The Neurodiverse vs The Cure




Opinion2.jpgWho is neurodiverse? If you listen to the clinicians involved in brain scanning, the question is, “Who isn’t?” The definition of neurodiversity may come down to the line between, “how diverse?” and, “how much stigma?” Those of us who are diverse enough to lose jobs, be excluded from social groups, and have schools and workplaces resisting our needs for accommodation may get a boost from the idea of neurodiversity. Some of the biggest proponents of the idea have autism or Asperger syndrome. They object to being called abnormal or pathological. They reject the idea of being cured, because that would be like eliminating their current personality, and replacing them with someone else. I guess that would be a self-transplant without moving to another country. Or, in more serious terms, 1984 all over again. But, on the other hand, if you gained abilities that you didn’t have before, would you complain that you had been replaced by your “new” self? According to one group of people with autism, the idea of neurodiversity has been around since the early days of the Internet. It began as a way to describe the needs of people with autism in the face of social stigma and misunderstanding. Over time, it has covered more types of people, but you won’t find it in the DSM (the holy book of the psychiatric world), since that book is exclusively about pathology.

But if neurodiversity is like the diversity of race and culture, or if it conjures images of protecting the rain forest for the sake of biodiversity, why do the neurodiverse have trouble keeping jobs, communicating, and, if they’re diverse enough, taking care of their most basic needs? Only the most radical of us will refuse to draw a line somewhere and say, “That’s pathology.” Wherever you draw the line, the neurodiverse want us all to bear in mind that much of what we call pathology is actually a dysfunction that is caused by rigid reactions and bigotry by many of the neurotypicals. By the way, neurotypical makes it sound like someone is, “oh, so typical.” Do I detect a veiled bit of rhetorical revenge? And isn’t swapping “typical” for “normal” just reinforcing the polarity of normal versus not-normal? This kind of euphemistic synonym isn’t exactly a radical redefinition. But what else would you use besides normal or typical? Neuro-bell-curve-middle? Neuro-standard-deviation-challenged? Ooof. Not my job.

Perhaps the key to neurodiversity lies in letting “I can’t” be an acceptable part of a person that doesn’t obscure the “I can’s.” After all, if you can’t always find you’re car keys, you’re not that far from usually losing your car keys. And how far is that from not knowing what to do with them when you find them? When you strip away the social functions of pathology as a concept, such as feeding the health industries or making it easy to turn your back on someone so you can busy yourself with being part of the social machinery, what’s left? What’s left of pathology when we take away the dark side of our society’s motives for developing it? We ran out of demons during the nineteenth century (well, except for some hold outs that speak in tongues). We’re running out of moralistic explanations for why Johnny can’t read (or play four square with the other kids, or handle all the noise and activity in the classroom)… And so maybe some day we’ll run out of pathology.

If you aren’t an artist, you probably draw somewhere around a fourth-grade level. Is that pathology? No, it’s normal, but that doesn’t make it pretty. About half of adults never get to the point that they can think abstractly. That means it’s normal not to be able to fully understand the meaning of a document such as the U.S. Bill of Rights or Constitution. I guess that means neurodiversity has a long uphill battle.

  • Rebecca

    Just finished reading Distress by Greg Egan (1995), in which there is a character who gives a media interview about the Voluntary Autists Association. He’s their Media Liaison Officer and represents their views over several pages (starting on p. 57 in the paperback). He makes a case that being subclinically autistic does not obligate the person to undertake autografts to correct the damage, a medical procedure that is posited to exist in the story. He makes an eloquent argument for a person’s right to choose to go through their life that way, and not be discriminated against. Includes several very thought-provoking ideas.

  • Steve H

    Oh dang, now I feel like I need a t-shirt that says “Promoting Neurodiversity since 1948.” Or maybe “Subscribing To.”

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Robert A. Yourell, MA

Robert A. Yourell, MA, has extensive experience in the mental health and social services dating back to 1975. His training includes Ericksonian communication and hypnosis with John Grinder, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing with Francine Shapiro, PhD, Body Integrative Psychotherapy with Jack Rosenberg, PhD, and solution-focused psychotherapy. He provides free audio experiences on his site that include bilateral sound and Shimmering.
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