The neurodiversity movement: it’s not what you think

Neurodiversity is short for “neurological diversity.” Basically, it’s the undeniable reality that there are variations in the way that human brains work. These variations can have a strong genetic component, as in the case of schizophrenia, or they can be the result of a traumatic brain injury, stroke, or other event. Some, like Rett Syndrome, result from a de novo genetic mutation.

You will note that all the conditions I just mentioned tend to be disabling – indeed, can be very very disabling. This leads me to the neurodiversity movement and what it does and doesn’t say.

I have, personally, never seen neurodiversity proponents argue that neurological variations don’t bring significant challenges, that they never interfere with activities of daily living, or that all treatment should be eschewed. I consider myself a proponent of neurodiversity, and I would never argue any of those things. These arguments generally show up as straw men being machine-gunned down by neurotypical people who are against the neurodiversity movement. Certainly, any neurodiversity movement that ignores severely affected individuals in favor of quirky geniuses is not worthy of the name; but this appears to me to be the image painted of the movement by outsiders, rather than its reality.

Too often, the positions attributed to neurodiversity advocates by critics betray the critics’ own ableism. For instance, the notion that folks with [the now defunct diagnosis of] Asperger’s Syndrome may be able to justify their social impairments (and thus existence) by being gifted with computers is often presented as the essence of neurodiversity. The critic then moves on to say that there are many autistic people who self-injure and need assistance with toileting,  and who aren’t gifted with computers to make up for that, therefore neurodiversity is bunk. Q.E.D.

That is ableism at its finest.

If you don’t see why it’s ableist, let me break it down. This argument makes the following assumptions:

  • Only people who are mildly impaired, or not at all impaired, by their neurological differences are worthwhile human beings.
  • Any impairment MUST be compensated for by some sort of extraordinary talent, in order for the impaired individual to be a worthwhile human being.
  • It is impossible to accept and embrace neurological differences that interfere with speech or with toileting and other activities of daily living, or which cause meltdowns, rages, self-injury, delusions, and other behaviors that may cause harm or make others uncomfortable.
  • The neurodiversity movement can’t possibly represent the people just described, because their form of neurological difference is clearly unacceptable.

Accepting a reality does not mean sanitizing or romanticizing it. In fact, if you have to sanitize something in order to accept it, then you’re not really accepting it.

I have chronic, recurrent, severe depression. I will be the first to tell you that depression sucks. Depression hurts and can kill. I don’t take psych meds for fun. On the other hand, I used to think that there was nothing good about depression, that it was basically pure evil; ironically, this intensified my sense of doom and self-hatred. I was terrified of the next depressive episode. (Hypomania, though it can be annoying, is much easier to make a case for than depression. Unfortunately for me, I only get hypomanic maybe once a year?)

Now, having lived with this condition for well over a decade, I have more or less accepted that it’s here to stay; that I will get depressed again, and that I will recover; that there will be days I can’t get out of bed, days I can’t talk on the phone, days I can’t see the point of living; that meds help, but don’t eradicate the symptoms; and that it is ultimately impossible to disentangle the depressive aspect of my brain from the rest of it. I like my brain, overall, and it’s quite probable that if I didn’t have a mood disorder, I would be a very different person. I don’t know what the trade-offs would be, and I’m OK with not knowing.

The human brain and mind is very complex. It affects thought, perception, interpretation of reality, sense, emotion, the things that most feel like one’s “self”. This is why people are particularly afraid of mental or neurological differences and disorders – because it seems to strike at the actual self – and also why many neurodivergent folks cannot separate out the things that they like about themselves from their actual disorder. It’s all deeply intertwined. One can want to mitigate certain symptoms without wanting to completely rewire one’s brain and be a different person. One can acknowledge the real challenges – even the accompanying suffering – of a neurological difference without demonizing one’s neurology. And by the way, “disorder” and “disability” are not dirty words on one side of the room, with “neurodiversity” and “rainbows” on the other.

Critics say that the neurodiversity movement wants you to think of Asperger’s Syndrome or mild autism as a positive variation instead of a disorder. Actually, the neurodiversity movement is asking something much more radical – so radical that these critics apparently can’t process it. It’s asking for a world in which AAC is just as valid as verbal speech; in which one can need toileting assistance and still have a right to privacy; in which one can have screaming self-injuring meltdowns and still have valid opinions; in which a schizophrenic homeless person can accept or refuse medication and be housed either way; in which it’s socially acceptable to talk to your voices in a coffee shop; in which it’s socially acceptable to rock and flap in class; in which neurotypical people’s need for you to appear “normal” doesn’t constantly take precedence over everything else; in which functioning without help is not the price of human dignity.


Further reading:

A typical critique:  (The author describes herself as a “high functioning autistic” but clearly thinks that “low functioning autistics” and people with mental illnesses like schizophrenia are just soooo messed up, and she will tell you why, while attributing her own stigmatizing attitudes to the neurodiversity movement she’s criticizing.)

Refreshing rebuttal to the article linked above:

A couple pro-neurodiversity parental perspectives: and