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  • Mitch Blatt

Neurotribalism: the Controversy of Neurodiversity, and a Path Forward

In 1998, Australian sociologist Judy Singer came up with the term “neurodiversity,” a way to say that neurological differences are natural by virtue of analogy with biodiversity—a diverse range of neurological variations both natural and fundamental to humankind.

There’s also the “neurodiversity movement,” a political movement which says that “neurodivergent” people are not inherently lesser than the rest of the population. Neurodiversity covers things like ADHD, autism, Tourette’s, and dyslexia.

Like all political movements, there’s opposition. People outside the movement say that research into cures is beneficial. People inside it say that we need acceptance, not cures. Is it possible that there’s a middle ground?


Two Sides?

Some part of the neurodiversity movement fights for equal rights between neurodivergent and neurotypical people. A vocal minority argues that research into cures could result in a catastrophic loss to humanity, something akin to conversion therapy or eugenics. Search phrases along the lines of “critiques of the neurodiversity movement” online, and you can find instances of this vocal minority accusing parents who express a desire for a cure for autism of hating their autistic children, or autistic people who do the same of hating themselves; or using the “royal We” to speak for every person who shares their particular condition. You’ll also find people on the “cures are good” side (which includes not only parents and doctors, but also neurodivergent people) saying that the neurodiversity movement downplays the negative aspects of disabilities, or implicitly or explicitly promoting treatment practices aimed at reducing expression of autistic behaviors—charity & research group Autism Speaks infamously characterized autistic people as “burdens” and compared autism to diseases like cancer and AIDS. Like with most politics, it’s pretty

messy, and there are bad apples on both sides. In the Psychology Today article The Controversy around Autism and Neurodiversity, autistic author John Elder Robison says that “Most of the people I know who speak of exceptionality also stress disability — I know I do. However, I see a growing perception that autism is all Sheldon from Big Bang, and other popular culture caricatures. That could not be farther from the truth for a majority of our population.”

In the Forbes piece Neurodiversity Is Not A Pollyanna Concept: Judy Singer Says Get Realistic, contributor Nancy Doyle, a professor of Business Psychology specializing in neurodiversity, says, “The Neurodiversity movement is progressing towards an acceptance in mainstream business. ... And, as it progresses, it has picked up the Pollyanna tendencies of the twenty-first century. Autistic people are expected to be magical mystical work fairies who can solve our technology problems in their mind palaces. ADHDers are touted as engines of energy and passion, never running out of steam. We wait with bated breath for Dyslexics to deliver awe-inspiring creativity and innovation and for Dyspraxics to bestow empathy upon us. And further, we’ve turned the idea of neurodifferences into Pollyanna concepts, we’ve put neurodivergents onto a pedestal. We’ve become unwilling to see that just like neurotypicals, sometimes we are mean-spirited, selfish, and argumentative. It’s all got a little bit out of hand.”

In Aeon’s Why the Neurodiversity Movement Has Become Harmful, neuroscientist Moheb Costandi writes, “It is ... time to start thinking differently about neurodiversity, and to recognise the importance of free speech in the public discourse on autism, because if neurodiversity means anything, it means accepting that we all think differently, and that not everyone takes pride in being autistic.”


One Coin?

At the end of the day, whether you’re for or against a cure, we all... hang on, what exactly does “cure” mean? Is it a subjective relief of suffering (whether that results from a condition, comorbid conditions, or societal stigma)? Complete removal of behaviors characteristic of this or that neurodivergence? Access to accommodations? Testing and aborting fetuses with whatever genes are found to cause neurodivergence? Ask ten people what a cure looks like, and it seems you’ll get ten different answers. If you’ve met one person with X neurodivergence, you’ve met just that—one person, not someone who can accurately represent everyonein their group. The same holds true for the other side—if you’ve met one person who wants a cure, you’ve met just one.

If you ask me, we should keep some things in mind: different people have different definitions in mind for what a “cure for autism” or “cure for ADHD” or such looks like; fur ther than that, desire that a cure be available isn’t the same as desiring that a cure be forced onto anyone. It’s important to give people the benefit of the doubt, make sure we’re all on the same page, and do our best to be tolerant of differing opinions (which isn’t the same thing as accepting those opinions as valid). As previously noted, political movements can get messy; just because some advocates take extreme stances, that doesn’t mean we should throw the neurodiversity baby out with the bathwater. As Singer says on her blog Reflections on Neurodiversity [emphasis added]:

“Neurodiversity has been a world changing idea. It will continue to be of importance as long as Neuroscience is considered the ultimate authority on the capabilities of the human nervous system, and as long as we retain an environmentalist perspective on the importance of diversity. Its meaning will continue to evolve as part of a dialectical process of change. Any world-changing idea (thesis) will be incomplete, will polarise people, will engender opposition and critique (antithesis). This is a good thing. After all the debate and discussion, a new synthesis will emerge, which will then be further refined and so on...”—Judy Singer

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