What is Neurodiversity?
The term “neurodiversity” refers to natural variations in human cognition, learning, and other mental attributes. In the context of disability rights advocacy, it is used to argue that these variations should not be pathologized. The concept of natural neurodiversity has been invoked to push for greater autonomy, support, and societal respect by individuals with autism spectrum disorders, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, speech disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and likely many more conditions or disorders than I have time to list. Generally, advocates seek to frame these conditions as natural and acceptable human variations rather than illnesses to be cured (think left-handedness). Neurodiversity has come to represent the cognitive portion of the disability rights movement, and so has become associated with efforts to promote inclusion, assistive technologies, assisted or independent living arrangements, and other accommodations.
Credit for the term “neurodiversity” is attributed to Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist who originated the word as part of her honors thesis work. It first appeared in print in an Atlantic article by Harvey Blume in 1998 following correspondence with Singer.
One Movement for Many Minds
Ironically, the fundamental problem at the heart of the neurodiversity movement has long been the sheer diversity amongst individuals with the same diagnosis. Two people with the same condition can be miles apart in terms of needs, abilities, and problems navigating society. The contrast between individuals on the autism spectrum can be particularly staggering. Autistic people were historically sorted into “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” categories to differentiate treatment, but these somewhat dehumanizing labels have fallen out of favor.
Although the terminology may have changed, there is still a disconnect between some members of the autism advocacy community that often falls roughly along the line between “high and low-functioning” individuals. Aspies like myself, who have generally been considered “high-functioning” due to our ability to pass as simply weird or quirky, are usually at the forefront of pushes for greater social autonomy and against many treatments or “cures” for autism. The trope is that Aspies in general are more attracted to the social model of disability (in short, focused on removing societal barriers to a fulfilling life) than the medical model (focused on treating or curing impairments of the body/mind in pursuit of the same goal). Those with non-Asperger’s autism, on the other hand, are often thought to be more open to the pursuit of a cure (and consequently the medical model of disability) due to their frequently more severe and debilitating symptoms. I don’t mean to suggest that all Aspies feel one way and all non-Aspie autistics another, only that there is some inherent potential for significant disagreement due to the diversity within the autistic community.
This divide is as contentious as it is unavoidable, and many insults have been traded over whether a hypothetical cure for autism would be a good thing, whether a particular policy is ableist or helpful, and even whether certain treatments are supportive or abusive.
What Neurodiversity Means to Me
My views are heavily influenced by modern humanist teachings in the greater context of evolutionary biology and scientific inquiry. Essentially, this means I believe it is possible and just to value all human lives both for their measurable contributions to society as well as for their innate human existence and lived experiences, while also recognizing the complex and messy biology that is our history. I believe that, to the greatest extent possible, every person ought to be treated with decency and respect, regardless of their race, ethnicity, sex, sexuality, gender identity, medical condition, or disability.
I don’t believe in simplistic, absolutist morals. Making ethical decisions, especially on a population level, quickly gets complicated. Rather than rely on absolutist moral standards, I prefer to evaluate situations individually. To quote the American Humanist Association, “When we declare our commitment to a humanist approach to ethics, we are expressing our willingness to do the intensive thinking and work that moral living in a complex world entails.” Consequently, I strongly disapprove of absolutist statements like “All autistic people have X symptom,” “Autistic people don’t have empathy,” and “All autism therapy is abuse.”
When discussing concrete steps forward for the neurodiversity movement, significant effort is needed to craft thoughtful and effective plans that will not benefit one group at the expense of another. Briefly, my vision for the future of the movement is a blending of (1) increased availability of/funding for care needed by high-support individuals, (2) increased awareness and acceptance of autism, leading to more freedoms and respect for low-support individuals and the normalization of harmless autistic traits, (3) retaining a sense of rationality and restraint when debating the benefits and shortcomings of autism therapy (mostly ABA), so as to avoid vilifying normal/ethical parenting strategies while still protecting kids from abuse, and (4) broad recognition that every person involved (autistic people, parents, and professionals) should strive to grow and improve themselves first and foremost, especially by learning from each other.
I am not a policy advocate. My job is not to comment on specific efforts within this movement. Instead, I feel my role is to share information and advice designed to prepare other autistic folks for careers in the natural sciences. I of course broadly support the neurodiversity movement and disability advocacy in general, but I feel the way in which I can best contribute is this website.
If you are interested in world of autism advocacy, I recommend starting at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN). Their advice and resources are extensive and generally uplifting and they can serve as a great jumping-off point for further education, organization, and demonstrations.