Neurodiversity, a term created by Judy Singer in 1998, has been a controversial idea within autism advocacy groups. Despite this, the actually autistic community has largely embraced neurodiversity, using it as a driving force for the disability rights movement.
Neurodiversity refers to the variations seen within the human brain. These variations affect things such as one’s sociability, learning, attention, and mood. Which conditions are considered neurodiverse often depends on who you ask, but generally speaking, conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and Tourette’s are included.
Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist, developed the term neurodiversity in 1998 when presenting her sociology honors thesis. Harvey Blume, a journalist, helped popularize Singer’s term after writing a post for the Atlantic, in which he stated:
“Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of wiring will prove best at any given moment? Cybernetics and computer culture, for example, may favor a somewhat autistic cast of mind.”Harvey Blume
Singer noticed that people with disabilities faced intense discrimination, similar to the LGBTQ+ and AFAB (Assigned Female At Birth) communities, that created struggles for them far beyond the inherent struggles of being disabled. This discrimination highlighted the need for a disability rights movement and thus, the neurodiversity movement was born.
This new neurodiversity movement was not met without controversy though.
The neurodiversity movement took a bold stance that was and is in opposition with many in the field of psychology. It challenged the view that certain neurodevelopmental disorders were inherently pathological and suggested that, instead, the way that society addresses these differences may be the more significant problem.
The social model of disability illustrates this concept, stating that societal barriers are what “disables” people. For example, under the social model of disability, if everyone in your community, except for you, suddenly grew gills overnight, you would not be disabled because your community is still centered towards air breathing humans. But, if over time, your community began building underwater, and you were unable to attend school or work because of your lack of gills, you would become disabled.
Although the social model of disability is not all-encompassing and disability is a much more complicated experience, it does provide strong reasoning for a need to evaluate how society further disables its disabled individuals.
As an autistic person, I have witnessed first hand how society can make my struggles more burdensome. There are aspects of my autism that would make my life difficult regardless of accomodations, but there are certainly many places where discrimination against the autistic community is what makes life difficult, rather than autism itself. For example, I risk job opportunities and school acceptances just by having this blog.
Neurodiversity is really about changing the goals and mindsets of the non-disabled community in regards to the disabled. Instead of trying to “cure” or “fix” disabilities, perhaps the goal should instead be to promote support systems that help to limit the negative impact of disability. In this sense, the social model of disability is not incompatible with the medical model. It still supports the need for accommodations and recognizes that there are struggles caused by disability. It just recognizes that some aspects of developmental conditions aren’t inherently problematic (such as avoiding eye contact or not enjoying large social gatherings) and trying to fix these things is unnecessary.
Neurodiversity itself is a fact. There is and always will be diversity within the human brain. But, whether we accept this as a positive or negative fact is a choice. In the end, you can’t have the benefits of autism and other neurodiverse conditions without the detriments. On a grand scale, does the good outweigh the bad? Those who accept neurodiversity say yes.