The idea that there is one “normal” or “healthy” type of brain or mind or one “right” style of neurocognitive functioning, is no more valid than the idea that there is one “normal” or “right” gender, race or culture – Nick Walker, September 2014
Neurodiversity has been part of the Autistic UK vision from the very beginning.
The Constitution reads:
The objectives of the Association shall be;
To campaign throughout the UK and elsewhere to advance the interests of autistic people and those people with “related conditions”.
[For the purposes of this document the term “related conditions” is used to refer to: dyspraxia, developmental co-ordination disorder, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (AD(H)D), attention deficit disorder (ADD), hyper-kinesis, dyslexia, Tourette’s Syndrome, pervasive developmental disorders (PDD and PDD(NOS)) and all other neuro-developmental conditions and all other related neurological conditions.]
The organisation is committed to promoting “the concept of neurodiversity”.
Neurodiversity has become the rallying cry of the first new civil rights movement to take off in the 21st century – Steve Silberman, April 2013
The Neurodiveristy Paradigm
by Nick Walker
Neurodiversity is the diversity of human brains and minds, the infinite variation in neurocognitive functioning within our species.
The Neurodiversity Paradigm is an emergent paradigm in which neurodiversity is understood to be a form of human diversity that is subject to the same social dynamics as other forms of diversity (including dynamics of power and oppression).
Neurodiversity is an essential form of human diversity. The idea that there is one “normal” or “healthy” type of brain or mind or one “right” style of neurocognitive functioning, is no more valid than the idea that there is one “normal” or “right” gender, race or culture.
The classification of neurodivergence (e.g. autism, ADHD, dyslexia, bipolarity) as medical/psychiatric pathology has no valid scientific basis , and instead reflects cultural prejudice and oppresses those labeled as such.
The social dynamics around neurodiversity are similar to the dynamics that manifest around other forms of human diversity. These dynamics include unequal distribution of social power; conversely, when embraced, diversity can act as a source of creative potential.
Pychotherapists who integrate the neurodiversity paradigm into their work do so by refusing to label neurodivergence as intrinsically pathological.
Instead of attempting to “cure” autistic or bipolar clients, for instance, these therapists seek to help autistic or bipolar people thrive as autistic or bipolar people, finding ways of living that are more in harmony with their natural neurological dispositions, and helping them to heal from internalized oppression.
The Neurodiversity Movement has its origins in the Autistic Rights Movement that sprang up in the 1990’s. The term neurodiversity was coined in 1998 by an autistic Australian sociologist named Judy Singer, and was quickly picked up and expanded upon within the autistic activist community.
The focus of work within the neurodiversity paradigm has broadened beyond autism to encompass other forms of neurodivergence, while at the same time the paradigm has increasingly gained footholds in various realms of scholarship, literature and praxis.
New paradigms often require a bit of new language. This is certainly the case with the neurodiversity paradigm – even the word neurodiversity itself is still relatively new, dating back only to the late 1990s.
I see many people – scholars, journalists, bloggers, internet commenters, and even people who identify as neurodiversity activists – get confused about the terminology around neurodiversity. Their misunderstanding and incorrect usage of certain terms often results in poor and clumsy communication of their message, and propagation of further confusion (including other confused people imitating their errors). At the very least, incorrect use of terminology can make a writer or speaker appear ignorant, or an unreliable source of information, in the eyes of those who do understand the meanings of the terms.
For those of us who seek to propagate and build upon the neurodiversity paradigm – especially those of us who are producing writing on neurodiversity – it’s vital that we maintain some basic clarity and consistency of language, for the sake of effective communication among ourselves and with our broader audiences. Clarity of language supports clarity of understanding.
And, as I increasingly find myself in the position of reviewing other people’s writing on neurodiversity – grading student papers, reviewing submissions to journals, consulting on various projects, or even just deciding whose writings I’m willing to recommend to people – I’m getting tired of running into the same basic errors over and over.
So, as a public service, I’m posting this list of a few key neurodiversity-related terms, their meanings and proper usage, and the ways in which I most commonly see them misused.
By Briannon Lee
In most places, as soon as a child is identified as autistic, they are funnelled straight in to early intervention therapies. Based on a medical model of disability, these therapies see autistic children as disordered, and aim to change autistic children so that they will play, communicate and move more like their ‘typically developing’ peers.
In contrast, the neurodiversity paradigm views autism and other neurodivergence as a natural and valuable part of human diversity. There is not an ‘ideal’ brain or correct style of neurocognitive functioning; all are valued. There is not an ideal or correct way for children to play, communicate and move; all are valued.
If families, caregivers and health professionals accept the neurodiversity paradigm, ‘autism early intervention’ looks very different. The target of intervention is not autistic children, but their social and physical environments. Autistic children are supported in families and communities to develop as unique and valued human beings, without conforming to the developmental trajectory of their neurotypical peers.
1. Learn from autistic people
Learn as a family about autistic ways of being and autistic culture, neurodiversity, and disability. Autistic people are the only experts on autism; find us and our work. Don’t ask us to educate you, but listen and learn.
2. Tell your child they are autistic
Tell them now, tell them early. Talk about autism matter-of-factly. Explore what being autistic means for them. Teach your child about disability and how they are disabled by society. Build pride and an understanding of human rights from a young age.
3. Say NO to all things stressful & harmful
Say no – to quackery, to intensive normalising therapy, to excessive socialising, and to inappropriate school environments. Say no to anything that causes stress or harms their bodies. Say no to anything that will interfere with their ability to say No themselves in the future. Model self advocacy early.
4. Slow down your life
Autistic children need time and space to develop in their own way at their own pace. Ideas about happy ‘productive’ childhoods are based on neurotypical norms. Cut out all of the extra activities and socialising, and busyness of life. Discover the pace that works for your children. You might find that lots of downtime at home is vital for their healthy development.
5. Support & accommodate sensory needs
Observe your child closely, talk with them, and tune in to their sensory needs. Meet their sensory needs creatively (you don’t need to spend lots of money). Defend and protect your child from sensory assaults. Frame this as an accommodation they require as a child with disability, in the same way other children require ramps or interpreters.
6. Value your child’s interests
There is no right way to play. Special interests are good for autistic brains, and a natural way that autistic children learn and develop. Don’t use them as a ‘way in’ for other learning, therapy or change. Don’t attempt to broaden their interests, or restrict access to special interests. Join in, learn about and share their interests; but also respect your child’s wishes for time alone with their favourite things.
7. Respect stimming
Stimming (self-stimulatory behaviour) is like breathing for autistic children and adults. It feels good, helps us feel connected and focused. It is harmful to interfere with children developing and enjoying their own stims. Unless children are hurting themselves or others, respect their need to stim; never shame them or stop them. Stimming is beautiful!
8. Honour & support all communication
Don’t overly focus on the development of verbal speech. Human communication is much more than speech, and many autistic people are non-speaking. Honour and respond respectfully to all communication from your children. Support your child to access communication supports such as symbol-based AAC, sign language, typing, or RPM so that they have access to alternative ways to communicate with family, friends and others.
9. Minimise therapy, increase accommodations & supports
Intervene with therapy only for issues impacting health and wellbeing. A good question to ask: “Would my non-autistic children access this therapy?” Focus your energy and advocacy efforts on accessing accommodations and support for your child to participate in family and community as they choose. Autistic children may require 1:1 support more often or at different times than other children. They also have a right to accommodations to enable inclusion in school and community.
10. Explore your own neurocognitive differences
Explore similarities between you and your child’s sensory, cognitive, and social needs. Accepting and valuing your own unique brain, goes a long way towards respecting and accommodating your children’s needs. Many autistic children have neurodivergent parents; exploring your differences might help you identify something really important about yourself!
Neurodiversity Rewires Conventional Thinking about Brains
In the late 1990s, a sociologist named Judy Singer (who is on the autism spectrum herself) invented a new word to describe conditions like autism, dyslexia, and ADHD: “neurodiversity”. In a radical stroke, she hoped to shift the focus of discourse about atypical ways of thinking and learning away from the usual litany of deficits, disorders, and impairments. Echoing positive terms like biodiversity and cultural diversity, her neologism called attention to the fact that many atypical forms of brain wiring also convey unusual skills and aptitudes.
Autistic people, for instance, have prodigious memories for facts, are often highly intelligent in ways that don’t register on verbal IQ tests, and are capable of focusing for long periods on tasks that take advantage of their natural gift for detecting flaws in visual patterns. By autistic standards, the “normal” human brain is easily distractible, is obsessively social, and suffers from a deficit of attention to detail. “I was interested in the liberatory, activist aspects of it”, Singer explained to journalist Andrew Solomon in 2008, “to do for neurologically different people what feminism and gay rights had done for their constituencies.”
The new word first appeared in print in a 1998 Atlantic article about Wiredmagazine’s website, HotWired, by journalist Harvey Blume. “Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general,” he declared. “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.”
Thinking this way is no mere exercise in postmodern relativism. One reason that the vast majority of autistic adults are chronically unemployed or underemployed, consigned to make-work jobs like assembling keychains in sheltered workshops, is because HR departments are hesitant to hire workers who look, act, or communicate in non-neurotypical ways – say, by using a keyboard and text-to-speech software to express themselves, rather than by chattering around the water cooler.
One way to understand neurodiversity is to remember that just because a PC is not running Windows doesn’t mean that it’s broken. Not all the features of atypical human operating systems are bugs. We owe many of the wonders of modern life to innovators who were brilliant in non-neurotypical ways. Herman Hollerith, who helped launch the age of computing by inventing a machine to tabulate and sort punch cards, once leaped out of a school window to escape his spelling lessons because he was dyslexic. So were Carver Mead, the father of very large scale integrated circuits, and William Dreyer, who designed one of the first protein sequencers.
Singer’s subversive meme has also become the rallying cry of the first new civil rights movement to take off in the 21st century. Empowered by the Internet, autistic self-advocates, proud dyslexics, unapologetic Touretters and others who think differently are raising the rainbow banner of neurodiversity to encourage society to appreciate and celebrate cognitive differences, while demanding reasonable accommodations in schools, housing, and the workplace.
A nonprofit group called the Autistic Self Advocacy Network is working with the US Department of Labor to develop better employment opportunities for all people on the spectrum, including those who rely on screen-based devices to communicate (and who doesn’t these days?). “Trying to make someone ‘normal’ isn’t always the best way to improve their life,” says ASAN cofounder Ari Ne’eman, the first openly autistic White House appointee.
Neurodiversity is also gaining traction in special education, where experts are learning that helping students make the most of their native strengths and special interests, rather than focusing on trying to correct their deficits or normalize their behavior, is a more effective method of educating young people with atypical minds so they can make meaningful contributions to society.
“We don’t pathologize a calla lily by saying it has a ‘petal deficit disorder,’” writes Thomas Armstrong, author of a new book called “Neurodiversity in the Classroom”.“Similarly, we ought not to pathologize children who have different kinds of brains and different ways of thinking and learning.”
In forests and tide pools the value of biological diversity is resilience: the ability to withstand shifting conditions and resist attacks from predators. In a world changing faster than ever, honoring and nurturing neurodiversity is civilization’s best chance to thrive in an uncertain future.
Steve Silberman, April 16th 2013