Review by Sarah Wild

19 Mar 2017, 5:00

The Power of Different: The Link between Disorder and Genius by Dr Gail Saltz

People often tell me that I don’t look like a vegetarian. I’ve never worked out if this is an insult or not, but it does show how a label such as vegetarian carries many social connotations.

Labels are brilliant for signalling who we are and what we need, but can also pigeonhole people, marooning them in a cul de sac of low expectations and discrimination. With every label comes a set of assumptions, prejudices and stereotypes that can be harmful or even dangerous.

The Power of Different is a valiant attempt to reframe the debate and language around neurological disorders, disabilities and mental illness.

Saltz, a professor and psychiatrist, attempts to deconstruct our understanding of these conditions, linking these differences with other more positive characteristics such as innovation, inventiveness and original thought. She argues that fundamentally the otherness of these conditions is what enables divergent thinking, which leads social evolution and progress.

It reinforced entrenched stereotypes of autistic people being like Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rainman

Each chapter explores a theme such as anxiety, relatedness or distractibility, and links different conditions to it. I read four identically structured sections and found the repetition hard to manage – so much so that I skimmed the rest. While it’s very clear and well laid out, this is definitely more of a reference book than something you would read in a weekend.

I’m interested in autism and anxiety, so homed in on these sections. Saltz uses case studies to humanise each condition, which was effective and engaging. The personal stories are very powerful and helped me to gain an insight into the experience of an autistic, anxious or depressed person.

Importantly, every case study featured a successful individual who was contributing in many ways to their community, and who demonstrated characteristics including resilience, originality and dedication. For each condition, Saltz constantly challenges the widely held social view that this group is a burden or a danger to society.

Anxiety, autism and dyslexia are explored positively and linked to wider social benefits. Saltz connects anxiety with focus and attention to detail; autism with creativity and the ability to design systems; dyslexia with original thinking. Throughout she underlines the value of different people, and highlights their employability, challenging stereotypes that individuals with these differences are not able to make a viable social or economic contribution.

What is less convincing is the link across the book with genius. Saltz sprinkles each chapter with references to great, unnamed figures across history who have been affected by the identified disorder or illness, implying a cannon of differently-abled thinkers and innovators over time, without any real evidence.

Saltz sprinkles each chapter with references to great, unnamed figures across history

Her strongest “genius” argument is when she discusses autistic savants, with their astonishing skills in music or art or numerical recall.

This annoyed me as it reinforced entrenched stereotypes of autistic people being like Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rainman – distant, remote, and brilliant.

Whilst I enjoyed the spirit of the link between genius and different disabilities, disorders and mental illnesses, it would have been more valuable to stay with everyday folk, and discuss the contribution they make to society without over-egging the pudding.

At a time when people with disabilities are openly mocked by the president of the United States, and UK politicians imply that disabled people are scroungers, a book such as The Power of Different is much needed.

It signals to society that people with learning disabilities, neurological disorders and mental health difficulties are human and have social value. They are not a burden. They are just different.

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