It’s a word that is often misunderstood, often misused and often mistaken for something else. Its meaning depends on whether it’s being spoken by academics, capitalists, or activists. And it can be just as often used to silence, oppress, and erase people as it is to include, empower, and accept them. So what is neurodiversity?
As humans, around ten per cent of us (or, depending on how you define it, maybe even as many as 20 per cent) are neurodivergent. That is, our minds perceive, process, and react to the world in a different way to the ‘neurotypical’ majority.
Every neurodivergent person is different, of course, but in the same way that all ethnic minorities in the UK share various common attributes and experiences by virtue of their ‘non-whiteness’, so do all neurominorities – all neurodivergent people share some attributes and experiences in a way that defines and separates us from the neurotypical population.
Complexity and confusion
The categories into which our neurodivergence are divided are constantly evolving. Even within the well-established category of ‘autism’, over recent decades there have been major changes in the way autistic people are conceptualised, labelled, and treated by society. Likewise, our understanding of ADHD has and continues to shift, with distinctions between ‘sub-types’ often differing across both years and continents.
Unfortunately, this type of uncertainty breeds contempt. In tandem with a growing public awareness about ADHD, autism, and other forms of neurodivergence, a vocal resistance is emerging towards what some commentators see as a trend towards the pathologisation of normal human experience into meaningless categories with no basis in reality.
For those of us who have been diagnosed with ADHD, autism, or other neurodevelopmental conditions later in life – our diagnoses often following years of distress as a result of frequent exclusion, dismissal, and rejection – this can amount to a painful erasure of identity.
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that many of us view mainstream proliferation of the term ‘neurodiversity’ in the UK with suspicion.
Haunted by the invalidating platitudes that have so often been the response to genuine cries for help throughout our lives (hearing “but everyone feels like that sometimes” when trying to explain crippling sensory over-stimulation, for example), we instinctively interpret the concept of neurodiversity as being just another way to deny our own often-painful reality.
Suppression through super-power
Confusion around the definition of neurodiversity is also exacerbated by an apparently inclusive sentiment that has been adopted in the UK by many (often well-meaning) educators and employers.
Within these systems, the idea of ‘celebrating neurodiversity’ is being used to minimise what is effectively a human rights movement, through the adoption of a strengths-focused narrative that replicates all the problematic individualism of a medical, deficit-based model.
This narrative involves the idea that neurodivergent people possess ‘superhuman’ abilities and strengths; that conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and dyspraxia should be seen not as ‘bad’ things but as ‘good’ things because they infer economically useful qualities such as creativity, pattern-recognition abilities, and willingness to innovate.
Unfortunately this kind of ‘neurodiversity-lite’ rhetoric is easy to uncritically accept and difficult to challenge. After all, shouldn’t we all be celebrating our strengths? Yes, but not at the expense of acknowledging the extent to which neurodivergent lives are genuinely impaired by a system that is designed by and for neurotypical minds.
The fact that someone’s neurodivergence may prove to be economically useful to certain employers, or that a child with ADHD may be full of creative ideas, doesn’t change the equally important fact that the 9-5 office environment is neither sympathetic nor conducive to neurodivergent thinking, or that no amount of creative flair will magically enable a neurodivergent child to conform to a typical classroom environment without appropriate accommodations.
Neurodiversity is not about denying the reality of the neurodivergent experience, nor is it about minimising or dismissing the impairments that neurominorities can – and often do – face in an overwhelmingly neurotypical world.
It is, however, a complex concept with nuances that can be genuinely difficult to grasp – not least of all for those of us who are still making sense of our pasts, presents, and futures through a neurodivergent lens.
It is also a topic about which much has already been written, by scholars, philosophers, and activists of all neurotypes. In creating ZIG/ZAG, I do not seek to replicate their work, nor to claim greater or keener insight than anyone else.
What I do seek, however, is to organise existing knowledge about neurodiversity, explore interesting connections, and create new conversations with others who – like me – are keen to explore their place in the world.
That, after all, is what neurodivergent minds do best. So, let’s begin.
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