Neurodiversity. This term has grown in popularity over the last few years. In fact, it has reached a point where if you spend enough time in circles where people discuss Autism, you are bound to hear this term at some point or another. This, of course, is a good thing.
The fact that the neurodiversity movement is expanding, that more and more individuals are starting to shift over to this new way of thinking, and that the terminology of the neurodiversity paradigm is finding itself used more and more in mainstream media, pop culture, and society at large, is a great testament to the hard work of Autistic activists around the world. It is heartwarming to see more and more people, countries, and societies that are recognizing Autistic (and other neurodivergent) individuals as important cornerstones of society, rather than as freaks of nature, burdens to society, or worse, diseases/disorders in need of “curing” or prevention.
However, the widespread recognition of neurodiversity, like the popularization of any idea, and particularly with the popularization of a brand-new social movement, has led to misconceptions. Sometimes, these misconceptions are peddled from our own side: fellow pro-neurodiversity advocates who did not do their homework and thus do not fully understand the tenets of the neurodiversity paradigm, or what the movement’s beliefs really entail. (I was once this person.)
Much more common, however, is, again, similar to most emerging social movements, is backlash. More specifically, backlash from reactionaries – who are more interested in stamping out the movement rather than actually working with us to get things done. And in effect, a lot of strawman arguments come from this backlash: that is, people will write extensive think-pieces about the neurodiversity movement, but few of them actually make a point. That is: few of them actually criticize anything the neurodiversity movement actually stands for. (I was, for an even shorter time, once this person too.)
A “strawman” is a logical fallacy in which people exaggerate or misrepresent another person’s view in an effort to make them look foolish and strike them down (“straw men”). In this case, it takes the form of mischaracterizing or perpetuating myths about what we really stand for.
Whether coming from well-meaning advocates who do not fully understand the neurodiversity paradigm, to members of the “Autistic Dark Web”, a reactionary cult-like following that aims to slander the neurodiversity movement (and harass Autistic pro-neurodiversity advocates on Twitter), here are some of the most common myths and misconceptions about neurodiversity.
Myth #1: “Neurodiversity is just a bogus opinion”
One of the most common things I notice in attempts at criticizing the neurodiversity movement – in fact, the first thing I usually notice – is something that starts like this:
“Neurodiversity is this bogus idea that _______” or “We don’t need no stinkin’ neurodiversity!” or pretty much anything that starts with “neurodiversity is/entails _______”.
It is from that point on that I am almost certain that the “criticisms” of neurodiversity will amount to nothing. This is because neurodiversity, by itself, is not an opinion, viewpoint, or mindset at all. These are concepts built around neurodiversity. But they are not neurodiversity.
Neurodiversity is, quite plainly, the diversity of brains and minds. Neurodiversity is a biological fact. Its’ parent term, biodiversity – the diversity of life – is as much a fact as neurodiversity. Neurodiversity is as real and valid as other recognized forms of diversity – cultural, ethnic, religious, gender, sexual orientation, etc., and neurodivergent people deserve the same protections afforded (or should be afforded) to said groups.
When people form ideologies and philosophies that are centered around neurodiversity, that value neurodiversity, that is not neurodiversity itself. Philosophies that work with the concepts of neurodiversity fall under the neurodiversity paradigm, which, coined by Autistic Nick Walker, refers to the view that neurodiversity is a good thing: that neurodiversity is a healthy, natural form of diversity, and should be embraced and accommodated, much like other forms of diversity – and that they are subject to the same power dynamics of privilege and oppression that have historically affected (and continue to affect) other forms of diversity. It is the opposite of the pathology paradigm (also coined by Walker), describing the idea that there is only one correct, normal way for a human brain/mind to function, and that anything deviating from that range of “normal” is a disease. This is antithetical to the neurodiversity paradigm, which posits that just because something deviates from what society ascribes “normal” doesn’t make it inherently bad or undesirable. One can argue against this paradigm, but they cannot say that “neurodiversity” itself is false, and one cannot say that “neurodiversity” itself is a philosophy or movement.
The civil rights movement based upon the neurodiversity movement, similarly, is aptly titled the neurodiversity movement. Proponents of the neurodiversity paradigm and movement can be considered to be “pro-neurodiversity”, as we see neurodiversity as a good thing.
Neurodiversity, in and of itself, however, is simply a fact of life. It is an obvious, verifiable fact that peoples’ brains and minds differ. If you take a group of random people and scan their brains, and look at how different people sense, react and relate to the world around them, you will easily find that peoples’ brains and minds are different, and that certain groups of people with certain brains and minds act similarly, thus making up a neuro–minority (such as Autistics), while the general range of what we consider “normal” is a neuro–majority (aka neurotypical people).
People who criticize movements for cultural justice would never claim that “cultural diversity doesn’t exist”. They may oppose multiculturalism, they may oppose having cultural diversity (which is a bad thing to oppose), but nobody would seriously argue that cultural diversity itself s a bogus myth.
This leads to another common misconception, and one I used to believe years ago.
Myth #2: “The Neurodiversity movement is only about Autism.”
The neurodiversity movement was created by an Autistic woman, Judy Singer, in the 1990’s. And the vast majority of neurodiversity activists since, particularly those who make new and big contributions to the movement, are often Autistic too. And the movement does, at its’ core, focus on Autism, and Autistic rights and liberation. That is the origin, and that is its’ current main focus and trajectory.
However, as time slowly passes, the neurodiversity movement, like other movements, have expanded. The neurodiversity movement is continuing to expand – slowly, but surely.
As mentioned above: Neurodiversity is the diversity of brains and minds. This means all brains and minds. Neurodiversity is about fighting for the empowerment and emancipation of all neurodivergences – from changing the way we view neurodivergence as something medically wrong with a person to one of diversity and acceptance, advocating strongly against discrimination or targeting someone based on neurodivergence, and supporting inclusion and accommodation for others.
Neurodivergence itself can cover a lot of things – developmental neurodivergences, such as Autism or Dyslexia, to psychological/psychiatric neurodivergence – anything currently classified as a “mental illness”, even to brain injuries and trauma, and neurodivergences associated with that, such as trigeminal neuralgia or epilepsy. [The term neurodivergent was coined by Autistic activist Kassiane, otherwise known as Neurodivergent K, who runs the Radical Neurodivergence Speaking blog.]
As such, the neurodiversity paradigm and movement advocates for all sorts of neurodivergences, and various causes relating to those. For instance, we (and I in particular), am very invested in fighting the stereotype that people with psychiatric diagnoses are more prone to violence, or a “risk” to others, and then discriminating against them because of that. I am against scapegoating neurodivergent or Autistic people when one of us happens to commit a crime (while simultaneously ignoring those of us who do good things). (I will be writing a blog post about this very, very soon, actually – been planning it for over a year now.) I am also against gun control laws that discriminate against neurodivergent people (which is something of controversy and debate).
The neurodiversity movement advocates for all neurodivergent people. It advocates to recognize and respect the diverse ways in which people’s minds work. It fights against discrimination and stands up for inclusion and accommodation.
In some ways, this carries over to the next myth about neurodiversity – and this is probably the most common myth, and definitely the most cited one. It is the go-to strawman for every reactionary, every martyr warrior mommy, every person who is interested in attempting to discredit what we stand for.
Myth #3: The neurodiversity movement does not recognize neurodivergence as disabilities.
I am trying to keep things civil for the sake of writing an informative post, but this widespread lie makes me want to bang my head on my desk, rather hard. The moment I see anything remotely resembling such an insinuation, I am pretty much certain that the person writing another so-called “criticism” of the neurodiversity movement is full of bullsh*t. This myth is without a doubt, one of the greatest strawman arguments of all time.
First off, the neurodiversity movement has effectively become the subset of the disability rights movement as a whole – and I could just end this myth-busting right there, but I won’t.
Literally NOBODY in the neurodiversity movement – aside from perhaps some who, again, did not do their homework and does not fully understand what the movement entails – ever implies that neurodivergent people (such as Autistics) are not disabled. In fact, proponents of the neurodiversity movement do not shy away from saying disabled and reject euphemisms such as “differently-abled” quite strongly.
The difference, however, lies in how a person views disability. One of the first things a person learns if one is to study the theory or philosophy of disability are the different models of disability. The medical model of disability (similar to the pathology paradigm) entails the dominant narrative of disabled people being seen as defective versions of “normal” that we need to accommodate. The social model of disability, on the other hand, (corresponding to the neurodiversity paradigm/movement), is an outlook recognizing disabilities as forms of diversity: everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Everyone has things they cannot do, and things they can do rather well. What disables a person (aka what separates ‘inability’ from disability) is when society is set up in such a way that it discriminates or does not account for people whose minds or bodies work in certain ways. Thus: there is no default human, no factory model for how people’s minds and bodies ought to work – and it is society that disables people.
The social model of disability, upon which the disability rights movement and other more progressive theories on disability, works toward disability justice by fighting for accessibility and inclusion.
The neurodiversity paradigm advocates for these very same things, focusing more on the needs of neurodivergent people. Both the social model and the neurodiversity paradigm are very important, as it is essential to fight for the rights of neurodivergent and physically disabled individuals.
The neurodiversity movement acknowledges that Autistics and other neurodivergent people are disabled. However, we prescribe to the social model of disability, and we believe that the medical model does not lead to proper solutions and inevitably leads to stigmatization and maltreatment. Instead, we focus on inclusion and accommodation, and how we can make a person’s life better without trying to “fix” them.
Myth #4: “Pro-neurodiversity/Autistic activists say that being Autistic is all sunshine and rainbows!”
Literally no one, Autistic or otherwise, has ever claimed that being Autistic is a universal walk in the park. Being Autistic is hard. Being Autistic can be stressful. From sensory overloads to meltdowns, to facing maltreatment and discrimination from over 70% of society, sometimes being Autistic can be hellish. Nobody would ever claim that being Autistic is always a walk in the park. And people who make that claim know this: anyone who says this is being dishonest.
People who oppose the neurodiversity movement, though, assume that just because we talk about Autism positively, that we acknowledge and share the positive aspects of being Autistic (and there are many), that we show that our lives are worth living, and that we like being Autistic, are indicative of us ignoring the struggles or pretending that being Autistic is perfect.
This is not only incorrect, but completely disingenuous. Just because we acknowledge the positive aspects of something does not mean we do not acknowledge difficult aspects or problems with it. Conversely, just because we acknowledge that being Autistic has difficulties, it does not mean we see being Autistic as some kind of horrible tragedy or a life/death sentence.
Most of us have nuanced views on Autism. We see being Autistic as something neutral; something that just is – with many also arguing that the positives outweigh the negatives. We believe that being Autistic is still worth it in the end.
One thing that we do consistently postulate is that the struggles of being Autistic, primarily occur due to a lack of accessibility, or, in other words, how society treats Autistic people. From a lack of inclusion/segregation in schools, to sensory unfriendly environments, to forcing us to “mask” being Autistic (supressing stims, forcing eye-contact and making us imitate neurotypicals) – commonly done through procedures like ABA, to consistently gaslighting our perceptions and violating our autonomy and then turning around and claiming it is “for our own good” – these are the primary causes of Autistic struggle. And these struggles have one thing in common: they are rooted in the pathology paradigm, in the idea that Autism is a disease or “disorder” that needs to be “treated” or “cured” away. This is but one example of how the pathology paradigm harms everyone while attempting/pretending to help us.
The neurodiversity movement, meanwhile, focuses on accommodating Autistic individuals so that, while we may still have certain challenges or impairments, they should not impede our ability to live life to the fullest, or bar us from fully participating in society.
We do think being Autistic is awesome in many ways – but not without its’ struggles. Struggles that need to be understood and accommodated.
This myth goes hand-in-hand with the next myth, which is another common one: just as, if not more common than the previous misconception.
Myth #5: The neurodiversity movement only cares about “high functioning” Autistics.
Again, this is untrue, as described above. We recognize the struggles that all Autistics face, whilst also advocating for each individual’s strengths. However, more importantly, this is a blatant strawman of our true position.
It’s not that we care for “high” or “low” or “mild” or “severe” Autistics more or less: more so, that we reject functioning and severity levels altogether. Perhaps one can debate us on that (good luck winning, though), but to say we only care about “high functioning” Autistics is a deviation from the fact that we recognize that “high/low/mild/severe” Autism doesn’t exist.
There are countless think-pieces written on both the uselessness and the harmfulness of functioning labels. I will briefly touch upon these, though the main purpose of this essay is again to focus specifically on myth-busting.
The basic summary is that functioning levels, aside from being completely arbitrary and ambiguous and having no concrete definition, are a silencing tactic. Any Autistic person who questions the status quo or lays down truths people do not wish to hear, are told, “you’re too high functioning” to have an opinion on the matter. That they couldn’t possibly speak for “severe/low functioning Autistics”.
Of course, given that many of these interactions take place online, never mind the fact that most of the time they have no idea about one’s life and struggles; they will use functioning labels as a way of moving the goalposts, evidenced by how they change the definition of “low functioning” with each shift. I’ll give a basic example below:
“You’re not like those Autistics! You don’t bang your head in the wall or have meltdowns!”
“Actually, I have struggled a lot with self harm, sometimes still do, and have had aggressive meltdowns before.”
“Yeah, but you’re verbal!”
“Actually, there are periods when I go nonverbal during stress, during which I use AAC (Augmentative Adaptive Communication).” (Or, alternatively, the person they are arguing with may actually be nonspeaking.)
“Well, you can type this and express thoughts, therefore you’re clearly not too Autistic to have an opinion!”
That last statement is where the shifted goalposts typically end – and this pretty much sums up the perpetuation of this myth. Functioning labels are a silencing tactic, and what they are really saying is that Autistic people cannot and should not have opinions.
It is also worth mentioning that some of the loudest voices for the neurodiversity movement, come from people who would be considered “low functioning” or “severe” by proponents of such useless terms. This fact is often ignored, mostly because it is inconvenient to the narrative of anti-neurodiversity reactionaries.
When people say that the neurodiversity movement ignores “those Autistics”/ “that kind of Autism”, they are simply wrong. We advocate for the inclusion of ALL Autistics, regardless of ability or background. The only reason people think we don’t care about certain Autistic people is because we speak of all Autistics in humanizing, respectful, non-exploitative ways.
Autism is not a linear spectrum. It is better described as a continuum, or a colour wheel, with people falling into different areas of strengths and shortcomings. Autistic traits overlap, too – fully speaking Autistics can struggle with meltdowns or self-harm. Nonspeaking Autistics can be able to articulate themselves excellently through writing and are often capable of demonstrating excellent intellect when supported. Some Autistics speak less early on yet become very articulate later on in life. We are all different, and we all learn and grow at different paces.
Myth #6: The neurodiversity movement opposes all forms of therapy.
This is another myth that is perpetuated, often by the ABA lobby. That because we support acceptance, that because we oppose ABA because of its’ abusive history, we must automatically therefore oppose all forms of therapy and support that an Autistic may require. This is another gross strawman.
We support any therapy or support system that is inclusive and respectful. This also means that it respects the autonomy of the individual in question. Many neurodiversity activists are also very strongly against forced treatment, including involuntary commitment and other forms of psychological/psychiatric coercion.
More importantly, as we believe in inclusion and accessibility, we support any sort of system, technology (like AAC), or therapy that helps include Autistics.
The neurodiversity movement, however, does condemn the mindset that Autistic individuals need to be “fixed” or “cured”, as we have seen time and time again that this inevitably leads to abuse.
The only therapies that we truly condemn are those based on abusive principles, like ABA, or those which are blatantly fraudulent, such as anything that claims to biomedically “cure” Autism.
On the whole, pro-neurodiversity activists generally oppose anything that treats neurodivergence as a pathology that needs fixing, and rather focuses on accommodation.
To this end, we are not anti-medication, as certain drugs are proven to help neurodivergent folks – and we support having easier access to said drugs. That being said, many of us are against forced medication under any circumstance, as often happens in psychiatric units. Psychological autonomy, also known as cognitive liberty, is a cornerstone of the neurodiversity movement.
The neurodiversity movement recognizes the current power dynamics present in many situations involving therapy and treatments – and as such, we are wary of the potential for abuse and harm, which continues to be rampant. And unlike those who have nothing better to do than complain about us, we actually campaign and work to solve these problems through speaking out.
These are only a few of the common myths, misconceptions, and straw-man arguments thrown around regarding the neurodiversity movement. However, most of the arguments that I have seen fall into one of these six categories at some level or another.
The neurodiversity movement is a civil rights movement. Like every other social movement that advocates for equality and human rights, it will face backlash. It will face opposition. But this does not in any way undermine the importance of the movement.
That being said, it is important to listen to the needs of others, and it is essential that we listen and address valid criticisms, whether they be of individual advocates, or a trend within the neurodiversity movement as a whole that could be better handled. And having these important conversations is crucial for improvement.
However, it is equally important to realize when a person is not arguing in good faith. Many of us are already limited on energy in a world that taxes us to our limit every day, and it is better not spent fighting with trolls or wallowing in toxicity.
One may oftentimes find that a person’s opposition to the neurodiversity movement is inversely proportional to one’s understanding of it.