By Jonathan Spaan
Growing up with an uncle with brain damage, once diagnosed as cerebral palsy, I was exposed to neurodiversity at an early age. Neurodiversity is the variation of brain or neurological function between individuals. Conversations with my uncle sometimes found themselves to be erratic. For instance, at one moment we would be talking about current events, and the next he was talking about Mickey Mouse. I quickly learned the importance of skills such as communication and displaying patience and empathy. However, I also learned how far there still is to go in terms of educating ourselves about neurodiversity and providing adequate opportunities for these individuals. My exposure to neurodiversity continued through grade school. In my school district the special education program is intertwined with the other students during the lunch period and other activities. This continued to normalize neurodiversity in my everyday life.
Based on my previous experiences with my uncle among others, I choose to join the College Experience Outreach Club as an undergraduate at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. College Experience Outreach’s goal was to promote inclusion for students with disabilities on campus. In support of this, I had the opportunity to mentor and form relationships with several students.
In particular, my relationship with one student stands out. Overtime, once we got to know each other and I earned his trust, he confided in me about being self-conscious. Due to his disability, he had a protruded lip, which gave him a lisp. He confided how embarrassed he was to talk to his classmates or even ask for help when he needed it. Hearing such stories about his daily struggles was humbling. It taught me to consider other people’s perspectives. We should not minimize someone else’s burdens without walking a mile in their shoes.
That being said, we shouldn’t pity people with disabilities either. He still led a rich and fulfilling life. He channeled a lot of his daily experiences into his art. I had the pleasure of watching him paint a few times and was amazed by the serenity it gave him. Wishing to encourage his talent, we made a large poster promoting inclusion on campus and placed it in the cafeteria along with a jug of paint. Standing by it, we asked passersby if they would leave a handprint on the poster in solidarity. As the number of hands on the poster increased, so did his confidence. It was an eye-opening experience as I realized the healing power of relationships; no matter what the obstacle, we are all more likely to overcome it when we know we’re not alone—that there is something worth fighting for.
This experience made me reflect on the level of support I had compared to other individuals such as my Uncle or the students I encountered through the College Experience Outreach. It made me realize that everyone deserves that level of support. This is why I joined Different Brains. Their mission to mentor neurodiverse adults on how to successfully integrate into everyday life, while also serving as an advocate and educational platform to raise awareness for neurodiverse individuals aligns with my future goals and outlook on healthcare.
Neurodiversity in Medicine
As an aspiring physician, I will encounter numerous neurodiverse individuals throughout my career. Neurodiversity comes in many shapes and sizes, across the spectrum of various syndromes and disorders. In the healthcare field it is paramount to educate ourselves and others in order to treat these patients to the best of our abilities and provide them with the proper resources to lead a successful life. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to medicine. We must learn how to gauge neurodiverse patients’ personalities and temperaments in order to tailor individual care. This will aid in establishing trust between the patient and physician, allowing the patient to feel comfortable and the healing process to progress.
I plan to continue to advocate for neurodiversity throughout my professional career, focusing on bridging the gap for these individuals and providing a support system for them to attack obstacles they may face head on. For instance, establishing support groups for neurodiverse patients will allow them to interact with others who may face similar hardships in their everyday life, and open a line of communication to work through these conflicts in a collaborative setting. Additionally, educational sessions for the family and friends of neurodiverse individuals can teach and provide tools for them to assist these individuals through their daily activities.
To learn more, visit the Different Brains website at differentbrains.org and check out the resources tab for information on neurodiversity including autism spectrum disorder, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, Alzheimer’s disease, and more.
Together we can make a change. Educate, advocate, help.
My name is Jonathan Spaan. I went to Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York where I was a Biology major and member of the Division 1 Lacrosse Team. I just completed my master’s degree in Medical Sciences from Boston University School of Medicine and am currently working at Boston Children’s Hospital conducting research in the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center.