What Neurodiversity Isn’t

(by way of what it is)

This is not neurodiversity, it is a picture of some coral and stuff. Photo: Maria Ribeiro, CC licence

The idea of neurodiversity is that substantial variation in the way brains work is part of the diversity of humankind. The simple fact of the matter is that human brains vary a lot. The neurodiversity paradigm is a way of looking at this: the suggestion is that this variation is not necessarily a problem. No one kind of brain is the right kind; it’s natural and healthy that people think differently. People have different cognitive styles, which manifest in the things we label autism, ADHD, dyslexia and so on. This is not necessarily a bad thing, either for neurodivergent individuals or for society. The alternative view sees these sorts of differences as pathological. The question of what is a disorder or illness, and what is better thought of as part of natural human variation, is fundamentally philosophical and political, not scientific. It’s worth remembering how recently it fell out of fashion to treat all minority sexualities as mentally ill.

While understanding neurodiversity as part of the natural variation of our species means we shouldn’t be too quick to assume any given difference represents a disorder or disease, it doesn’t automatically follow that there is no such thing as a malfunctioning brain. Some brains are literally incapable of supporting life! Brain damage and mental illness are often unwelcome. It is perfectly possible to be proud and accepting of autism, for example, without having to feel positive or neutral about everything to do with your brain or someone else’s.

I’m certainly glad my brain isn’t made of marble. Photo: Naomi Stevenson, CC licence

For that matter, it’s possible to accept the neurodiversity paradigm even if you’re currently quite unhappy about being autistic. Everyone’s allowed to feel crap about who they are sometimes, without necessarily thinking that people like them shouldn’t exist. Having a divergent brain isn’t easy, and it can certainly be disabling in any currently existing society. While the paradigm is bound up with opposition to cures for autism and other forms of neurodivergence, it doesn’t follow that seeking help with some of the things your brain does means rejecting the value of neurodiversity. It makes a big difference if someone is seeking treatment for themselves, and not for someone else they think needs fixing. It’s okay to want to be less anxious and less overloaded, less depressed and less stuck!

The key thing to realise is that when it’s difficult being you, it’s not always your fault. Society makes people suffer for all sorts of things — gender, sexuality, race, disability, class, neurology and so on — both actively, through prejudice, and passively, through failures to accommodate difference. People (and institutions) still largely take the default person as being an abled, straight, neurotypical, comfortably-off, educated white cis man, and despite the fact most people don’t fit in that box, every ‘deviation’ from it is a disadvantage.

Some of those disadvantages might even be built in, not just societal. A lack of education is a disadvantage for multiple reasons, for example, only some of which are caused by society treating educated people as more valuable. Many of the disadvantages to being autistic or otherwise disabled could be fixed if society was better set up to accommodate people’s varying needs. This is the essence of the social model of disability, and it is crucial for understanding both autism and every other human variation that can be disabling. Only the most extreme adherents of the social model insist that disability wouldn’t exist at all if society were different, though. No amount of accommodations and adjustments will ever remove all the disadvantages of being blind. If you can’t see, you can’t see. If you’re autistic, you will always find some things harder than other people. It just doesn’t have to be nearly such a big problem, if society is set up right.

There are also advantages to many disabilities — more than most abled people tend to imagine. Autistic people are not unique in treasuring aspects of what many people see as a disability, in terms of both experience and culture, and this does not have to mean denying or even downplaying the disadvantages. Some in the Deaf community reject the labelling of deafness as a disability, in much the same way that some autistic people reject that label, but it’s a mistake to assume that just because something is a disability, it must be all bad. I appreciate the intensity of my sensory experiences and my ability to hyperfocus; I basically like being who I am, but sometimes being autistic does get in my way.

So while the neurodiversity paradigm encourages us to celebrate different ways of thinking, it doesn’t imply that autism is completely positive, or that it shouldn’t be considered a disability. Some people in the neurodiversity movement might see it that way, but this is nowhere near universal, and anyone who rejects the neurodiversity paradigm because they think it implies these things has misunderstood.

Still, even if you accept that neurodiversity is the right way to look at differences like autism, perhaps you might still want to reject the neurodiversity movement. Nick Walker’s ‘Neurodiversity: Some Basic Terms & Definitions’, which informs much of what I am saying here, describes this as ‘a social justice movement that seeks civil rights, equality, respect, and full societal inclusion for the neurodivergent.’

Going from a philosophical position to a political one is not a trivial matter, and some people dislike the neurodiversity movement for the same reasons they dislike feminist, anti-racist or anti-fascist movements. Some feel it undermines personal responsibility if society at large is held to be partly to blame for the problems people face. There are some genuinely tricky ethical and political questions around the relative priority given to social change and individual responsibility. How much do we need to compromise on the idea of holding people to be free and totally responsible for their own actions, in order to accept the concept of social justice?

I think the answer is that we need to compromise it quite a lot, and that’s okay. People really aren’t responsible for the personal circumstances, the brain and the body they’re born with, or the environment they grow up in. There is no rational escape from the conclusion that we are all enmeshed in power structures we did not create, but sometimes help perpetuate; and that unequal power relations constrain what we can do, and how much it costs us, from birth to death.

Are birds free from the chains of the skyway? Photo: me.

Nobody is totally free, and yes, that means nobody is totally responsible, either. We are free-ish, and partially responsible, and that’s okay. We could be freer and more responsible, but we can’t make that so by refusing to take joint responsibility for societal problems — that just makes society more unequal, and that makes us less free, not more. Personal responsibility, properly understood, implies social responsibility.

Still, I understand that not everybody accepts this analysis of power relations and their ethical implications. It is true, of course, that the neurodiversity and disability rights movements are forms of ‘identity politics’, but from my perspective at least, all politics are identity politics, because power is inextricably bound up with identity. If you want things to change, or to stay the same, you need to look at power: who wields it and who it affects. Doing that always means engaging in the politics of identity.

If you want to distance yourself from some forms of identity politics, that’s fine — just be aware that when you distance yourself from the neurodiversity movement, you are distancing yourself from the main group of people trying to achieve equality and respect for people with unusual brains. Likewise, you can distance yourself from feminism, but you set yourself up against efforts to oppose sexism. Maybe you think there are better ways to achieve equality, but it’s important to be aware of the effects of undermining other people’s efforts: there is a world of difference between criticising the words and actions of some within a movement, and rejecting the movement wholesale.

If you’re not much into the idea of equality, that’s your prerogative too, of course; not everyone sees it as more important than the values it can be in tension with, and anyway, opposing inequality just takes so much work.


With thanks to Sonny Hallett.