How narrative medicine empowers neurodivergent patients

It’s been said that the challenges neurodiverse people face are the ones that neurotypical people view as easy, and vice versa. It speaks to the hard-wired diversity of cognitive styles and perspectives among different individuals.

Neurotypical people, who generally fit within the societal norms of cognitive functioning, might find certain tasks or social situations easier due to their alignment with mainstream expectations. On the other hand, neurodivergent individuals, who have variations in neurodevelopment, might excel in areas where neurotypical individuals struggle, thanks to their unique cognitive strengths and perspectives.

For example, a neurotypical person might find it relatively easy to navigate complex social interactions or adhere to rigid schedules, whereas a neurodivergent individual, such as someone with autism spectrum disorder or ADHD, might find these tasks challenging. However, that same neurodivergent individual might excel in tasks requiring intense focus, pattern recognition, or creative problem-solving, areas where neurotypical individuals might struggle.

I imagined the following conversation as I tried to put the concept of narrative medicine into proper perspective:

NT (Neurotypical): Hi there, I’ve been hearing a lot about narrative medicine lately. Can you tell me more about it?

ND (Neurodivergent): Absolutely! Narrative medicine is a medical approach that utilizes people’s narratives in clinical practice, research, and education as a way to promote healing. It’s a way to understand the patient’s story and to appreciate their journey and experiences.

NT: That sounds interesting. But how does it differ from the traditional medical approach?

ND: Traditional medicine often focuses on symptoms and diagnoses, whereas narrative medicine focuses on the patient’s story. This approach considers the patient’s perspective and their feelings about their illness. It’s about understanding their experiences, fears, and hopes.

NT: I see. So, it’s about making the patient more involved in their own care?

ND: Yes, exactly. It’s about empowering them and making the treatment more patient-centered. This approach can be especially helpful for neurodivergent individuals like me, who might experience and perceive things differently.

NT: That’s a good point. I can see why this approach would be beneficial. How do you think narrative medicine can improve the health care experience for neurodivergent individuals?

ND: It can help by allowing us to express our experiences and feelings in our own words. It can also help physicians better understand our unique challenges and strengths. By focusing on our narratives, physicians can develop more personalized and effective treatment plans.

NT: That makes a lot of sense. It seems like a more empathetic and understanding approach to medicine.

ND: Absolutely, it’s all about empathy, understanding, and respect for each patient’s unique narrative.

NT: So, by listening to patients’ narratives, health care providers can gain a deeper understanding of their experiences, fears, and needs. It can also foster empathy and improve communication, leading to more patient-centered care.

ND: Precisely. I imagine it could be particularly beneficial for neurodivergent individuals who might struggle to express themselves in conventional medical settings. Their narratives could provide valuable perspectives that might otherwise be overlooked.

NT: Exactly! And on the flip side, narrative medicine can also help neurodivergent health care providers communicate their experiences and challenges within the medical system, potentially leading to more inclusive and understanding care practices.

ND: It’s interesting how storytelling can serve as a powerful tool for both patients and practitioners alike. I wonder if there are specific techniques or approaches within narrative medicine that are particularly effective for neurodivergent individuals?

NT: That’s a great question. I’m not sure, but I imagine that incorporating visual aids, alternative communication methods, or even creative outlets like art and music therapy could be helpful in capturing the diverse range of experiences within the neurodivergent community.

ND: Absolutely. Finding ways to accommodate different communication styles and sensory preferences could really enhance the effectiveness of narrative medicine for neurodivergent individuals. It seems like there’s a lot of potential for innovation and inclusivity in this field.

NT: Definitely! As awareness and understanding of neurodiversity continue to grow, I hope to see narrative medicine evolve to better serve the needs of all patients, regardless of their neurological differences.

ND: Agreed. It’s exciting to think about the possibilities for improving health care through storytelling and embracing diverse perspectives. Thanks for sharing this with me!

Let’s not forget the importance of recognizing and valuing neurodiversity in society and accommodating different cognitive styles and strengths in our practice and daily lives.

Arthur Lazarus is a former Doximity Fellow, a member of the editorial board of the American Association for Physician Leadership, and an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. He is the author of Every Story Counts: Exploring Contemporary Practice Through Narrative Medicine and Medicine on Fire: A Narrative Travelogue.