A Word About Neurodiversity

A Note to Readers: Why All the Strikethrough Text?

In the last several months, my understanding of neurodiversity has broadened. As I attempt to move away from the illness and pathology paradigm, I have edited the language to better reflect this. I have left the original text in, but in some cases have marked it up with the <strikethrough> tag to accurately reflect my state of mind when I originally wrote this page.

My understanding has been broadened through resources such as Nick Walker’s Neurocosmopolitainism blog, the Neuroqueer blog, and Bipolar: A Neurodiversity Approach.

To reflect my new understanding, I use the terms neurodivergent and neurodiverse to collectively refer to folks with alternate kinds of neurology (autism, ADHD/scout-minded, bipolar, dyslexic, synesthetes, and so forth). Also I chose to refer to myself as autistic and will use the word autistic to refer to folks anywhere on the spectrum. However, I still respect the wishes of those who use the terms “Aspie” and “Aspergian” and will refer to them in this manner if they desire.

What is Neurodiversity?

The short explanation: neurodiversity is the idea that we are all different in terms of brain wiring. Variations can and do occur, and should be regarded as differences instead of “disorders” to be cured. A better definition comes from Nick Walker of Neurocosmopolitanism.com, — a “diversity of brains means a diversity of cognitive styles, a diversity of innate cognitive strengths and weaknesses, gifts and peculiarities.”

Now for the my slightly modified longer explanation.

A good percentage of Some people are what one would call “normal” or “neurotypical”. Deviations from that so-called norm can occur in many different forms, including ADD/ADHD, Asperger Syndrome, or other forms of autism spectrum disorders. Some may consider other states of being kinds of conditions, such as bipolar disorder and dyslexia, to be manifestations of such deviations as well (this blog will primarily dealt with neurodiversity and Asperger Syndome).  What neurodiversity means is that atypical differences in brain wiring and neurological states that affect processing information, perceiving, communicating, and cognition should be embraced and accepted. And what this boils down to is that we who are affected by these conditions neurodivergent may not believe that they are “things” to be “fixed”. Rather, we may just frame them as they are differences.

Opinions on Neurodiversity

There are many sides of the neurodiversity argument. Organizations such as Autism Speaks are typically “pro-cure” — they have historically framed autism spectrum disorders as tragic events and seek ways to prevent and cure them. Some individuals and organizations argue quite the opposite, that there is no “cure”, as they are not disorders to begin with but instead valid neurological differences present in the human genome for these conditions; framing them as differences they instead seek for which tolerance, understanding and resources are needed to enable those on the spectrum for autistic people to live happy and fulfilling lives. Some go as far as to distance themselves from the “disabled” term and a few even suggest that those on the spectrum are superior to normal people, or “neurotypicals”.

What Do You Believe?

I am a supporter of the neurodiversity concept. I don’t think that Asperger’s autism is something to be fixed. Research has suggested that autism spectrum disorders are is a result of atypical brain development; the frontal cortex may be overdeveloped and overwired, while the limbic system (which handles emotion) is underdeveloped. This is a rather simplistic explanation, but it does suggest that attempting to “cure” an individual is problematic at best since this would require messing with the brain, a rather delicate and important structure in the human body. Rather, I feel that the focus should be on providing autistic individuals with spectrum disorders with the tools and resources they need, as well as education and working towards greater tolerance of individual differences.

Additionally, many of us on the spectrum have been able to use some aspects of ourselves — persistence, an incredible ability to focus, an interest in objects rather than people, a unique style of thinking, and our narrow interests — to help make the world a better place; this includes individuals such as Nikola Tesla, who contributed to the birth of electricity; Dr. Temple Grandin, who has contributed greatly to the promotion of humane livestock handling in the United States; inventor and scientist George Washington Carver, who found many uses for alternate crops (namely the peanut, the sweet potato, and the soybean) for Southern farmers working with soil depleted from multiple plantings of cotton. The arts are also full of individuals who may have been on the spectrum: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll); Paul Robeson; Syd Barrett (songwriter and singer for Pink Floyd); Hans Christian Anderson; and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

I am certainly not denying that some aspects of our conditions autism may present challenges. There is the sensory dysfunction, which can limit our ability to tolerate certain environments. There is also the social dysfunction, which can cause us to have difficulty with and even be frightened of social situations. All of these can result in some real difficulties, and perhaps lead to frustration and isolation. HOWEVER, this does not have to happen, and we also have positive gifts along with the difficulties. For example, as a poet I tend to be highly visual in my work, because I am primarily a visual thinker. I have the ability to translate the images in my mind into words, which become the imagery that my poems are made out. I also tend to be an analytical sort, which aids me in my writing as well as the execution of some tasks.

Neurodiversity and WWA

As I’ve mentioned above, I believe heavily in the neurodiversity concept. I would not deny a cure to those who would want it for themselves, but I also believe in the right of those who would not want one to refuse it; thus, I believe in individual choice. I believe that we should not look at ourselves as individuals on the spectrum as freaks, defects, or weirdos — instead, it would be better to I strongly believe that it is best to accept ourselves as we are, both in strengths and limitations.

I’ll borrow an analogy from the X-Men comic series: I would say I am closer to Dr. Xavier’s line of thinking than Magneto’s in regards to folks on the spectrum in that I don’t hate or look down on neurotypicals, but I feel that we as people on the spectrum do need support, resources, and greater tolerance and understanding. Thus, my views will certainly colored the outlook and tone of posts on this blog, and I will be writing attempted to write primarily from a stance of neurodiversity. In the end, I sincerely hope that WWA can still be a vehicle to help promote greater awareness, understanding, and tolerance as well as a shifting of perspectives on autism.

18 thoughts on “A Word About Neurodiversity

  1. I think “cure” is a relative term. A lot of times the word cure is meant in context with those who are more severely affected by autism. There is a spectrum, and while I tend toward neurodiversity, you can’t assume that one view is automatically directed at an entire group. :)

    That being said I think the word prevention would be a better replacement for the word cure because it can be demeaning to others.

  2. Well, when I say “cure”, I primarily speak of those that are already here who are on the spectrum. The focus of WWA is for people — primarily adult women — who are here, on the spectrum, and facing their unique challenges. This is one of the reasons that I did not address prevention when I wrote this. The other is that it ties in with questions such as whether ASDs *can* be prevented and thus requires a deeper discussion of the causes of autism spectrum disorders and things such as prenatal genetic testing. I am not yet prepared to do this, but I will probably tackle these issues in the future.

    What I wrote was meant to be an introduction to and a simple explanation of neurodiversity. It is based off my current understanding of how autism spectrum disorders happen — that there is a large genetic component to their occurrence (i.e. they tend to run in families). As we fall into different places on the autism spectrum, I have recently observed that the ideas and opinions about cures, prevention, etc. are also a spectrum of sorts. I have been in discussions with people, both NT’s and spectrumites, with all sorts of views on this issue.

    And of course, when one speaks of prevention, that leads to a discussion about what the very nature of autism spectrum disorders are, exactly. Are they differences? Disorders? Disabilities? Something in between? Does it depend on whether the person is verbal/high-functioning/etc. or not? If these things are “differences”, then what would prevention mean, and would it reduce the number of those individuals on the spectrum who, as I mentioned earlier, might have advantages due to their autistic wired brains? And what would this mean for society, and the development of the human race? And if they are disorders, then what does this mean, and how do we frame this whole discussion? How do we make sure that we continue to respect the individual and allow him/her to make whatever choices he/she will make in regards to his/her health and treatment? These are all very challenging questions.

    Thank you for stopping by. I welcome you to come by and continue discussing. This is the kind of engagement I am looking for. Thank you.

    -Nicole

  3. Neurodiversity is a really sticky subject in the world of autism. It often generates lots of highly-emotional opinions on either side. I think you’ve done an excellent job of explaining what it is and what you believe. I love your X-Men reference there, too!

    Me, I guess I support those who wish for a cure for themselves, but I also feel we’ve been conditioned to believe there’s something wrong with us; that we’re ‘broken’, that we’ll never be ‘whole’ until we’re ‘cured’. As a gay person, I see a number of parallels between the autism community and the LGBT community. More than 30 years ago, the general consensus was that homosexuality was a psychological deviance that ought to be cured. Today, we’ve finally come around (somewhat) to the idea that it’s just a difference, but there are still many men and women who hate themselves and even commit suicide because they’ve been taught that there’s something inherently wrong with them simply for being the way they are. And there are many more who’d like to isolate the ‘gay gene’ (if it indeed exists) with the idea of getting rid of it completely.

    I suppose what I’m saying is that I’d like to see more focus on tolerance and acceptance of general diversity in wider society – a big ask, I know.

    • Hi outoutout: Thank you for your thoughtful comments about this subject. I find myself kind of in the same boat — I wouldn’t refuse the right of someone who wants a cure to have it, but at the same time I also support the right of someone who does not. Again, it’s a matter of personal choice. Since I mostly tend to frame it as a “difference”, I am not sure I’d want a cure for myself and I think what those like us need the most is, as you said, tolerance and acceptance as well as support and resources to be able to live the kinds of lives we desire and that are possible for us.

      I think that part of acceptance and tolerance hinges on education, but it’s up to each individual to dispense with the mental schemas upon which their fears and prejudices are based. With those mental schemas, you might have a mix of faulty information and emotional value that reinforced those prejudices (fear of the unknown, mistrust, and so forth). Yes, it is a big ask, but I don’t think it’s impossible.

      And I think it’s really interesting that you drew a parallel between the autism and LGBT communities. I myself am bisexual, so I’ve seen a little foreshadowing of this kind of debate before. I wonder if the assertion of being “broken” is culturally specific, or if a little bit of that happens in cultures all over the globe (I’m thinking specifically of the United States, which can tend to place emphasis socially and culturally on one’s outer image, perfection, and “winning”).

      Thanks for stopping by. I hope to see you here again soon.

      -Nicole

  4. Neurodiversity: of course! :-) And I don’t think “cure” is even possible, but there may be several different ways of helping us to cope better. I’m currently trying occupational therapy.

  5. I agree not sure where cure comes into it, unless they wish to rewire my brain!

    How I see it – In the Mix – the centre of the neurological spectrum a variation of differences. Let me explain myself neurologically wired differently, sensory wise I sense the world differently, I am so in tuned at times with the world it’s like surround sound, intellectual learning differences which vary greatly, but really to me a different type of intelligence, mentally minded differently possibly an extremity of feeling at odds with the world. But for those of us who have varied differences I see as the inner core, those with less the outer and including many other differences as the circle widens such as highly sensitive etc…and then on the very outer circle those with no difference at all and so isn’t the real problem those on the outer circle not understanding the inner circle.!!!

    • Hi Alyson:

      Thank you for stopping by and also for your thought-provoking comments. You are absolutely right, the neurological differences are themselves a spectrum and varying in different degrees. Might be a bit of a cliche, but I’ll quote something I’ve heard around the Interwebs since I figured out that I am an Aspie: “If you’ve seen one person with Asperger’s, you’ve seen one person with Asperger’s”. This I think underscores your point as well. And yes, you’re right — those closer to “normal” or your outer circle as you put it would have a hard time understanding those with different kinds of sensing and intelligence as we might have. But how to help them understand? I think that, as someone on Facebook and I discussed, should be one of the major goals of awareness. To understand the difference and promote acceptance and tolerance.

      -Nicole

    • Hello Elesia:

      Thank you for posting this information. I’ve actually been in touch with ASAN’s central Ohio chapter a couple of times. I think y’all are on my resources pages, but if not, no worries. I will be updating it soon. And it is freshing to run in to others like myself, and I find it’s more likely to do so here on the Interwebs. I think the online world has opened up a lot more communication avenues and possibilities for everyone, but especially for autistic people and Aspies.

      Again, thank you for dropping by.

      -Nicole

  6. There is a pre-natal test for Downs’ Syndrome. A couple I met who had a member of their extended family with Downs syndrome had the test done. The result was a possibility for Downs, I don’t know what odds they were given but they went ahead and had the baby, who shows all the signs of a person who will finish school, find a job and do all the things we expect of a “normal” person. Who could ask for more?

    If a person is born who will be able to live on their own without requiring continous personal care, isn’t that enough? Why would we want anyone to conform to a certain “normal” standard? Who would set that standard? Someone who uses Hitler’s regime as their ideal? The whole idea of a “normal” society is poised on the edge of a slippery slope that can lead to disaster. Remember the “Eugenics movement” in the 1920’s? People who were sterilized without their consent? Downs syndrome babies who were locked away in institutions for their whole lives?

    The idea of a “cure” could rob society of artists, innoventors, and inventions that could make everyone’s life more comfortable. And the idea of a “cure” for sexual differences is also fraught with problems (although society seems to be more tolerant
    with each new generation)

    There is a problem that could use a benevolent “cure” and that is overpopulatiom.

  7. Our upbringing, I believe, has a lot to do with what parts of ourselves we may want to try to change.

    In my case, there is much ignorance of all things life in my family of origin. Therefore, I wasn’t raised properly by any standards, typical or atypical. I was more like a weed growing in the forest, free yet uncared for.

    As an adult, I have taught myself good manners. For example, I no longer believe that typically wired people are inferior. I now treat them with respect and understand that they don’t have to know stuff at my level, since they don’t spend nearly as much time with it.

    However, even though I changed as much as I humanly could, people still don’t want to hang out with me. And there is where learning about being an aspie is invaluable. Because I need to give up the idea that I can be “normal” like the masses.

    For a few years I tried to make myself look less smart, so others will like me. I don’t know what I will do from now on. I’m at a crossroad. But at least I will no longer put myself down or try to be something I’m not.

    • Dear Lorena,

      My upbringing was the same, I was left very damaged and vulnerable as a consequence. I have spent 23 years of my life repairining myself and was doing well, I thought the last piece of the fixing process was sorting out my inability to make and keep friends. Like you I am not generally accepted. I learned I have Aspergers and do not need to be fixed. As a result I feel less bothered with being accepted, I will not change myself because some people will not accept me. When people do accept me it will be because they like and value me as I am. You are a unique and worthy person. The judgemental and unaccepting ways of others are simply survival instinct, they are reacting to their own neurological wiring. Neurotypicals probably need to be educated with regard to ASD, they seem to have a lot of misconceptions. Hold your head up and be proud!

      Nikki

  8. Thank you so much for giving what I feel about aspergers a name! Neurodiversity really sums it up so simply. It’s nice to not feel so damned isolated for a change! Thank you for bringing a sense of normal energy into the aspy zone! Peace and optimism, Helen

  9. As a woman with Aspergers I so appreciate your concept of neurodiversity. Ive found myself so isolated in varying degrees and hardly found anyone to speak to about why I feel this way! Thankfully I’ve found quite a lot of myself in music (singing writing and composing) and reach people that way. While I find many challenges in my 40’s with Aspergers I am sick of the “illness” mentality that some choose to have about this condition. Thank you for shedding some light on a shadowy topic! I look forward to future posts!

  10. I believe there is no such thing as a neurotypical human, even if scientists or doctors would like to believe there is. Humans are biologically, physiologically and psychologically unique. Even human sexuality exists on a similar spectrum (which is why there is no true definition for sexuality – if you look it up, the definitions are weak attempts to describe it, but it cannot be defined). People who are labeled aspergers have personality traits that fit on a very wide spectrum (from extremely high functional — genus in some cases — to nearly autistic). They number at about 49% -51% of the population (and that number is likely too low). Those who have been “diagnosed” with aspergers should realize that they do not have a disorder, they have a definable personality. They tend to be obsessive/compulsive and egocentric. They tend to be uninterested in the details of other people’s lives except when it benefits them). This is true for what they observe, as well. They see what they are interested in, other objects are not observed. They respond best to direct communication and don’t handle criticism very well (likely because since they were very young, those without aspergers traits were not very sympathetic to their behavior). Their response to criticism is emotionally regressive (i.e. pouting, holding grudges, getting very emotional or having emotional tantrums, or feeling the need to get even with the criticizer). Psychiatrists are likely to agree that aspergers is a personality trait rather than a disorder, since almost all PhD’s, especially academic researchers, scientists, engineers, software programmers, accountants and some lawyers and financial analysts have similar personality traits. Those who try to have relationships with people who have an aspergers personality feel very alone and frustrated, since the person with aspergers personality generally isn’t very empathetic to another person’s suffering. Although behavioral therapy can teach those with aspergers traits scripts to follow to fit social conventions, the conventions lack the connective and genuine intimacy the other 49% – 51% are seeking in the interaction. Whose to say who is the one that is different. I guess it depends on the perspective of the observer.

  11. I think “cure” means to help people find better connections in a society dominated by a certain social process. As a light joke I said it is like a neurotypical trying to understand and blend in to another culture being half blind, half deaf, while jacked up on espresso.

    I love the concept of neurodiversity. I haven’t heard that one before. And just like the post by Anonymous right above mine, it seems we are all different. So perhaps we are discovering neurodiversity is the psychological science of individual uniqueness. Your personal blue print on how you are and behave in this world.

    I just discovered about a month ago I have Aspergers. I am 35 years old. Although I used to behave in some of the traits listed above in Anonymous’ post, I trained myself out of it before I knew I had Aspergers. I used to be super sensitive about criticism. Then I learned how valuable “negative” feedback is. It makes me curious what my brain map looked like before I learned this, and after! Also, I do not fit into the ‘lack of empathy’ field at all. I have so much empathy I get sick when others get sick and feel what they feel. I have helped people decide not to commit suicide. I have helped others sift through the darkness of their lives. And my mom said I am one of the most giving people she has ever met. I really believe that I know people better then they know themselves. I was “told” that in an online personality test I took as confirmation to something I already knew. I’m extremely good at reading people and predicting their future behavior and have tested this with those around me and them knowing so. So I think there is a confusion on the empath aspect of Aspergers studies. I haven’t found other Aspies saying this though. So its funny because I understand people well, but I just can’t communicate at their level, which sounds more like a social issue than a personal one.

    And I would like to say I do not need a “cure” because I don’t find anything wrong with my communication style. I just mentioned the other day I don’t know how people see me or why I am so different to them. Everybody looks okay to me other then we are all f*kd up. (?) Why do I stand out? That sort of thing. But after years of troubled relationships, and working intensively on my own behavior I still experience the whole – person meets me, likes me, thinks I’m great. But then once they see the other side of me its drastically altering to their view of me. So I am trying to learn how to be more adaptable while also asking others to be more understanding. In this way I think we are all trying to understand each other. Especially if there truly is neurodiversity! So I think Aspergers could be looked at in a different light. We could be the rejected retards of weirdo world, or we can become the leaders of helping others see differently. Its just a choice, like you said, on everyone’s part.

    Imagine the impact Aspies could have on others who are struggling to fit into this society. Like war veterans. The poor. Teenagers. Addicts who’s families just think they are lazy and selfish. The homeless (who are often war veterans). People that want to commit suicide, etc.

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