What is Neurodiversity?

Jillian Enright

Exploring the meaning of the word and the significance of the Neurodiversity movement.

Written by Jillian Enright, CYW, BA Psych.

What is Neurodiversity?

The concept of neurodiversity usually refers to perceived variations seen in cognitive, affectual, and sensory functioning differing from the majority of the general population or ‘predominant neurotype’, more usually known as the ‘neurotypical’ population(Rosqvist et al., 2020).

There are two primary models of neurodiversity, but they really complement each other rather than exist as separate entities.

The meaning will differ slightly for each individual who identifies as being neurodivergent, based on how they perceive themselves and what framework works best for them.

The Ecological Model

The ecological model, previously described by Harvey Blume (1998), reframes neurocognitive diversity as a normal and healthy manifestation of biodiversity.

Just as biodiversity is critical to the health of ecosystems, neurodiversity asserts that neurological variation is not only natural, but is central to the success of the human species (Mcgee, 2012).

The greater the biodiversity within an ecosystem, the more stable, adaptable and sustainable that system is. It follows that the more neurodiversity is respected and facilitated within a culture, the more stable, adaptable and sustainable that culture is (Singer, 2020).

Simply put, the ecological model of neurodiversity is the idea that we need changes and differences in our neurotypes for the health of humankind (à la biodiversity and evolution).

The Socio-Political Model

While Singer embraces the ecological model, and states that neurodiversity is a subset of biodiversity, she posits that the term biodiversity was coined in the 1980s as a political term to argue for the conservation of species (Singer, 2020).

Judy Singer coined the term neurodiversity in 1998,

“…a political term to argue for the importance of including all neurotypes for a thriving human society.”—Judy Singer

The neurodiversity paradigm focuses on depathologizing, and instead politicizing neurodivergence (Chapman, 2021). To pathologize neurodiversity is to diagnose a normal variation as disordered, based on the assumption that it ‘should’ cause disease.

Singer characterizes neurodiversity as a political term, an analytical lens for examining social issues such as inequity and discrimination, and a civil rights movement for the neurological minorities (Singer, 2020).

Read Judy Singer's blog post, also entitled What is Neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is a political and civil rights movement for the neurological minorities.” —Judy Singer

Rather than focusing only on the ecological and evolutionary advantages of bio- and neurodiversity, this perspective encourages us to delve deep into the social constructs that have led to the othering of differences.

The neurodiversity movement seeks to call out and challenge social institutions which perpetuate the oppression of people whose neurocomplexities are outside of the majority.

“It simply names an indisputable fact about our planet, that no two human minds are exactly alike, and uses it to name a paradigm for social change.”—Judy Singer

Four common goals

As Singer explains, there are four common goals in the Neurodiversity movement. They are to:

  1. Shift mainstream perceptions of marginalized neuro-minorities.
  2. Replace negative, deficit-based stereotypes of neuro-minorities with a more balanced valuation of their gifts and needs.
  3. Find valued roles for neurologically marginalized people.
  4. Show that all society benefits from the incorporation, inclusion, and celebration of neuro-minorities.
“Neurodiversity is a morally neutral term. It does not say that all people are inherently good, nor that nature is benign.”—Judy Singer

What neurodiversity does say is that the current medical model is overly negative, deficit-focused, and puts the individual at the centre of the problem.

The current characterization of neurodivergent individuals is that we suffer because our brains operate outside of the norm, because our brains are different and therefore “disordered” or less-than, and we must learn to adapt to suit the needs of the majority.

Neurodiversity does not dismiss or minimize the fact that people do suffer as a result of their differences.

This is a political movement in which we — those of us who are neurodivergent — are trying to educate others on the fact that what disables us comes more often from a lack of understanding, knowledge, acceptance, and accommodation by the general public, than from our divergent neurotypes themselves.

We’re saying stop calling us disordered and deficient as individuals, and look at how the larger systems and institutions are themselves disordered and deficient, and how those systems and institutions are disabling everyone.

Putting the responsibility on, and pointing the finger at, people with disabilities removes all accountability from the larger systems that actually have the power and resources to improve quality of life for everyone.

The impact is often greater on people who already have vulnerabilities and differences, but that does not mean there isn’t a negative impact on the general public at large.

We’re the canary in the coal mine, guys.

My Understanding

Neurodiversity does not reject diagnosis, treatment, or supports. In fact, this paradigm accepts that nature is not perfect and some adaptations or changes result in problems for those individuals.

What it does reject is the old assumption that different automatically means worse. The neurodiversity movement demands that all individuals be seen as valuable, and the gifts that come along with our differences be celebrated.

Variation and difference are neither inherently good nor bad. What sets us apart can make us great while also making our lives more difficult. This brings to mind one of my favourite quotes:

Treat distress, not difference” — Joel Salinas.

Distress is defined by the individual, not their parents, co-workers, employer, teacher, or anyone else.

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References

Blume H. (1998). Neurodiversity. The Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1998/09/neurodiversity/305909

Chapman, R. (2021). Neurodiversity and the Social Ecology of Mental Functions. Perspectives on Psychological Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691620959833

Mcgee, M. (2012). Neurodiversity. Contexts, 11(3), 12–13. https://doi.org/10.1177/1536504212456175

pathologize. (n.d.) McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine. (2002). Retrieved August 23 2021 from https://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/pathologize

Rosqvist H.B., Chown N., Stenning A. (eds.). (2020). Neurodiversity Studies: A New Critical Paradigm [Internet]. Routledge. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK568483

Singer, J. (1998). Odd People In: The Birth of Community Amongst People on the “Autistic Spectrum”: a personal exploration of a New Social Movement based on Neurological Diversity. [Honours thesis]. University of Technology.

Singer, J. (2020). What is Neurodiversity?. [Blog post]. https://neurodiversity2.blogspot.com/p/what.html

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Neurodivergent. 20+ years social work and psychology experience. I write about mental health, neurodiversity, advocacy, education, and parenting. Founder of ADHD 2e MB. CYW, BA Psychology.

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