Thursday 10 October 2019

Neurodivergent from what, exactly?

The word Neurodivergent begs the question, "Divergent from what, exactly?".

Neurodivergent 1  describes the significant percentage of  humans who are increasingly recognized as differing cognitively from Neurotypicality.

The adjective neurotypical itself emerged from the Autistic Self-Advocacy movement of the late 20th century. Pioneers of the movement used it to bypass the increasingly problematic term "Normal", while essentially pointing to the concept behind it. It's worth pointing out that the word "neurotypical" should not be read as a diagnostic term, i.e. one that has a specific set of signs and symptoms. It is purely a term developed to provide a necessary polar opposite of "neurodivergent".

Neither should the recently coined words based on the concept of  Neurodiversity be read as scientific terms. They are socially constructed terms intended for advocacy purposes.  This should clear up criticisms that these words are "pseudoscientific". When I first used the word "Neurodiversity", I did not intend it to be a diagnostic term.  I saw it as a banner for a "Neurodiversity Movement" -  a civil rights movement for those of us who had been stigmatized for being "weird, odd, or unfathomable" outsiders. While the word is not scientific, it does trade on the authority of neuroscience and biological science - which stresses the importance of conserving biodiversity -  to argue for a revaluing of formerly stigmatized neuroMinorities 

From my thesis, a summary of ideas from
Lennard Davis, Enforcing Normalcy
Normality is a culturally constructed term  which encompasses a broad range of characteristics that centre around a rarely-achieved Ideal of physical, intellectual and sociable characteristics.

The Ideal itself is undoubtedly based on evolutionary principles, but to some extent can be culturally defined; e.g some cultures value extroversion, others, introversion.

The boundaries of the normal range are fuzzy, and subject to contention. Small deviations from the normal range are often claimed as Identities. Large deviations are viewed as Disabilities. The boundary line between an identity and a disability is fuzzy, and will always be subject to disputation.

Why do we need NeuroDivergent? What's wrong with Neurodiverse?

The adjective neurodivergent became necessary because the adjective neurodiverse is not logically meaningful. Neurodiversity has been a property of the biosphere since the evolution of sexual reproduction. It simply says that all human minds on the planet are necessarily different.

So all humans are neurodiverse!

It's just that some of us have been excluded more than others for our divergence from the ideal.

Neurodiversity is a fact. The Neurodiversity Movement is however an identity politics vehicle for people who were discriminated against for differing from the culturally-defined normal range.

There are degrees of difference of course. Thus "neurodivergence" shades from difference to disability, with a grey area in between.

Our Western free-market liberal culture tends to favour extroversion, sociability, competitiveness, self-promotion, lots of noise and buzz. We also tend to worship youth and fear and shun old age.

Other cultures favour introversion, introspection, quietness, modesty, and tend to respect age. Think traditional Chinese, Jewish and Indigenous cultures.

The latter cultures are eye-contact avoidant in various circumstances, considering it variously disrespectful of status, invasive or manipulative.  From the point of view of egalitarianism, this is a good thing. 

But rather naively, Western culture demands eye-contact as a verification of sincerity, when in fact it can easily be used as a tool of emotional manipulation by psychopaths and con-artists!

Cultures change all the time of course. Not so long ago, absent-minded professors were honoured in our culture, though perhaps we laughed at their eccentricities behind their backs. Then along came Dr Lorna Wing and Uta Frith. Before long, we could easily find our professors' eccentricities dissected in the pages of the DSM IV Bible of Everything that could Possibly Be Wrong with the Human Mind.

And yet, from an evolutionary view, we have an expectation of a range of normal behaviours, based on our primeval survival needs as Homo Sapiens emerging from the African savanna.

We evolved as a dominant hierarchical species, and our responses are still primed for survival in the wild, with high general levels of physical fitness, problem-solving and sociability.

But do our advanced cultures still need the same "hard-wired" qualities for survival?   

The Neurodiversity Movement challenges the notion that we must all be generalists to survive. Neurodivergent people are often specialists with spiky ability profiles. The biological reality is that as a species,  our success has been based on the evolutionary imperative of role differentiation.

Now read on for my reductionist, totally un-academic,  Armchair Evolutionary Pschologist's  take on  "The Normal"
Exit JS stage right, pursued by a Saber-Toothed Tiger
Click below to see how it turned out 


The coinage of the term "neurodivergent" is attributed to Kassiane Asasumasu

The first Smilicon

Enter Stage Left, my favorite rhetorical device, the incongruously named Smilodon, aka the fearsome Saber-Toothed Tiger...

Back in the Savannah, we needed to:

  • be fast enough to outrun a Sabre Toothed Tiger on our tail
  • be smart enough, fast enough and cooperative enough to be able to hunt and kill and eat the Smilodon
  • be strong enough to protect mothers and children from the Smilodon
  • feed a few unathletic and obsessive perfectionists who'd be only too relieved to sit in the cave, doing the important jobs of whittling flint and separating chaff all day. (I here salute my Pleistocene foremothers, who I'm sure would be delighted to know that I'm still carrying on the family tradition).
We needed oral historians with stupendous memories to memorize the all-important "Begats",  the Who's Who of pre-literate societies

And because we still needed more hunters than grain-sorters, we needed hairy-thatched chest-beaters with fearful roars to battle for a chance to get a go at the hottest females

It seems some of our more troglodytic throwbacks still crave these chest-beating tub-thumpers for their political leaders.

The good news

We won! Our little Complementarily Cognitive Collective turned the tables on the tigers. Ha! We ate them all! 

So we really don't need strong men any more apart from their economic value to sports and the gambling industry. And as entertaining eye-candy as we lie back on the sofa in front of the box at the end of a hard day at the office.

This being the case, why can't some of us just be left in peace to sit and read or obsess quietly at home with whatever?


Linda Blanchard said...

Thanks for so clearly expressing something I've been trying and failing to communicate for quite a while.

Mia Funk said...

Hello, I'm trying to send an interview request to you from The Creative Process podcast but the form doesn't appear to send my message. My email is Please email me and I will send you the full formal interview request. Looking forward to hearing from you!