societies. The very traits that made humans the most evolved species on earth were made into medical disabilities and became subjects to prejudice and abuse.
Why are neotenic neurodivergent people prejudiced?
As the world become more fast-paced with one-size-fits-all education and employment system, the neurodiverse traits now don’t fit in this particular type of system, even in the romance arena (where the traditional courtship rituals is replaced by the vague hanging-out-hooking-up culture).
In the classroom setting, more hours are now spent on thousands of written rote exams and whole day sitting in the classroom that makes the ADHD child completely bored. There the symptom inattentiveness comes in, teacher refers child to counselor, then to child psychiatrist, and medication to control his brain. Therapies can be done, too. Although special education is there, labeling the child as problematic is common that this can make the child think “he’s useless” because he can’t be just like everyone else, concentrate and follow his teacher. Period.
At work: most offices would like to hire an employee with the following characteristics: team player, good communication skills (read: social politics), presentable, quick to learn. Hmmm…there’s really nothing wrong with that, but the problem is some companies just hire employees without psychological testing. There, for example, an Asperger (higher autism spectrum) adult was hired. But he was not properly oriented about the job specifics (and office politics) that could be a disaster for him. Why? The invisible social rules there as well as his atypical way of stress relief (twirling hair, quiet time) makes him vulnerable to exploitation, suspension, or even termination because he just can’t follow his boss’s whims or he can’t read (especially when the latter’s not aware with ASD in adults). Now the blame is put on the Asperger adult and not on the company itself.
Okay, maybe neurodiverse people can’t be fit into certain education or employment. But the following cause of discriminating NDs totally sucks.
Okay. How pop culture contributes to prejudice of neurodivergent people?
Pop culture dictates everything. From what clothes you should wear, what makeup should you use, how to get a guy/girl quickly, to becoming “in” just to fit in the world. Of course NTs would be pressured to fit in, but it would be easier for them to adapt than from NDs. Thanks to pop culture, NDs are pushed aside and being laughed at. For example, watching chick flicks in the tween years is common. Now a tween girl dislikes that sort of thing and would prefer watching cartoons and anime over flicks (prolonged childhood, common in ADHD and dyspraxia, but not all). All of the other girls mock at this girl and calling her “immature” just because of the interest. The same goes with fashion. A teenage girl preferring to wear cute dresses and pigtails is being laughed at by her more provocative peers wearing skimpy clothes and heavy makeup. Very bad. That’s bullying.
This is how neotenic NDs are prejudiced. The modern world seems to forget the big contributions some neurodiverse people have made to advance civilization. Hint: Some names you associate with the Enlightenment have suspected ADHD (Da Vinci), autism spectrum (Newton), Tourette syndrome (Mozart), and other neurodiverse conditions. Their atypical minds actually made profound contributions in human revolution that made us what we are today. That’s what were before. But now, since instant gratification is the norm and not the actual process of learning is preferred, what we totally lack is the childlike inquisitiveness that made human evolution possible. If we insist on the one-size-fits-all thing, disaster follows as people will be just the same herd without achieving a milestone that our ancestors did for a hundred millennia.
What the neurodivergent need is acceptance and support that they are born that way. Therapy to know neurotypical world and not forcing them to be a neurotypical is a must in order for them to live a happy, satisfying life, just like everybody else, just like little children with no sense of shame and self-doubt.
Acceptance is the key. Not all people are born to mature in the standard of the neurotypical. Some do stay as children in brains (not childish brats but a curious child eager to learn) in order to seek new innovations for the world has to offer and for human evolution to continue. We are constantly evolving in this web of live in order to survive. And to survive, we must learn to adapt and learn like the children do.
DIsclamer: No racism involved in the following paragraph.
P.S. Do you know that human neoteny is correlated to intelligence? Eh? Notice that the most neotenous peoples on earth, Northeast Asians (Japanese, Chinese, Koreans) are the most intelligent? (See my previous article on Forever Child here for more details) Neoteny in appearance is also related to psychological neoteny, which is why NE Asians are babyface and childlike in behavior and interests. And mind me, just an opinion, they are more creative than the rest of us in a fun, endearing, cute way. In the future they might beat the West when it comes to economy and technology as well as popular culture. Who knows?
Just a comparison with the neurodivergent.
Next time you see a childlike neurodivergent, don’t assume he’s immature. Yes, he can be, but remember that he might be more intelligent than you. ^_^
- Armstrong, Thomas (2013). Neurodiversity: Discovering the Extraordinary Gifts of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Other Brain Differences. Da Capo Press. ISBN: 978-0-3782-1354-5.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels about the Middle Earth figuratively compares the highly imaginative non-human creatures (hobbits, elves) as the traditional human as well as the neurodiverse to the orcs as a post World War II man where his sense of learning has disappeared and has become sort of “selfie” junkie wanting nothing but self promotion and no learning.