Neurodiversity Movement Opposition

brainWhen I first heard about the neurodiversity movement, it made a lot of sense to me and offered immediate advice for teaching my son about autism and helping him grow comfortable with his identity and confident in the pursuit of his dreams. But not all parents and autistic individuals have adopted the neurodiversity philosophy.

What is the Neurodiversity Movement?

Neurodiversity is the concept that encourages the acceptance of a variety of different neurological conditions. It asks people to embrace neurological differences, treating everyone with dignity and respect. The neurodiversity movement refers to the advocating of civil rights for people of all different types of neurology. Autistic self-advocates are most responsible for the cultural acceptance of the neurodiversity movement, although many other non-autistic individuals participate as well, including those with neurological differences such as ADHD, bipolar disorder, dyslexia, and Tourette Syndrome, among others.

More information about the history behind the neurodiversity movement can be found in the LFA Autism Advocacy Toolkit.

I’ve embraced the philosophy behind the neurodiversity movement because it will help my son and so many others like him live happier and more productive lives. It offers autistic children the benefit of growing up more confident in their neurology, and, because of the awareness and acceptance campaigns now gaining more public exposure, one can hope that society might be more welcoming to autistic individuals than ever before. However, this ideology isn’t embraced by every autistic individual and family.

Opposition to the Neurodiversity Movement

There is significant opposition to the neurodiversity movement from all corners of the autism and autistic communities. One example includes Jonathan Mitchell’s post “Neurodiversity: Just Stay No.” Dr. Manuel Casanova also poses many questions about this movement in his series here: “The Neurodiversity Movement: Good Intentions Resting on a Shaky Scientific Foundation,” “The Neurodiversity Movement: Lack of Trust,” and “Bernard Rimland: Founder of the Neurodiversity Movement?”

Neurodiversity opposition usually makes one or several of these claims:

  • “All of the neurodiversity leaders are ‘high-functioning.’ They look nothing like my child. If my child could speak or blog like they do, I would consider him cured.”
  • Neurodiversity leaders are taking funding away from the research into causes and cures.
  • Neurodiversity advocates don’t really understand what they are fighting for. They can’t possibly understand the consequences of their actions [because they are autistic.
  • The movement is fueled by autobiographical accounts and the media rather than scientific data.
  • The leaders of the neurodiversity movement feel they are superior to the rest of humanity because they have autism.

Finding Peace within the Neurodiversity Debate

For parents trying to make sense of how best to serve their children and respect autistic input, this debate can be confusing and stressful. I want to offer the following advice as you consider this topic:

1. Neurodiversity is rooted in acceptance, which is good for any human.

2. The opposition is correct about the neurodiversity movement mostly being led by verbal autistics or those who are able to self-advocate (Many self-advocates disapprove of labels like “high-functioning” and “low-functioning,” see John Elder Robison’s post on this topic “High Functioning People Like You Don’t Speak for My Child”). But there are plenty of nonverbal autistics who support it as well. Neurodiversity advocates and self-advocates can still assert their own desire for civil rights without assuming they know what’s best for every autistic child on the spectrum.

3. Most neurodiversity movement advocates emphasize the present. They advocate for ways to improve life for autistics who are living now. This doesn’t necessarily mean they oppose research into causes or ways to prevent severely disabling symptoms for people in the future; instead, many choose to emphasize the supports and accommodations society can make now to improve life for autistic people.

4. Neurodiversity advocates are not opposed to therapy. John Elder Robison explained on his blog “No neurodiversity advocate in his right mind would oppose developing tools to remediate disability from autism.” He goes on to explain that he prefers not to use the word “cure,” but rather acknowledge that someone needs help “remediating his disability.”

5. Constantly trying to engage with autistics who have varying viewpoints and keeping an open mind about how you can best serve the autistic community will always be a valuable pursuit.

The autistic brain is complex and the symptoms varied, which will always be a polarizing factor for the autism community. A fuzzy conception of autism’s cause unfortunately leads to a disagreement on how much attention should be paid to prevention or “cures.” This debate is especially sensitive for the many autistic people who possess advantageous cognitive capabilities and/or view their autism as interwoven in their identity and are thus offended by campaigns to “eliminate” them from the genetic pool.

If the philosophy behind the neurodiversity movement helps improve someone’s quality of life, I think it’s important to pursue. Often times when I hear arguments for or against neurodiversity, it is the most extreme opinions that are discussed. But there truly is a lot of middle ground here. I think it’s best to try and acknowledge the sensitive arguments both the neurodiversity advocates and their opponents are asserting, and, no matter what camp you reside in, look for any areas in which you can work together to better serve more autistic people.

For further reading:

“‘Are You Sure, Sweatheart, That You Want to Be Well?'”: An Exploration of the Neurodiversity Movement by Kathryn Boundy http://radicalpsychology.org/vol7-1/boundy.html

Neurocosmopolitanism by Nick Walker http://neurocosmopolitanism.com/neurodiversity-some-basic-terms-definitions/

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7 Comments

  1. Reply

    Although one of my blogs is cited, the reader would be best served by having access to the blog that introduced the subject (http://bit.ly/1AqaYjQ) and the final reconciliatory blog (http://bit.ly/1EO3yLL) that came about after a good amount of discussion.

    I have stated that neurodiversity can’t take precedence for sponsoring as initiatives the avoidance of pejorative terms that “pathologize” the condition nor the so-called civil rights advocacy when publicizing the physical and emotional abuses to which some ASD individuals have been subjected. The advocacy for equal rights/opportunities is inherent to every autism support organization and is ingrained in each one of us as part of our common human dignity. If these initiatives were the core precepts of this movement then Bernard Rimland, rather than Judy Singer, would have been the founder of neurodiversity.

    The main tenet of the neurodiversity movement is their health-related judgment that autism and other neuropsychiatric conditions comprise part of the normal variability of traits that characterize the human race. In this regard they advocate that these conditions belong to the social rather than the medical sciences. If this were the case they logically deduce the lack of need for either treatment or research into these conditions. Therapeutic attempts, as with applied behavioral analysis, are therefore deemed as misguided and unethical. These opinions are not of the few but can be found widespread within the neurodiversity movement (i.e., type “neurodiversity”, “research”, and “cure” into any search engine). As the author Andrew Solomon has stated “those who contend autistics are neurodiverse…feel they should be left alone.” Probably the greatest advocate for this polarizing stance is Ari Ne’eman and the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN). In truth, other neurodiversity advocates, like John Elder Robison, support a softer approach that favors both treatment and research. John primarily advocates for those research avenues that can create a difference “now” rather than in future generations. Coincidentally, John advocates for the type of research and treatment modalities that I perform. His next book (“Switched On”) coming in March 2016 relates some of my own endeavors in introducing TMS for the treatment of autism (Note: This same stance was supported by Bernie Rimland who went on to establish the Autism Research Institute, see http://bit.ly/1zuuHPp).

    My stance is against those members of the neurodiversity movement claiming that mood disorders or seizures should not be treated. Seizures in ASD may be associated with falls, bone fractures, cognitive impairment, disturbed consciousness, and unexplained sudden death. This and other comorbidities are serious conditions and they DO need treatment!

    • Jenna

      Reply

      Dr. Casanova, thanks for the comment. I agree that your series of posts on neurodiversity is a thorough resource for parents of autistic children as well as other medical professionals. I have revised the post to include the other links you shared. I have adopted what you referred to as a “softer approach” with my own son, and I think many people who call themselves neurodiversity advocates do as well.

      As you’ve mentioned, there are definitely people residing in each extreme. For many parents, the language of neurodiversity is unfamiliar; they are used to hearing doctors constantly telling them what is wrong with their children and then they focus on fiercely fighting for some idea of what they wished their children would have turned out like. As a parent, speaking with autistic adults has been especially humbling, and I hope that parents, doctors, and researchers continue including them in the conversation on autism.

        • Jenna

          Reply

          Thanks for leaving this link. I remember reading this post of yours a few months ago and thinking it reminded me of an article we have hanging in our kitchen. It is an article with a picture of Pope Francis hugging a child with cerebral palsy in a crowd of people (my son has cerebral palsy in addition to autism). The article goes on to say that during the time of the photo a woman in the crowd could be heard shouting “Your son is here to show us how to love!”

          Although my son’s conditions are very different from your grandson, I nevertheless appreciate your messages on the miraculous power of disability.

          Thanks!

  2. Colin

    Reply

    This is a very well balanced argument, and captures well the real value of the neuro-diversity concept. This approach has proved valuable for helping guide my approach to supporting my own son. He has received medical and therapeutic input in the past that has proved very valuable for dealing with certain symptoms – particularly anxiety. I am thus by no means anti-medical model. That doesn’t alter the fact , however, that my sons opportunities and quality of life will ultimately be decided by how receptive of/or rejecting the wider society around him is – and that is very much a political and civil rights issue. Indeed, access to well research therapeutic and educational support for people with autism is itself part of that struggle. The UK National Autistic Society recently published a study showing how cuts to public services and benefits is resulting in people with autism and other conditions being abandoned, forgotten, neglected and in some cases left to die. This has now become a life or death issue in the UK – not a purely academic of philosophical one.

    • Jenna

      Reply

      Thanks for the comment Colin. Thank you for exemplifying how this issue has broad and critical applications. You are absolutely right that the opportunities and quality of life for our children is largely dependent on how society handles autism. My hope is that the neurodiversity movement will help some with this. But, as you mentioned, well-researched supports are also crucial, and the study you cited is appalling. Public services and benefit cuts can also occur when kids are forced to “test out” of the spectrum, a practice that has threatened the vital support systems that have helped families keep their children moving forward and adjusting to the world around them.

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