Neurodiversity is a concept akin to biodiversity or cultural diversity that recognizes neurological disorders as a natural human variation. Rather than looking for cures, neurodiversity advocates work to promote social support systems and spotlight the value of neurological differences, in the same vein as variations in learning styles or social tendencies like introversion and extroversion.
The neurodiversity movement was born out of the autistic civil rights movement in the 1990s and led by autistic writers and activists, including Jim Sinclair, Judy Singer and Kathleen Seidel. The Internet has been a crucial medium for the growth of the movement since it frequently eliminates the need for face-to-face social interaction, something that often makes individuals with autism uncomfortable. The movement is now largely led by bloggers on the autism spectrum.Though autism advocacy existed prior to the 1990s, the neurodiversity movement marks a significant emergence of self-advocacy. The goals of the movement include:
- Recognition that people on the autism spectrum do not need to be cured
- A shift away from the use of terms like “disease” and “disorder”
- A revised concept of what constitutes “normal” or “acceptable” behavior
- More control over if, when, how and why people with autism receive treatment or therapy
According to neurodiversity advocates like Thomas Armstrong, executive director of the American Institute for Learning and Human Development, the line between a difference and a disability depends on perspective and social context. For example, testing software is an ideal job for someone with exceptional concentration, technological skills and an affinity for completing repetitive jobs with a high level of accuracy — characteristics that are common among individuals with autism. Some software companies even recruit employees with autism. Of the employees at the Danish software company Specialisterne, 75 percent have some form of autism.
Another goal of the neurodiversity movement is to provide individuals with neurological conditions a say in if, how, when and why they are given treatment. For example, a common behavior across the autism spectrum is self-stimulation, or “stimming,” which may include humming, rocking, tapping or fixating on an object. Some therapies work to reduce or eliminate self-stimulation and other behaviors, such as eye contact avoidance. But these behaviors can be a means to control sensory input, lower anxiety levels and improve information processing. For this reason, therapies that work to reduce stimming and force eye contact can be controversial among members of the autism community.
Detractors of the movement point out that broadening the definitions of neurological disorders could result in the loss of crucial government support services and may lead to serious psychological and physical needs of those on the far end of the autism spectrum being overlooked. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 94 percent of children with autism require health or related services beyond those required by children not diagnosed with autism. Supporters of the neurodiversity movement believe that the movement does not delegitimize disorders and their accompanying mental, emotional and physical needs. Instead, they believe it advocates for deeper understanding, better social support systems, appropriate educational, governmental and private support programs and providing members of the community with a say in their own treatment.
Caption: Nicholas's brother Dylan.
»Armstrong, Thomas. The Power of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain. Cambridge: Da Capo Lifelong, 2011.
»Autism Network International. “Don’t Mourn For Us.”
»Boundy, Kathryn. “‘Are You Sure, Sweetheart, That You Want to Be Well?’: An Exploration of the Neurodiversity Movement.” Radical Psychology 7 (2008).
»Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Diagnostic History and Treatment of School-aged Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Special Health Care Needs.”
»Dubin, Nick. “Neurodiversity: A Balanced Opinion.” Autism Asperger’s Digest, 2011.
»Fenton, Andrew and Tim Krahn. “Autism, Neurodiversity and Equality Beyond the ‘Normal.’” Journal of Ethics in Mental Health, November 2007. »Silverman, Lauren. “Young Adults with Autism Can Thrive in High-Tech Jobs.” NPR, April 22, 2013.
»Synapse. “Neurodiversity and the Autism Spectrum.”