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Thursday, June 9, 2022

Neurodiversity as Politics

In The Politics of Autism, I discuss the neurodiversity movement.   

Human Development has an issue titled "Considering Human Development through the Lens of Neurodiversity: The Case of Autism."

In the issue, Ari Ne'eman and Elizabeth Pellicano have a commentary titled  "Neurodiversity as Politics."

The debate around neurodiversity is itself diverse. As Dwyer (2022) puts it in his own contribution to this special issue of Human Development, there are multiple “neurodiversity approaches” deployed differently by different actors to different ends, even within the movement. This diversity presents some opportunities, allowing different groups to adapt the idea for their own purposes. Nonetheless, it can also lead to confusion, co-optation, acrimony, and other unintended consequences.

As such, in our commentary, we seek to situate the papers within the broader debate around neurodiversity, with the aim of highlighting key areas in which different voices within the neurodiversity movement hold divergent viewpoints. We also offer our own views as to how to resolve these conflicts, although our intent is to encourage debate and deliberate decision-making between these different “neurodiversity approaches” (the recognition of which represents a major contribution by Dwyer), not to insist that the movement’s future can only have one path. In highlighting these fissures, we hope to set the stage for a more robust dialogue on the future of neurodiversity in activism, academia, and beyond.


[T]the usage of neurodiversity as a descriptive term seems to imply a fear of the term disability. Why not simply refer to this population as the neurologically or (where appropriate) developmentally disabled? What purpose does the additional descriptive term have, if autistic people and other “neurodivergent” persons are definitionally disabled as well? Returning to the idea that a movement that centers activists (rather than solely academics) and that seeks to include persons with cognitive disabilities must be attentive to the most likely possible interpretation of its terminology, we wonder if the growing usage of terms like “neurodivergent” has confused matters.

After all, the commonsense interpretation of the creation of a special word to refer to neurological disability is that those who engage in such an act of creation find the latter term unacceptable in some way. While the accusation that neurodiversity proponents do not see autism as a disability is often made in bad faith, the increasing prominence of the descriptive use of the term neurodiversity makes this a more understandable error. It may even represent an accurate description of what motivates some persons to adopt the language of neurodiversity, even if this view is not prominent among movement leaders or organizations.

[Jim] Sinclair and other early autistic activists were heavily influenced by other parts of the disability community. Autistic culture borrowed significantly from Deaf culture – for example, attendees at Autreat substituted traditional applause for “flapplause,” the rapid flapping of one’s hands instead of clapping them together. This has much in common with “deaf applause,” which typically involves hand waving (Solvang & Haualand, 2014). Similarly, much of the ideology and terminology of the neurodiversity movement borrows from the independent living movement and the developmental disability self-advocacy movement, both of which emphasize the same themes of self-help and willingness to push back against professional and family member domination in the political sphere.

This disconnect from the larger disability context in which neurodiversity was born is a grave error. Neurodiversity proponents would do well to avoid “reinventing the wheel” in a way that might imply a rejection of the broader disability rights movement. As we shall shortly discuss, there are areas in which neurodiversity ideals add concepts that build upon and are (at the moment) distinct from broader disability rights ideologies. However, when describing concepts for which terminology exists in the larger disability realm, it may make more sense to rely on them.