What is Neurodiversity?

Spurred by the environmental disaster of Australia's bushfire season, and now by the coronavirus panic, I have updated my ideas about Neurodiversity to emphasise its place within Biodiversity.

In times of loss of diversity, threat of economic collapse, and increased competition for scarce resources, we need a strong argument against a primitive "survival of the fittest"  fortress mentality against "outsiders", however they are defined.

Until recently, the sanctity of all human life in Western culture was underpinned, however imperfectly, by Judaeo-Christian belief in divine command.

With belief in divine authority waning, we need a convincing new argument for the sanctity of all lives to counter the inhuman logic of economic rationalism which forever teeters over an eugenic abyss

Perhaps the idea of respect for Biodiversity and its subset Neurodiversity
as the very foundation of the stability 
of our floating global home provides that argument

Contents

  1. What Neurodiversity is
  2. What Neurodiversity is not
  3. What the Neurodiversity Movement is
  4. Fundamental Principles
  5. Neurodiversity and Conservation
  6. The Dark Side of Neurodiversity
  7. Neurodiversity and Eugenics
  8. Neurodiversity and "Difference vs Disability"
  9. The Future of Neurodiversity


What Neurodiversity is:

1. A Subset of Biodiversity





Biodiversity 

  • a feature of Earth and its ecosystems
  • refers to the total diversity of species that inhabit the planet or its local ecosystems

Neurodiversity is

  • a feature of Earth as a whole, since humans have colonized all its ecosystems
  • refers specifically to the limitless variability of human cognition and the uniqueness of each human mind
Both are descriptors of environments, not of individual species, of which humans are just one

2. A Sociological Tool





A word coined in the 1990s in a call for a Politics of Neurodiversity to add the concept of neurological difference to:
  • the intersections of Class, Disability, Ethnicity and Gender
  • the limited categories of disability recognised by government, health and welfare instrumentalities. There were only 3!
     - Physical
     - Intellectual
     - Psychiatric: often a repository of anything       not understood by the medical profession
  • and finally to Disability Rights theory and activism 
An analytical lens for examining social issues such as inequity and discrimination.


What Neurodiversity is not




Neurodiversity is NOT
a Psycho-Medical diagnosis for individuals



NOR a tool for dividing "Us" from "Them"



We are ALL Neurodiverse because no two humans on the planet are exactly alike 


If you are an employer, for example,  you can talk about a neurodiverse environment eg. a workplace or team, if you mean that you consciously seek to increase the neurodiversity of your workplace, because it makes good business sense
But you can't say that Worker A is "neurodiverse" while Worker B is not.  It would be implying that B is "normal" while A is not. 
However,  if Worker A has identified themselves with a specific syndrome, e.g. Autism, in which case call them "autistic". But they are no more neurodiverse than anyone else on the planet


The Neurodiversity Movement


The NeuroDiversity Movement


is an umbrella term used to advocate for the common interests of various neurological minorities, as were originally described and differentiated by the 20th century Psycho-Medical Complex

The movement grew out of the pioneering work of the Autistic Self-Advocacy movement and its allies

It is an evolving, decentralized and leaderless social movement

The idea of a NeuroDiversity Movement is a memetic phenomenon, a cultural idea that reproduces virally by the action all those who engage with the concept. This includes those who speak out against it - whether they like it or not! To understand why, see Richard Dawkins' original Meme Theory

The movement's aims evolve dialecticly, that is, its boundaries are fuzzy and represent the locus of debate and discussion by those who engage

Despite there being no official definition or spokesperson for the movement, its consensual aims can be discerned. They are to:
  • shift mainstream perceptions of marginalized NeuroMinorities
  • replace negative, deficit-based stereotypes of NeuroMinorities with a more balanced valuation of their gifts and needs
  • find valued roles for neurologically marginalized people
  • show that all society benefits from the incorporation of NeuroMinorities.


Fundamental Principles


Neurodiversity
is a term that refers to an obvious and indisputable feature of Earth's biosphere

Neurodiversity refers to the virtually infinite neuro-cognitive variability within Earth’s human population.  It points to the fact that every human has a unique nervous system with a unique combination of abilities and needs.

Neurodiversity is a subset of Biodiversity, a term mostly used for the purpose of advocating for the conservation of species

Biodiversity posits that human self-interest requires the conservation of all species irrespective of their perceived utility or attractiveness to humans. This is based on the postulate that:

  • the greater the biodiversity within an ecosystem, the more stable, adaptable and sustainable
    that system is
  • ecosystems are interlinked in complex ways that affect all life, including human life

It follows that the more Neurodiversity is respected and facilitated within a culture, the more stable, adaptable and sustainable that culture is

The Neurodiversity Movement arose in the post-modern era of the late 20th century as a new kind of  civil rights movement.

The term Neurodiversity in its political form caught on because it captures the authority of both environmental science and neuroscience to replace the purely negative and unbalanced characterization of neurological minorities by the 20th century Psycho-Medical Complex

ALL humans are neurodiverse, because each one of us has a unique brain, comprised of our genetic heritage (Nature) and cultural and experiential recordings (Nurture). Thus it can be seen that Neurodiversity is simply another perspective for Human Nature. This reminds us that there is an environmental basis for respecting the variability of cognitive differences, both abilities and disabilities.

Neurodiversity is a morally neutral term. It does not say that all people are inherently good, nor that nature is benign

Neurodiversity pertains to the planet, but morality pertains to the human mind. It behoves us to look deeply and thoughtfully at ourselves and others.

Neurodiversity changes nothing about Human Nature but gives us a new lens for examining it


Neurodiversity as a conservation issue


It is important to locate Neurodiversity within the wider picture of Biodiversity

Why is biodiversity important? 


Biodiversity refers to the incalculable variety of life on Earth and its ecosystems and habitats. A high level of biodiversity within an ecosystem is considered desirable and necessary for an ecosystem to thrive. The term was coined with a political aim, the conservation of all species not just those species that humans value.

From a purely selfish anthropocentric viewpoint, 


Why is Neurodiversity important for all humanity, not just for neurodivergent people?

As a subset of biodiversity, Neurodiversity is as important for a viable culture as biodiversity is for a viable ecosystem.

Any reduction of biodiversity results in a less stable and self-sustaining environment. Complex ecosystems are self-healing over time, being able to select from a vast diversity of genes. But the phenomenon of desertification shows that there is a tipping point beyond which there is no return.

Consider the risks and benefits of human-imposed monocultures in agriculture. Yes, there are efficiency to humanity in efficiency, but consider the maintenance costs:  disease, pests, degradation of  soil, and constant labour and vigilance.

Obviously a human monoculture is not about to emerge any time soon. It's not technologically feasible, although it cannot stop the march of science, whether we like it or not.

The dream of some for a genetically engineered cure for autism is unlikely to happen - the condition is simply not down to a single set of genes.

The more sinister dream is a totalitarian Social Darwinist vision (based on a misconception of evolutionary theory) which seeks to minimize or even extinguish human diversity. It manifests as: 
  • Racism: the dream of excluding minority ethnic groups from equal opportunity and power, and ultimately of enslaving and even annihilating them 
  • Sexism: the dream of excluding women from equal opportunity and returning them as men's handmaidens
  • Homophobia: the dream of reverting to an imagined state of nature in which only heterosexuality exists
  • Eugenic euthanasia: the dream of eliminating disabled people
  • Ideological censorship: the totalitarian dream of eliminating diversity of opinion
Germany's Nazis turned Europe into a laboratory of evil for a monstrous "Social Darwinist" experiment by trying to turn this fantasy into a reality and create an Aryan Master Race. In the end, it rebounded on Germany. Nearly as many "Aryans" ended up dying as the Jewish and Rom peoples that the Nazis had tried to exterminate (the Nazi's shameless word, not mine). 
Slight divergence: Have we learned anything from this? Or are our means simply becoming more subtle? Are cutbacks in welfare for minorities a back-door form of genocide by neglect?  But that's a topic for another article...

Neurodiversity as a Conservation issue?  

The original quote from my thesis 
I developed the term Neurodiversity for a political purpose, which I now see in more broad conservationist terms than the identity politics terms I originally thought of. I have written elsewhere about the limitations of Identity Politics beyond its initial consciousness-raising phase.

In  biological terms, Neurodiversity is about the conservation and revaluing of neuro-cognitive minorities within the planet’s dominant species, Homo Sapiens. The Latin derivation of Homo Sapiens is "Wise Human", affirming that what differentiates humans from other species is the possession of a  highly developed brain

In order for a species to flourish, we must protect its habitat. Even more so for endangered species, which need extra resources to regenerate their habitats and may need individual support.

Similarly, in order for humanity to flourish, we must protect and create safe habitats for minority cultures, whether indigenous, displaced, disabled, impoverished, queer, aged and so on. For disability and neurological minorities,  additional resources must be supplied from the taxes of the majority so that neuro-minorities can flourish and make their contribution to society.

But there is a rub:
Nature is beautiful but also "red in tooth and claw"


The Dark Side of Neurodiversity

Nature may be beautiful but it is amoral.

Nature simply generates variety. It is a given habitat which determines whether an organism will find its niche and thrive, survive or perish in that habitat.

Not all mutations are positive.  Nature will rapidly eliminate any mutation that doesn't fit its habitat.

Similarly, Neurodiversity is a positive principle, but it is NOT a moral principle.

It has nothing to say about Good vs Evil, Fit vs Unfit, Different vs Disabled

In nature, things either survive to pass on their genes, or they don't.

We should not be blind to the reality that Neurodiversity includes anti-social categories like the "Dark Tetrad":  Psychopathy, Narcissism, Machieavellianism and Sadism. In certain situations, and within limits they have social value, boldness, confidence, will to achieve, but they confer an unfair advantage for those who are able to charm, beguile and hide anti-social, self-aggrandizing aims,

If we are going to create Neurodiverse Workplaces, it includes a responsibility to assess such behaviours which are often found in people in leadership positions, to ensure that all are protected from the negative aspects.

Sure, there is a niche for everyone, but for some it must be protective custody, though much more humanely administered than our current penal systems

If some of this is beginning to sound like an argument for eugenics, don't panic! Read on and find out why not.

Neurodiversity and Eugenics

While Nature is amoral and red in tooth and claw, human civilization is not.

However clumsily,  Homo Sapiens continues to evolve towards true wisdom, which at heart is ethical and just. Civilization depends on it. The horror of the Nazi holocaust against ethnic and disabled minorities, which ultimately consumed even mainstream Germans, taught us that we will destroy each other if we choose to eliminate rather than accommodate ALL humans.

Therefore it is society's responsibility to provide a niche for all humans, not just as a matter of ethics, but also of self-interest, as attested by the powerful post-war German poem, "First they came...''. 

Fortunately, as a species, we have a genius for
creating new niches, new spaces and new ideas.

For those who must see things in economic rather than moral terms,  it is to our economic benefit to create spaces where disabled people can flourish. This is an economic activity which creates jobs and wealth for all the caring professions and all those who support them - the administrators, the designers, and so on.

Win-win!

At the same time, we all have the responsibility of restraining our excessive consumption “to live simply so that others may simply live”.

An afterthought: Neurodiversity and Difference vs Disability.

Early commentators have urged me to say something about this vexed question

As I noted above, Nature, or Neurodiversity doesn't distinguish between Difference and Disability. That is a human concept, within a specific cultural context.

Indeed, the notion of "Disability" as it is currently understood is an artefact of western welfare systems. Is is a means of separating The Worthy Poor (those classified as disabled by the medical profession) from the The Unworthy Poor (those without a diagnosis). Those considered worthy then may get a dole, while the unworthy are punished and frequently vilified. This goes deep. Even today, while society has evolved to the point where we rightly condemn vilification of ethnic, gender, and disabled minorities, it is always open season on "The" Unemployed.

This word Disability is tricky! And has many different definitions depending on who you ask.
Ask yourself what you mean by it before condemning other people's opinions. Do you mean the Welfare System's definition? Do you mean your personal experience of disability? Are you differently affected depending on whether you are poor, breaking even, or wealthy?  Are you talking about pain and suffering? Are you talking about time you have to give up from other pursuits as a carer? You can think of other questions.

The future of Neurodiversity


Neurodiversity has been a world changing idea. It will continue to be of importance as long as Neuroscience is considered the ultimate authority on the capabilities of the human nervous system, and as long as we retain an environmentalist perspective on the importance of diversity. 

Its meaning will continue to evolve as part of a dialectical process of change. Any world-changing idea (thesis) will be incomplete, will polarise people, will engender opposition and critique (antithesis). This is a good thing. After all the debate and discussion, a new synthesis will emerge, which will then be further refined and so on...




If you are reading this, you are creating the future of Neurodiversity

It's up to all of us!




Note for readers and commentors

Science and social science progress through critique and the dialectic process. I value and am stimulated by constructive criticism. This is a work in progress, somewhat like life itself, and my ideas are constantly evolving. If you have constructive suggestions and criticisms I would love to hear them, either here o on twitter @singer_judy


Please share and discuss on social media if you value this work

Given limited time and energy, I regret I may not be able to respond individually.

 Attributions and Copyright

OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay: Umbrella, Magnifying Glass
Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay: Scalpel, Planet Earth
Piqsels.com public domain: Doctor showing brain image
Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
The Five Kingdoms, adapted by me as an image of Biodiversity is licenced at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ but appears to be in the public domain

All other images by me including remixes of the above are licenced thus. It basically means you can share them and adapt them but you must attribute me, and use the same Creative Commons Licence


Creative Commons License
Content created on this website by Judy Singer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://neurodiversity2.blogspot.com/p/copyright.html.




18 comments:

Christoffer de Graal said...

Horayee, horayee horayee. Thank you Judy, very much, for your clarity, in writing this.

ABSOLUTELY *NO* to Neurodiversity being used as separatist term .. of a new kind of labelling for 'hidden disability', old school medical model.

SO important to keep clarity on this and not that support a subtle but powerful societal and institutional discrimination.

It would be unthinkable to have cultural diversity as a label for non-white people... that would be going backwards.

It is similarly not ok to do this for Neurodiversity. - if Neurodiverisity covers the whole range of human variation - it needs tobe be, clearly, that.

Sharman said...

Thank you for this blog post Judy. I feel I have most likely been using the ND term indiscriminately and perhaps not promoting the clarity which you express here. I first heard the term quoted by DANDA and the late Mary Colley who worked so hard to support adults with a broad range of challenges and liked its inclusiveness. I will continue to enjoy watching the emergence of discussion and dialogue. Best wishes, Sharman

Frazzle said...

Judy
Thank you for clarifying your intent behind the term ‘neurodiversity’, and for driving this agenda.

I have used this term differently because I was introduced to it in a different way, I meant no harm in using it to represent myself and others. Only to show pride that my brain is wired differently.

The issue with words and labels, is that within cultural terms you can not keep them pure, as everyone will see them from a different angle or with different lens. I can understand the frustration being the creator, and I hope I don’t offend, in the same way that other movements have taken a word and used it to identify or unify a group for good. I think this should be celebrated, I belong to a neurotribe, I celebrate my difference as a strength, and I disagree that the term will ever be corrupted to be a negative. As the movement has a real passion to change the discourse for the positive
Jenny

Judy Singer said...

Hi Jenny and Sharman

I have admitted in an article at https://www.geniuswithin.co.uk/blog/theres-a-lot-in-a-name-diversity-vs-divergence/ that I understand that words evolve according to the social forces that play upon them.

So if the words "neurodiversity" and "neurodiverse" fall into popular usage as synonyms for "neurological disability" and "neurologically disabled" but are used to create a better world, who am I to quibble?

I can put my oar in for a nuanced usage, but only time will tell whether "neurodiverse" will go the way of "handicapped", "disabled", "neurologically challenged" and other well-meaning words that soon became tarnished by stigma.

In any case, it is becoming increasingly obvious that I have lost this particular debate, as no better word has come up for "neurodiverse people" as the preferred adjective for people who belong from neurological minorities. "Neurominor people" really doesn't cut it, it does it?

Amanda Kidby said...

We have a tension with the medical model sitting alongside which is a deficit paradigm driving people to need and want a diagnosis to be able to access services. While I agree with what you are saying we are also in a state of categorisation occurring for resource allocation and people wanting or needing a label to use as a ‘ticket’ for communication or to access support.

For some people having this label allows an opportunity for sharing ideas and experiences and feeling less alone.
Personalisation of provision is still far off for most. I don’t have an answer but we need to continue the discussion. Interestingly AI with big data sets is reiterating the variability in humans and that many assumptions are being challenged in the way we have ‘boxed’ people - not them and us but rather all of us.

Thanks Judy for this

Roger Kulp said...

Unfortunately the lines have become blurred,between neurodiversity as a scientific concept,and neurodiversity as a political movement.Neurodiversity advocates have never clarified just who they believe the term and the movement applies to.Neurodiversity advocates seem to ignore,or pay little attention to those who may be autistic,but also may have severe medical issues,intellectual disability,or both.Many neurodiversity advocates will say that family members,or caregivers,have no right to speak for those who are either nonverbal,or too intellectually disabled to speak for themselves.Nor do neurodiversity advocates address underlying medical issues,espcially inborn immune or metabolic disorders,that might present as autism,or have autism as one of many features,and how treating these underlying medical conditions,can either completely,or dramatically reverse autism.I believe in this regard,the neurodiversity movement is woefully outdated,and has not kept up with the advances in autism science in the last two decades.To simply sweep aside all medical treatments as genocide,is not only morally wrong,and displays incredible ignorance.

cundiamor said...

I have also self defined as Neurodiverse and use in a positive way. In my practice with young people with ASD, ADHD, DYSLEXIA they have been able to redress their negative view of self to a positive one by using this concept.

I'm not a researcher or academic but an educator working in alternative provision secondary schools where learners
have been excluded from mainstream education.

Whizper said...

Finally a clear definition of neurodiversity I can throw my weight behind fully! Thank you for this important thing, Judy.

THE AUTISTIC EDUCATOR said...

Neurosuperior?

Unknown said...

Hi Judy,

Re: "no better word has come up for "neurodiverse people" as the preferred adjective for people who belong from neurological minorities."

Have you really not heard of the commonly used adjective "neurodivergent", coined by Kassiane Assumasu?

We should all use that, and reserve "neurodiverse" for its proper purpose, which is to describe a characteristic of human populations (or even any kind of population of living beings).

Janine Booth said...

I like a lot of this. It is refreshingly clear and sharp.

But I would be interested to know what the evidence is that Psychopathy, Narcissism, Machieavellianism and Sadism are neurological.

Judy Singer said...

Thanks Amanda,
Totally take your point. While increasingly, expert and lived experience opinion suggests that support should be allocated on the basis of need and not on reductionist labels, as long as "welfare" systems demand them. we are forced to paint ourselves into their boxes, thus increasing bureaucratic confidence in the reality of these boxes. Until welfare systems change, we are locked in, and it would be foolhardy not to present for disability support without conforming.
But change must happen. I see my role as being to push the boundaries. It is sad too when people feel that they have a disability as defined by this outdated bureaucratic model, and reduce their self-identity to a single word.

Judy Singer said...

Roger Kulp

There are indeed some vocal people on social media who identify with the Neurodiversity Movement who take the extreme views you mention. I do NOT endorse such views, and it is one reason why I have named this blog "Neurodiversity 2.0: Reclaiming the Centre".
I have been been misrepresented, lied and gossiped, intimidated, trolled by both such extremists and their anti-Neurodiversity to the extent that it affected my physical health. I am now recovered and intent on reclaiming the centre space to the extent that time and energy permit.
I have amended this essay already to take on the question of difference vs disability

Judy Singer said...

Unknown: Please read my blogpost "Neurodivergent from what, exactly", where I acknowledge Assumasu. I have said that neurodiversity is a property of the planet, not of individuals in this article, and elsewhere used the term "Populations" I agree with you, and am in the process of clarifying this in the current essay.

Judy Singer said...

Janine, if you do a bit of research, you will find plenty of evidence that those personality traits have a genetic component. The difference is that people with Autism can't hide their traits but the aforementioned can, are often successful, and dont require services, so they have not been studied as much. Big topic. I plan to write more about the "Dark Tetrad" to argue that the term should be dropped... how bizarre of Psychology, a respected, if soft, Science, to use the word "Dark" as a descriptor. I think "Machiavellianism" is a bit dodgy too.

Judy Singer said...

Finally, thanks to all who have taken the time to encourage my work. I read everything, though I must confess that given time constraints I put my energy into oiling the squeaky wheels and correcting misconceptions

hdlmatchette said...

I'm just curious...I've seen some anti-neurodiversity proponents misusing what you've written here to claim that autism is not part of neurodiversity and therefore not to be respected. Could you please publicly address this in order to avoid further misunderstanding?

Judy Singer said...

hdlmatchette, please supply a link.
Though I obviously can't deal with every possible misconception individually