Neurodiversity and the Autism Rights Movement

May 6, 2016
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Neurodiversity is a movement that wants to change the way we think about autism.

It rejects the idea that autism is a disorder and sees it instead as a neurological difference. One with a unique and different way of thinking and being in the world.

The movement focuses on celebrating neurological diversity and championing the different world-views and skills that autistic, dyslexic, bipolar, and other neurodiverse people have.

Yet, the movement should proceed with caution. This is because the rhetoric of this movement has its problems.

The movement focuses too often on what autistic people can offer the world and how their unique neurological viewpoints can benefit wider society.

Which is pretty burdensome for those who don’t resemble the ‘autistic genius’ stereotype.

What’s more, the autism rights movement reveals a wider cultural problem with our human value system. It exposes the underlying cultural value that human worth is dependent on the production of economic or academic benefit to society.

Picture shows a neurodiversity protest against Autism Speaks

A protest against Autism Speaks, an advocacy organisation often criticised by the neurodiversity movement.

Where Did the Neurodiversity Movement Begin?

Disabilities activist Judy Singer coined the term neurodiversity in her 1998 honours thesis. She argued that autism and other neurological conditions are a normal variation in the human genome.

She wanted to coin a term that echoed “positive terms like biodiversity and cultural diversity” to call “attention to the fact that many atypical forms of brain wiring also convey unusual skills and aptitudes.”

Singer argued that the differences that autism presents are authentic forms of human identity. Not aberrations to endure or cure. Rather, elements that can enrich the world.

In 2008, Singer told New York magazine, “I was interested in the liberatory, activist aspects of it—to do for neurologically different people what feminism and gay rights had done for their constituencies.”

Why Does Language Matter?

The terminology that we use to discuss autism is integral to the movement and advocates for autism rights recognise that how we speak about an issue is integral to how we think about it.

Being autistic, according to Jim Sinclair is ‘a way of being’ that isn’t separable from the person.

He says, “autism goes deeper than language and culture; autistic people are “foreigners” in any society.” Autism “colours every experience, every sensation, perception, thought, emotion, and encounter, every aspect of existence” for autistic people.

He asserts that autistic people are not ‘people with autism.’ You cannot separate the autism, in the same way, that you wouldn’t say ‘people with blackness’.

In Sinclair’s 1993 essay ‘Don’t Mourn for Us’ he says it’s “only when someone has decided that the characteristic being referred to is negative would they want to separate it from the person.”

Are Autistic People “Culturally Disabled”?

In a BBC radio interview, Dr James McGrath, an autistic academic stated that autism for him, doesn’t feel medically or physically disabling. Rather, it can feel as though you are “culturally disabled”. This is because the culture you live in doesn’t speak, think, or experience the world that you do.

One thing to remember about autism, he says, is “the sheer diversity of how it manifests and expresses itself. The next person with autism that you meet will be very different from the last person that you met with autism.”

Dr Susan Wendall, a disabilities rights theorist, has argued that “just as the built environment handicaps the mobility impaired” the environment of “accelerated work schedules” causes those who work at a slower pace of production “deficient”. This means that people who are dyslexic or autistic and perhaps “cannot maintain the new speed of production are debilitated.”

Dr Wendall points to the fact that culture creates an environment that handicaps autistic people by measuring them via ‘normal’ or ‘neurotypical’ standards. The demand for increased productivity, multi-tasking, sociability and flexibility in the modern labour market means that many jobs unnecessarily handicap autistic people.

Autism and the Workforce

The neurodiversity movement also offers something different to the beliefs of the neoliberal movement.

Neoliberalism is an economic ideology (and it’s perhaps the most successful ideology). In its most basic form, it’s an economic model.

Generally, (and very simply) neoliberalists think that:

  • Economic control should be in the hands of the private sector.
  • And that the free market system can self-regulate (instead of needing government regulation).

However, this model goes far deeper than that as it isn’t just a structure of economics, but a social and political ideology too.

It comes with a set of beliefs and values, which means that the effects of neoliberalism creep into every facet of our lives. Unchecked we don’t consider how it affects the way we think and act about work and identity.

Neoliberal values want us to be masculine, strong, predatory, and powerful. Think of those phrases that accompany business sectors like finance: wolves and sharks. These metaphors reflect a predatory business instinct that neoliberalists think we should all strive for. But that just isn’t right for everyone.

Think of characters like Jordan Belfort from the Wolf of Wall Street, Pat Bateman from American Psycho, and Donald Trump from, well real life. In economic theory, there’s a phrase for these people: homo economicus meaning ‘the economic man’. They are self-interested, productive, efficient, and always rational.


(Source: Flickr)

The definition of successful is getting narrower and narrower. But neurodiversity could redefine the meaning of success.

Yet, the movement’s focus is too often on what the autistic genius figure can do for society. The movement has the chance to move away from neoliberal definitions of success and focus on defining a different, perhaps kinder, value system.

Can Neurodiversity Challenge Cultural Stereotypes?

Perhaps the biggest battle in the autistic rights movement will happen on a cultural playing field. Creative representation and articles (especially those written by autistic people) will direct the conversation about autistic rights.

We have to hear and take into account autistic voices and culture could be the way to do it.

Progress has happened, but there’s still a long way to go. McGrath claims that those stereotypes “about successful, white, males working in the sciences” are “starting to diversify in terms of representation, but for a long time, that’s been fixed.”

TV programmes with autistic characters such as ‘The A Word’, ‘The Bridge’, ‘Big Bang Theory’ are all over screens.

But representations still fall into the trap of the ‘autistic genius’, allowing others to fall into the void.

Picture shows autistic detective Saga (played by Sofia Helin).

Saga, the autistic detective in Danish/Swedish crime drama The Bridge.

Simon Hattenstone says “it would be nice to see an autistic kid in a drama who is not a prodigy. The problem is, though, that makes them less dramatic.”

With an autistic daughter, he knows first hand that “lots of autistic people do have obsessions and great recall. But it’s equally true that not all have a photographic memory or Rembrandtian eye for detail. Nor are they all walking calculators.”

But they have value, and they are human beings, regardless of intellect. And it’s crucial that we hear the everyday voices and struggles of autistic people.

Whilst the neurodiversity movement comes with problems, it’s an integral step in advocating for the rights of autistic people. And like the feminist movement, it will take steps in the wrong direction. But part of correcting those wrongs happens when conversations begin, and cultural representations diversify.

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