Neurodiversity seems like a big thing right now, but what is it all about? And what’s with all the various neuro-this and neuro-that?
I’ll do the easy bit first: neurodiversity is the simple, observable fact that human minds are different from each other. Just like the variety of living organisms, which we call biodiversity. Same thing, only we’re talking about brains rather than plants and animals.
Neurodiversity by itself doesn’t say whether or not this is a good thing: it’s a neutral term that describes what we see when we observe human minds.
If that was the end of the story this would be a really short essay and you’d wonder why I even bothered writing about it. The fun starts when you pick up the neurodiversity ball and run with it. When you start asking yourself what it means, both for societies and for individuals.
When you think to yourself, “Biodiversity is good, right? Without bees and insects lots of plants would die and we’d all be struggling to survive here. So, is neuro-diversity good for us too?”
Time for a paradigm
Congratulations! You just arrived at the Neurodiversity Paradigm. What’s a paradigm? It’s a fancy name for a set of principles or propositions. It’s the proposal that neurodiversity is all part of natural human variety, just like we have diversity of culture, gender, belief, and even physical characteristics including height or eye colour.
It also proposes that, like culture, gender, belief, eye colour and all those other things that make us different from each other, no one type of brain is the “right” or “normal” one: all are equally valid.
Finally, it proposes that this diversity, like other forms of human diversity, is valuable and beneficial to human society and all of us as a species.
Enough theory already
Yeah, but what does that actually mean? What are these “different brains”? Surely we all have similar brains, right?
Well, no, not really. Mostly pretty similar up to a point, but then you get differences that we refer to as autism, or ADHD, or dyslexia, and many more that are all simply what we call it when people’s brains work differently. Process information from their senses, respond to stimuli, handle language or memory in a range of different ways.
This leads to these people having different experiences of day-to-day life, even when they’re in the same situations. because it’s their brains–their neurology–that are different we use the term neurodivergent. Divergent as in the way branches of a tree diverge or spread out from each other.
This is not saying that being neurodivergent doesn’t cause anybody problems in their lives–obviously it often does–and it’s not saying that neurodivergent people shouldn’t want or seek medical treatment or other interventions. In fact it’s quite the opposite: the aim is to improve the lives of neurodivergent people, but to do it on their own terms.
This is about social justice, eh?
Yes, that’s what all this is leading up to, something often called the Neurodiversity Movement that takes the Neurodiversity Paradigm and says that a person should not face discrimination or persecution because of their neurology, because of being neurodivergent from the majority of people around them.
This Neurodiversity Movement isn’t an organisation and doesn’t have a structure or leadership. It’s an umbrella term for a whole bunch of individuals and organisations who promote, support, campaign for the principles of the paradigm. For the civil rights of neurodivergent people.
Let’s go deeper
That all sounds fab and groovy, right? Yay, civil rights! And I agree, yes, it’s a good thing to protect the rights of neurodivergent people: those with neurologies (or neurotypes) that diverge from the most common (or predominant) ones in society, and to remove the prejudice and stigma associated with these forms of difference.
No objections so far. But remembering that neurodiversity is literally about everybody, how broad a term is neurodivergent? Who does it include, and equally importantly who does it exclude?
You won’t find much argument about including autistic people, likewise ADHD. Dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia: fine. Tourette Syndrome. Epilepsy? It’s a neurological difference even if it is potentially life-threatening, especially if untreated.
What about degenerative conditions affecting the brain such as dementia, Parkinson’s Disease, or Motor Neurone Disease? Or Traumatic Brain Injury? Do we draw a line and rule them out? Say we aren’t here for conditions we wouldn’t feel comfortable celebrating?
Should conditions that are brain-altering but pathologised (basically, regarded as disorders or diseases) be considered instances of neurodivergence? Certainly these people have to deal with the same kinds of stigma and prejudice as the neurodivergent folks I mentioned above. So shouldn’t they also be represented by the Neurodiversity Movement?
What about things we might consider mental illnesses? Depression, anxiety disorders? They affect brain function and perception. How about others such as psychosis or schizophrenia? Sadism, psychopathy, narcissism? Again, a lot of stigma associated with these conditions, a lot of prejudice.
I do think that it shouldn’t include temporary states of altered cognition induced by external influences such as drug intoxication, unlike more lasting, longer-term changes to brain function.
If we include everything that has anything to do with neurology or brain function, then we’re really inclusive and that’s good, right?
Except… You thought neurodiversity was about celebrating the differences of neurodivergence, and standing up against the medical establishment and others who seem to want to “cure” us out of existence. So how to reconcile that with including conditions that most would want to eradicate?
And if we’re including things most of us think of as mental illnesses, do we risk being perceived as being all about that? Of making neurodiversity almost synonymous with mental illness?
Do we then gatekeep, and make value judgements about what belongs in and what we keep out? Do we then risk being perceived as being unrealistically optimistic, focused only on the positive side of neurodiversity?
Or do we take a more holistic view about neurodiversity, and make the movement about the way society handles all forms of diversity, all forms of difference?
My evolving thoughts
I started out thinking in pretty simple terms about neurodiversity and neurodivergence: it was people like me. Autistic but without much else in the way of neurodivergence. From that I could relate to other forms of neurodivergence such as ADHD and dyslexia where the focus is primarily on accommodations and acceptance.
That gave me a comfortable picture of what it all meant, and it was a diversity I could feel at ease celebrating.
But I’ve recently begun to think a lot more deeply about the purpose of neurodiversity, what it’s really trying to achieve, and exploring the boundaries in an attempt to understand it better and answer some of the questions I had about its scope.
I feel I’m beginning to understand it better, but also feel a lot less comfortable and complacent.
I might seem unsure about what exactly to include, but I’m very uncomfortable with any attempt to ring fence neurodivergence and prescribe what is and what isn’t included. I feel that’s doomed to end up a question of deciding which are “real” or “acceptable” neurodivergence, and which don’t fit into a simple, neat world-view. It also falls into the trap of thinking about neurodivergence in the same pathological (“disease”, “disorder”) terms that reinforce inequality and create many of the problems we are trying to address.
The aim of neurodiversity–the movement—is to change the way society handles neurodivergence. The method is by changing how we all think about all forms of neurodivergence. At the heart of the problem is the idea that there is a “normal” neurotype from which all others diverge, and that such divergence is a problem to be corrected. Hey, I never said it was going to be easy!
It’s far from uncommon for people with all forms of neurodivergence to be pitied, abused, feared or otherwise face stigma, prejudice and to be regarded as less than people of the predominant neurotypes. This inequality manifests in power structures where neurodivergent people often have less control over their own lives, and face more pressure to cede control to others. This is a situation familiar to other non-neurological minorities.
Some forms of neurodivergence are positive and bring benefits to the individual and wider society, some are neutral, and some are negative and may pose some risk to the person or even others around them. Many more are some combination of positives and negatives, a range of different traits.
I believe that neurodiversity must inform how society deals with those whose neurodivergence poses a risk to them or to others. Current approaches are often punitive (via criminal justice systems), satisfying a desire for retribution rather than treatment or rehabilitation. Other approaches deem a person to lack competence, restricting or removing their rights. This makes neurodivergent people wary of seeking help or treatment.
Neurodiversity must find a balance between the needs of the neurodivergent individual and the needs of the society they live in. This means addressing questions such as when it might be acceptable to curtail individual rights, or to impose decisions on a person if they are deemed incapable of making a reasonable informed choice about something such as medical treatment. These are difficult questions, but that’s not a reason to avoid them.
Human society developed because living in organised groups benefits the members of those groups. Modern industrial societies are larger and require more complex organisational structures to function. As humans we like neat, simple answers. We often believe that problems can be reduced to a simple model that will explain everything. But the world doesn’t work that way. People are complex, society is complexity to the umpteenth power.
If neurodiversity is to succeed in changing society then I believe it must meet that complexity head-on. Altering attitudes and behaviour isn’t simple.
Probably the most widely-cited reference used to define neurodiversity is on Nick Walker’s Neurocosmopolitanism site that you can find here.
There’s also been plenty of discussion on Twitter, including this “in a nutshell” thread from Judy Singer who coined the word Neurodiversity.