Neurodiversity 101

During the Autistic Rights Movement of the 1990s, a new term was coined to describe the brains of people with neurological differences. First used by Australian autistic sociologist Judy Singer, the term “neurodiversity” became the springboard of what we know today as the Neurodiversity Movement.

Words Matter

Neurodiversity in and of itself isn’t a new or contestable concept. It’s the scientifically backed idea that there are infinite variations within the human brain and how it functions. When people’s neurocognitive functioning falls within societal norms, they are known as neurotypical (NT), and when they don’t, they are neurodivergent (ND). Neurodivergences can be innate — as in with conditions such as autism, dyslexia and ADHD — or they can be the result of an experience, like a traumatic brain injury or a long-term meditation practice, writes autistic scholar Nick Walker, PhD, in his blog Neurocosmopolitanism. Being neurodivergent, he says, isn’t in and of itself negative or positive, but depends on the person and their condition.

On the other hand, the neurodiversity paradigm — the concept on which the Neurodiversity Movement was built — is an emerging viewpoint that these neurological differences are normal and valuable. According to Carrie Steenbergen, a speech language pathologist and owner of TherapyWorks Cincinnati, the neurodiversity paradigm helps put the focus on the person and not the disability label.

“With labels, comes assumptions and stereotypes about those diagnoses,” she says.

While the neurodiversity paradigm is becoming increasingly accepted by those within the neurodivergent communities, as well as within the community at large, it is still a fairly new concept that not all have aligned with.


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Difference vs. Disability

One of the major criticisms of the Neurodiversity Movement is that by normalizing neurodivergences — by seeing them as just differences — the movement downplays the need for support for neurodivergent individuals. However, as research psychologist and Autistic activist Jacquiline den Houting writes in “Neurodiversity: an insider’s perspective” for the peer-reviewed journal Autism, “neurodiversity advocates generally consider autism to be both a natural variation and a disability.” As a result, they are working toward services for ND people that improve their quality of life, respect their way of being, and are provided at their request and consent.

A Sense of Identity

Critics also believe that by moving away from “disability” terminology and instead framing conditions like autism as cultural identities (i.e., an “autistic person” versus “a person with autism”) does a disservices to the communities they indeed view as disabled. den Houting once again points out that the Neurodiversity Movement doesn’t actually deny that ND people have disabilities, but instead put the onus on society’s inability to adapt to neurodivergences.

“We can’t expect neurodivergent people to conform to a neurotypical world,” Steenbergen clarifies. “Neurotypicals have to learn to accept and adapt to a neurodivergent person’s way of thinking, feeling and doing just as much as neurodivergent people do.”

Those within the movement believe that disabilities often can be minimized or eradicated through proper assistance and a posture of acceptance by the community at large, even for those with high support needs.

Full Spectrum Support

And this idea of support circles around to a third major criticism of the movement: that the Neurodiversity Movement caters only to those with low support needs — or to put it in more traditional terminology, high-functioning individuals. However, those in the movement see this dichotomous view of high-functioning versus low-functioning as erasure of the variability within the human brain. “For all humans, there are a number of different cognitive abilities in which we can excel or lack; we are all somewhere on the spectrum of human capability,” Nancy Doyle, an organizational psychologist specializing in neurodiversity, writes in Forbes.

You and Your ND Child

For parents of neurodivergent children, particularly those who just received a diagnosis, jumping into this conversation can be overwhelming.

“People are quick to throw out a label to explain away behaviors, challenges or differences in others, instead of just accepting that people are different and using the information we know about that person to accommodate their needs,” Steenbergen says. “This very much makes it feel like we are trying to force square pegs into round holes.”

She says while that getting a proper diagnosis is essential for getting your child the support they need, she wants to remind parents that the diagnosis is simply a label.

“None of us have a crystal ball and we can’t predict a future outcome for a small child,” she says. “We know that therapy and intervention works and that we can make big gains when we assume competence and have high expectations for neurotypical and neurodivergent children alike.”

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