Proponents of neurodiversity use this term to refer to natural differences in the ways people experience and express their psychological worlds. Most obviously, they refer to neurological differences usually labeled as conditions or disabilities (autism, ADHD, psychosis, depression, bipolar disorder, learning disabilities). Some also use the term to describe more subtle differences such as how individuals experience pleasure or suffering in their daily lives (e.g., pleasure from music or art; sensitivity to loud noises or bright lights).
To participants in the neurodiversity movement, which some see as akin to the civil rights movement, sensitivity to neurodiversity is about having respect for and displaying living kindness towards all people regardless of their unique neurological dispositions. This is a positive, respectful stance, some believe, because it focuses not on the problems faced by (or presented by) those who are “wired differently” but on the benefits to society of the sometimes useful and even admirable abilities often found in people with ways of thinking that have been unduly “pathologized” by society. Each so-called disease, say these advocates, has corresponding strengths which have been largely ignored, such as deep focus and meticulous care in people with autism, quick thinking in novel situations in people with ADHD, and creativity in people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. These attributes have been downplayed in the past, say proponents, because “neurotypicals” are burdened with “ableism,” a bias based on majority privileges that is comparable to racism.
Some neurodiversity proponents go so far as to proclaim themselves “anti-cure,” believing that any attempt to treat these supposed ailments is actually an attempt to force neurological conformity on individuals who have the right to be accommodated by society. They believe that individuals with these conditions should instead be helped through the process of “niche construction” so they can adapt their work and life environments to meet the needs of their unique ways of thinking.
To detractors of the neurodiversity movement, the word has different connotations: of disrespect, cruelty, and danger. To begin with, say critics, most proponents of neurodiversity are (or are parents of) people with high-functioning forms of these conditions, and as such they fail to take into account the very real suffering endured by those with severe forms of the same conditions. In this view, the idea of withholding a cure from a severely disabled autistic child who cannot speak, hug his or her parents, or control his or her movements is not only disrespectful but downright cruel. To speak of neurodiversity solely from a high-functioning standpoint is to discount the needs and hopes of those for whom such conditions are painfully crippling.
Secondly, some critics of the neurodiversity movement point to risks involved in allowing (what they insist to be) potentially dangerous neurological conditions to go untreated, especially in cases that involve a history of violent actions, such as in some people with psychosis or psychopathy. Certainly individuals have rights, say these critics, but others around them also have the right to go about their lives without fear of being attacked by people whose neurodiversity has been championed.
Many seek a balance between these extremes, acknowledging the need for continued research to bring relief to those who suffer while at the same time celebrating the valuable contributions of people whose unique neurological gifts have much to bring to society.
QUESTIONS TO PLAY WITH:
Do you know any people who might be considered neurologically atypical? What are their gifts? What are their struggles? How do they balance these things?
Has your life been impacted by interactions with a person who might be considered neurologically atypical? What positive and negative impacts has neurodiversity had on your life, and how have those experiences shaped your feelings about it?
If you could wave a magic wand and eradicate all forms of neurological pathology, so that all human beings had perfectly normal brains, would you? What if your wand would only eradicate severe conditions? Would you wave it then?
Where does one person’s right to be accepted as they are stop and another person’s right to be safe from harm start? Where does one person’s right to create a risk-free world stop and another person’s right to be themselves start?