What is Neurodiversity?

The rainbow infinity sign is the symbol for neurodiversity. The full spectrum of colors represents the diversity of the autism spectrum as well as the greater neurodiversity movement.

You may have heard the word, “Neurodiversity” before. Maybe you dismissed it as a buzzword or something that sounds politically charged. But neurodiversity has no political connotations at all, and the meaning is in the word itself. Neurodiversity simply means diversity of the mind. Neurodiversity is the idea that neurological differences, such as autism and ADHD, are the result of variation in the human genome. Some other examples of neurodiversity are bipolar disorder, dyslexia, dyscalculia, schizophrenia and tourette syndrome, among others. Rather than being neurotypical, or having a typically developed brain, neurodiverse people have a brain that is uniquely wired, and allows them to view the world differently than a neurotypical person would.

The term, neurodiversity was coined by a sociologist named, Judy Singer, who is autistic herself, on September 30th, 1998. Because much of the discourse back then, and even today, is on the medical model of disability, or treating neurological conditions as diseases, disorders, and deficits, Singer sought to change that and recognize the aspects of disability that are beneficial to society, and neurodiversity advocates today argue that neurodiversity should be celebrated and respected as cultural and ethnic diversity would be.

The idea of neurodiversity comes from the social model of disability, rather than the medical model of disability, which continues to dominate discourse about disabilities. The medical model of disability asserts that people are impaired by their disabilities. As such, these disabilities, including neurological conditions such as autism and ADHD, are inherently bad and should be treated or “cured.” For example, although there is no cure that exists for autism, upon their child receiving an autism diagnosis, parents often seek applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapies, supplements, and other autism “treatments” so that autistic behaviors are reduced or eliminated. Unfortunately, ABA often hurts autistic children, who are trained to repress their autistic behaviors and may grow up with psychological damage as a result of ABA therapies. The belief that autism should be cured is what may cause worried parents to turn to autism pseudoscience, to not vaccinate their children out of the fear that they will “catch” autism, and to ultimately teach their autistic children a harmful belief: that they are not good enough because they are autistic.

The social model of disability, on the other hand, asserts that rather than disabled people being impaired by their disability or neurological difference, people are disabled by barriers in society. Some barriers that can inhibit disabled people can include physical barriers, such as inaccessibility to handicapped parking places, restrooms or ramps, or cultural barriers, such as ableism, or discriminatory towards people with disabilities and assuming that disabled people cannot function or are unequal to abled people. Neurodiversity falls into the social model of disability, because it takes the position that people who are neurodiverse do not need to be cured or receive treatments for a disease they don’t have, but need accommodations and services and an improved public perception to lessen stigma and improve accessibility for their disability. The social model of disability often promotes identity-first language, such as “autistic person,” rather than person-first language that the medical model of disability promotes, such as “person with autism,” or “person who has autism.” This is because proponents of neurodiversity believe that their disability is part of their identity and is not something that can be separated from them or is not something that they can have or carry with them externally. However, it is important to ask the disabled person which language usage that they prefer, and respect the choice that they identify with.

Ultimately, the medical model of disability looks to solve what is “wrong” with a disabled person and tries to “fix” it, while the social model of disability helps us to recognize the barriers that may prevent disabled people from full and active participation in society. What we can do as a society to help disabled people is by taking simple steps, such as changing our language usage when talking about disabled people to remove stigma attached to disabilities, and by changing our perceptions about disabled people by thinking about the things that we do that may prevent them from gaining accessibility and equality in society. The term and concept of neurodiversity was Singer’s invention and vision two decades ago, but it has been largely ignored until recently. If we are a society that values equality and justice, then we must be a society that strives to embrace neurodiversity and acknowledge the ways in which neurodiverse people benefit our world.


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