07 February, 2010


I have a tendency to make comments on FWD/Forward that aren’t completely on topic and then they don’t get posted and I feel incredibly guilty and anxious about it. It’s true I feel incredibly guilty and anxious about everything that could be construed as a social mistake, but come on, let’s try to avoid it in this particular arena by just making posts on my blog when I’m tempted to comment in an off-topic way! First up: neurodiversity.

I don’t understand what the point of the term neurodiversity is. Someone on the FWD/Forward thread mentioned “many ASD people don’t know that neurodiversity includes other, non-ASD people with different brains.” Which is like...I guess it’s cool that it’s not just ASD people (even if some ASD people think it is) but what’s wrong with just saying “disability rights,” or “autism/ASD rights” if you’re talking about ASD in particular? Wouldn’t disability rights be more inclusive if you’re trying to be inclusive, and if you are focusing on ASD, wouldn’t ASD rights be a more unambiguous and straightforward way to put it?

It just occurred to me that the point of neurodiversity is, maybe, a catchier way to say “non-physical disability rights.” That actually makes sense. It still sort of grates on my nerves because it sounds incredibly cheery, like “differently abled.” Also I’m not sure if that’s what people actually use it for.

The term just makes me uncomfortable. It seems like an attempt to separate ASD people from other disabled people. Or, if not just ASD, disabilities that have a stereotype of Awesome Side Effects that are supposed to make up for the deficits--ADD, depression, bipolar disorder, etc. This is emphasized for me by the term neurodiversity itself. Diversity is a term that has been frequently used in reference to race, ethnicity, religion, class, and sometimes sexual orientation. Disability is being set up as the same as all those things. “We’re the same as you, just leave us alone and we’ll be fine.” But sometimes we won’t be fine. We need help sometimes. Sometimes our impairments are socially constructed (like stimming) but other times we really are worse at doing something that would help us (like processing and using language). I don’t think the difference between PWDs and other minority groups is so huge that we can’t be inspired and encouraged by the way other groups fight for equality, but at the same time, we can’t be fit into exactly the same “live and let live” model. (Actually I’d argue that it’s not a good model for many minority groups. But I’m tangling myself up.)

I feel the same about the explanation of neurodiversity (said by one of the FWD/Forward commenters, I think) as “people have different brains and that’s okay.” This just seems disingenuous. I’m not different, I’m IMPAIRED. And there are people who are a lot more impaired than me who have a lot more to fear than I do from the idea of disability as a neutral "difference."

I don’t know, I might be tilting at windmills, or at the very least semantics (there’s no question that many people I admire and agree with identify with neurodiversity). What do you think?


  1. I think the term neurodiversity feels good to say and and is confidence boosting but it also provides an easy out for the non-disabled community at large to say, "you don't need help, you're just different."
    Today in my history class it was brought up that disabled people were rejected at Ellis Island and sent back to where they emigrated from. I was looking around at everyone wondering how many people may not only have ASD but other invisible disabilities.

  2. I first encountered the term neurodiversity in the context of specific learning difficulties (for example: dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia).

    It was only in the mid-2000s that it really started to be used for autism.

    "Let and let live" is a start.

  3. I guess if you feel impaired, not different, then the term neurodiversity is not for you? I feel the same way. So I say I have depression/anxiety/PTSD, or I have mental disabilities, but I am also neurotypical. But, I'm not too sure about that one. It's something I say when I want to acknowledge that I have non-ASD privilege. (But I can definitely see how that's problematic.)

    I don't feel bad about the term, though. Maybe that's because I don't hear people with depression/anxiety/PTSD being included under neurodiversity very often. (People think there are Awesome Side Effects to depression?? Lol, what?)

  4. Hi, this is a really old post, but I've been thinking about this a lot lately/reading your blog archives as procrastination on a paper I'm writing, so I thought I'd leave a comment.

    I think, for me, when I discovered the idea of "neurodiversity" a few years ago, it was this big revelation to me in that it hadn't really occurred to me that people's brains did work differently, as weird as that seems. And I say this as a person who has struggled with sometimes-intense social anxiety for most of my life-- I always thought of myself as having a deficit in social ability and an excess in anxiety that, if I could just make it go away, I would be normal. And when I started reading about the concept of neurodiversity, I kind of went, "hey, my brain is different than other people's! Maybe I should just try and deal with the difficulties inherent in that rather than trying to become 'normal' and always falling short of that goal."

    That said, I do have issues with the concept of neurodiversity as it's often talked about-- it seems, as you said, to be kind of used as a sunny euphemism for "autistic," and "neurotypical" for "not autistic." I'm not sure if I have an ASD-- I used to be ashamed to even think that I did, as if I was coming out of a place of privilege to claim this non-privileged identity, plus I would read the diagnostic criteria for Asperger's on sites like WebMD and they would say things like "people with Asperger's have no anxiety about their social difficulties, ever." But I've recently become more and more convinced that I am on the spectrum, as I've read about the issues with diagnosing girls and women, the experiences of people (especially women) with ASDs, etc. But regardless of whether I have an ASD or not, and regardless of whether I identify as disabled or not, I sure as hell know that I'm not neurotypical. I guess this is my rambling way of saying that, if the framework of "neurodiversity" were used as a separate metric from that of "disability," it would be much more useful. The two concepts would overlap, of course, but they wouldn't match up one-to-one: some people with mental/intellectual/neurological disabilities are neurotypical; other people are not neurotypical, but not necessarily disabled, either. And others are disabled and not neurotypical, and others are neurotypical and not disabled.

    If that makes any sense. Anyway, apologies if it's weird to leave a long, rambling comment on a blog post that's 10 months old-- I recently discovered your blog and I've really been enjoying it!

  5. Hello,

    I've found your channel on YouTube and I've got from it to your blog. Here I've first heard the term 'Neurodiversity' and this conception fascinated me.

    I personally think that evolution is working in the way we can't embrace with our minds and this what is considered 'disability' can in fact be the great contribution for the mankind.

    We have no idea how unique way of thinking of us, autistic, as much like those with OCD, ADHD or Schizophrenia can lead to the great discoveries that will completely change the future of the human race. So, it would be extremally unwise for neurotypicals to try to 'heal' us, what they understand as making us acting like them, no matter if this is our way of file or not.

    So, we should promote the idea of Neurodiversity. I have created the Neurodiversity proposal to the StackExchange sites: http://area51.stackexchange.com/proposals/41891/neurodiversity. There's also the proposal for Autism and the working site for Cogniive Sciences, which also includes discussions about Autism: http://cogsci.stackexchange.com/users/899/volkerjaan . So, If you find this proposals worth your attention, please publish my comment to promote them.