The term “neurodiversity” is everywhere lately, and it’s being used in ways that appear to be progressive, but underneath, are really just the same old pathology paradigm re-packaged.
Criticisms of its improper usage mostly focus on grammar — a person cannot be neurodiverse, that is a word that describes a group. An individual should be called neurodivergent. But these are superficial and far less concerning to me than the distortion of the term conceptually.
Discussing autism, ADHD, and dyslexia, this Forbes article claims the term neurodiversity was created to “shift the focus from the negative connotation of these conditions toward the positive,” a statement that waters the entire concept down into a floppy milquetoast version of its former self.
It’s not a nice euphemism for autism, and it’s about far more than just fighting negative connotations.
Neurodiversity is a paradigm, a lens through which we look at human neurology, and it stands in opposition to the pathology paradigm.
The pathology paradigm says: there is a normal, healthy brain and an abnormal, unhealthy brain. People with abnormal brains have something wrong with them and need diagnosis and treatment to become more normal.
The neurodiversity paradigm says: there is no such thing as a normal brain. Variation in neurology is natural, and none is more right or wrong than another.
Autistic author Nick Walker elaborates:
“The social dynamics that manifest in regard to neurodiversity are similar to the social dynamics that manifest in regard to other forms of human diversity (e.g., diversity of race, culture, gender, or sexual orientation). These dynamics include the dynamics of social power relations — the dynamics of social inequality, privilege, and oppression — as well as the dynamics by which diversity, when embraced, acts as a source of creative potential within a group or society.”
The term neurotypical exists as an alternative to the word normal, but it does not describe a type of brain in any biological sense. It describes a way of being, or a disposition, as scholar Damian Milton says, that is culturally valued and socially advantaged over other dispositions, which we call neurodivergent.
“…there is no neuro-typical to deviate from other than an idealised fantastical construction of Galtonian inspired psychological measurement.” (Galtonian referring to Francis Galton, who invented eugenics.)
These terms are sociopolitical, not biological, but everyday I see people making statements like “The neurotypical brain does x” or “The neurodivergent brain is y”, despite the fact that adhering to the neurodiversity paradigm means acknowledging that there is no biologically neurotypical brain, and a vast generalization about “the neurodivergent brain” is nonsensical considering that it’s an umbrella term encompassing many different dispositions.
Usually at this point in the discourse, someone pops in and says, but Judy Singer, who coined the term neurodiversity,** was just referring to biodiversity! It’s separate from the neurodiversity paradigm Walker was writing about!
To which I would counter that Singer has written on her blog as recently as February of this year to re-assert that yes, “neurodiversity” is a political term:
“..my intent was political, unifying and liberatory, not divisively intent on putting individuals ‘under a microscope’.”
In summary, she writes:
“ND is not a classificatory term dividing us from them. We are all Neurodiverse. We live on a Neurodiverse planet in which amoral nature generates endless genetic diversity, while we humans have evolved the capacity to make judgments about nature’s bounty. What Neurodiversity brings us is a challenge to find a place for everyone and to distribute the bounty fairly.”
I see a lot of confused usage of these terms lately in ADHD spaces. Often people use the language of disorder and deficit, but then slap the word “neurodivergent” in there a few times and call it radical.
This is not radical — it’s just putting a fresh coat of progressive paint on an old fucked-up house. Here’s an example to illustrate the difference.
A neurodivergent take on ADHD:
Hyperactivity, impulsivity and distraction are natural traits in human beings that exist on a spectrum and can serve many purposes depending on the context. Our current social context, which favors self-control, efficiency, and productivity, is set up to disadvantage, punish, and/or ostracize people who exhibit more of these behaviors.People with these traits experience significant distress in this social context, which results in shame, anxiety, depression, and suffering. We are not so much treating a disorder as we are pharmacologically, behaviorally, and socially forcing people with these traits into assimilation, often to the extreme detriment of their mental well-being.Instead, we should be more accepting of people who have higher energy levels, require more stimulation, or operate in spiral, non-linear ways by accommodating their natural processes. We should be allowed to set our own schedules and expectations for our lives, and if spending time in modern schools and workplaces causes this much distress to this many human beings, we need to reassess how we’ve designed them. People should be able to take stimulants if they want to, but no one should be coerced to medicate.
A pathology take on ADHD:
Hyperactivity, impulsivity and distraction are the result of structural abnormalities in the brain, which we should respect as neurological differences. People need to be diagnosed and treated for these abnormalities with behavioral therapy or stimulant drugs, which is just like taking insulin for diabetes or wearing eyeglasses. With proper treatment, anyone with ADHD can succeed in life.
Just because it sounds nice and accepting (“Anyone can succeed in life! Respect differences!”) does not mean it’s neurodivergent. This stance is still firmly rooted in the idea that ADHD is abnormal pathology, and treatment would mean making a person more normal.
A neurodivergent take rejects the normal/abnormal binary altogether.
You can’t be “diagnosed with neurodiversity”, and it is also not a club that admits people based on a list of accepted diagnoses.
There is much clamoring over who “counts” as neurodivergent, but we don’t need to define which DSM diagnoses count because the entire point of the neurodiversity paradigm is opposing the pathology inherent in DSM diagnoses.
These things are in direct contradiction to each other conceptually.
Being neurodivergent is experiential and political, “a category of power relations and social hierarchisation” as scholar Dieuwertje Dyi Huijg writes in the book, Neurodiversity Studies.
Arguing over who “counts” as neurodivergent is sort of like arguing over who counts as queer.
You count if your experience of the world is neurodivergent, meaning, you have been disadvantaged, punished, or ostracized due to your disposition, if you align with the sociopolitical aims of the paradigm, and if you identify as such.
In order to shift paradigms on a large scale, you need more people, not less. Gatekeeping does not help us — gatekeeping is for children who need to put up firm walls to feel secure in their identities. It’s politically necessary to grow out of this phase, because solidarity is where the strength of any movement lies.
“Neurodiversity” also carries with it a certain amount of flux and contradiction. It can’t be easily defined and it’s not totally agreed upon, and that’s probably a good thing.
In the essay Defining Neurodiversity, Robert Chapman describes the concept as a “moving target” that will continue to shift and change in meaning:
“I do not think it is the kind of thing we can or should hope for a final definition of.”
According to Chapman, neurodiversity is an “epistemically useful concept” that helps us “access and generate new forms of knowledge” and “imagine the world differently to how it currently is.”
But if your use of the term is just re-branding the pathology paradigm we already live in, you’re not doing that.
**Correction 7/27/2023: Following transphobic comments from Singer on social media, Martijn Dekker has published a correction regarding the claim that Singer coined the term neurodiversity. In actuality, the concept was already in use on his autistic-run listserv years before she used it in her work. See more details here.