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What Is Neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is an admittedly difficult concept to understand. Not only is it a newer term within the disability advocacy movement, but it's also not a clear cut or simply explained concept. Here, at Planning Across the Spectrum we are proponents of the concept of neurodiversity, but believe it must be thoroughly understood for it to be beneficial. In order to gain a full understanding of neurodiversity, the neurodiversity movement, and its place in the future of autism advocacy, the context surrounding neurodiversity must first be understood. Specifically we will explore the definition of neurodiversity, its origins, and its evolution as a concept.

The Definition Of Neurodiversity:

Neurodiversity is actually a very simple term to break down. “Neuro” means brain so “Neurodiversity” simply means “brain diversity.” Basically, neurodiversity refers to the fact that people learn, socialize, process emotions, and do many other mental functions very differently from each other. But neurodiversity is not just a term, it also represents a broader concept. A concept that was created to push back against toxic and dangerous ways of understanding people with neurodevelopmental disorders. Neurodiversity as a concept not only identifies certain people, such as autistic people, as neurodiverse, but also seeks to influence the way we as a society view people we understand as neurodiverse. Specifically, it seeks to influence us to focus more on the unique strengths neurodiverse people have.

The Social Context Of Neurodiversity:

Neurodiversity is not a medical term. Neurodiversity advocates, including the neurodiversity movement which exists to push the concept of neurodiversity into mainstream society, are not pushing for people to be diagnosed as “neurodiverse.” It is important to understand that neurodiversity as a concept does not change the way medical professionals diagnose disorders such as autism or replace legal classifications for people with disabilities. Neurodiversity is, very importantly, a social concept. When we read “diversity” in “neurodiversity” we need to think of it in a social context.

When we talk about diversity in our communities and workplaces we are referring to differences between people, and differences that should not lead to us treating them any differently. In fact, it is commonly understood in mainstream society that “diversity should be celebrated.” Diversity brings a variety of skills to the table and opens us up to new ways of viewing the world. It is in this context that we need to view neurodiversity. Neurodiversity pushes the idea that differences between peoples brains should be accepted and celebrated for the unique ways of seeing the world that they open us up to. Neurodiversity is not just about pointing out that some people have brains that work differently, it is about changing the way we view those people. At its core, neurodiversity is simply about having a healthier attitude towards people with neurodevelopmental disorders.

The Origins Of Neurodiversity:

Neurodiversity cannot and should not be the only way we understand Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and other neurodevelopmental disorders, it is a concept pushed by advocates that seeks to address specific issues they identified. Neurodiversity as a concept comes from the disability advocacy movement, and was first applied to people on the autism spectrum. All autistic people have been considered neurodiverse as long as the term has been around. Neurodiversity was originally pushed to specifically address the fact that many autistic people were made to feel like they were “lesser than other people'' because their brains work differently. Again, it is critical to remember this is in a social context. This isn’t about if people with autism are “lesser than” in terms of particular testing or data, it is about the fact that nobody in our society is, or should feel, “lesser than” due to completely natural differences between them and other people. This is a concept that we all understand, and we need to in order to understand neurodiversity.

Autistic people were particularly frustrated with narratives that focused on how “horrifying” or “ broken” a person with autism was and used those ideas to push for a cure. Many autistic people did not want a cure and this meant agendas being pushed in the name of advocacy on their behalf, often contradicted what they actually wanted. The concept of neurodiversity was pushed by the autistic community as a way of telling the rest of society “our differences should be accepted and celebrated, not looked down on.” It pushed back against the idea that finding a cure should be the focus of helping people with autism as opposed to giving them the tools they need to succeed. It also highlighted the difficulties for autistic people that stemmed specifically from the way society viewed them, and forced people to recognize these added barriers on top of existing difficulties. This is the result of stigma, or negative stereotypes associated with autistic people that lead to negative treatment of autistic people. Autistic people live in a society that, through a number of different avenues, constantly reminds them of their deficits and rarely celebrates them for their strengths. Autistic advocates saw this as a clear barrier to autistic people healthily processing what it means to be autstic. The neurodiversity concept and movement sought to directly address this barrier.

One added complication of neurodiversity as a concept is that diversity of the brain isn’t as simple as other types of diversity. Neurodiversity is unique because neurodevelopmental disorders can come with significant non stigma related difficulties, such as heightened anxiety or sensory difficulties. It is crucial to state that neurodiversity is not about ignoring those non stigma related difficulties, but focussing on the strengths that come from being neurodiverse in a society that will inherently focus more on the non stigma related difficulties. This is a careful balance that defines neurodiversity. Neurodiversity cannot be the only way we understand neurodevelopmental disorders. It exists only to change the unhelpful way we currently tend to view neurodevelopmentally disabled people in our society.

The Continuing Evolution Of Neurodiversity:

As neurodiversity is a social concept, it is changing as society changes. Because of this our understanding of neurodiversity must evolve too. The easiest way to show this point is to look at who is considered “neurodiverse.” Though neurodiversity was originally a concept only applied to the autistic community, that changed fairly quickly. Who is “neurodiverse” has actually been a constant conversation in many communities throughout the last 20 years. As of now it is widely accepted that people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Dyscalculia, an Intellectual Disability, and Tourette Syndrome are neurodiverse.

The Importance Of Neurodiversity:

Many autistic people in my life, myself included, have often felt at some point(s) in our lives that our autism would hold us back. I believe a large part of that is due to how people around me talked about and understood autism. Many people around me believed autism needed to be cured, and that me being autistic was an inherently bad thing. I often couldn’t help but internalize many of these ideas. Neurodiversity and the concepts behind it helped me push back against these ways of thinking, which was especially important in my journey as an advocate for the autstic community and as an autistic person.

At Planning Across the Spectrum we build the concept of neurodiversity and the ideas behind it into many of the things we do. A strength based approach when working with autistic people can be extremely beneficial, especially when we stop to recognize that the people we are working with may also be frustrated with the constant focus on their deficits. We understand that we need to maximize the potential of those we work with and need to let them choose and form their own path forward based on the unique ways their brains work. These are all concepts that we can directly tie back to neurodiversity. This is the true value of neurodiversity.