Introduction to Autism, Part 5: Neurodiversity (What is it and why do we care?)

Written by Dr Melanie Heyworth 

Often when we discuss Autism, and a strengths-based approach to Autism, we invoke the term “neurodiversity”. But what is neurodiversity, how is it related to Autism, and what does it mean for the way we think about Autism? 

What is neurodiversity? 

Neurodiversity (a word coined by Australian sociologist Judy Singer and popularised by the journalist, Harvey Blume, in the late 1990s) simply refers to the reality that a diversity of human brains and minds exist. It is a biological fact that each person’s brain is different, since the brain is a complex organ that develops through a continuing interaction between a person’s genetics and their experiences and environment.

If we accept that each human is a unique individual, then we already accept the premise of neurodiversity (or brain diversity).  

And, ultimately, most of us do, unthinkingly, accept the reality of neurodiversity in many aspects of our lives. How else do we explain why some people are artists, while others are accountants, why some are musicians, while others are managers, why some love heavy metal, while others love Mozart, why some are extroverted, while others are introverted?  

Neurodiversity itself is not an ideology or an approach: it is an undeniable aspect of the rich tapestry of biodiversity which typifies the human species. 

How is neurodiversity related to Autism? 

For many Autistic individuals, even that basic concept of neurodiversity has had significant implications for their own neurology. 

Autism is a neurodevelopmental difference, so the term “neurodiversity” validates our existence, it humanises us, because it allows us just to “be” part of that rich tapestry of humanity. Without judgement. 

Without judgement. The liberation of existing without being labelled neurologically impaired or deficient has proved an enticing prospect for those of us whose neurology strays further from the expected putative “norm” than just that we like art or numbers or what music we prefer. 

And that’s how the neurodiversity paradigm evolved. Because Autists – and many others with different neurological variances – want the opportunity to exist without judgement.  

So, the neurodiversity paradigm takes the basic concept of neurodiversity and proposes that some brains are neurotypical (that is, broadly conforming to a standardised, typically developing norm), and some brains are neurodivergent (that is, diverging from that standardised, typically developing norm). 

Importantly, though, the neurodiversity paradigm, also proposes that divergent brains – and, by natural extension, Autistic brains – should exist alongside neurotypical brains, without judgement. We are not “disordered” (a subjective judgement) because of our neurodivergence. It proposes that typically developing brains are no more “right” or “desirable” than divergent brains.  

In other words, the neurodiversity paradigm doesn’t presume to judge which neurodivergences (even within the typically developing population) are valuable and which are not. It doesn’t presume to categorise neurodivergences into “healthy” or “deviant” differences.

The neurodiversity paradigm values all neurodivergences as natural, worthy and potentially beneficial manifestations of human diversity. 

So, within the neurodiversity paradigm, Autism is not the same as neurodivergent (they are not equivalent), but Autistic brains are neurodivergent, since they do not develop along the expected trajectory. But there are many other expressions of neurodivergences (some organic to the individual, and others acquired by specific circumstances), including learning differences, giftedness, ADHD, OCD, epilepsy, acquired brain injuries, and PTSD, and all are invited to just “be” in the world without judgement

The neurodiversity paradigm doesn’t deny the many and often profound challenges associated with living as a “neurominority” (that is, a neurological community that exists outside of the neurotypical norm). But it argues that the challenges result from living in a world that is generally “physically, socially, emotionally inhospitable towards Autistic” – and other neurodivergent – people (Dr Jac den Houting, 2019). It is, in part, when the neurotypical world seeks to judge our existence, and finds it lacking, that we are significantly challenged. 

So, the neurodiversity paradigm isn’t designed to gloss over the challenges of being neurodivergent in a predominantly neurotypical world, fashioned to meet neurotypical needs, although it does acknowledge that many such challenges would be lessened if appropriate accommodations were put in place through implementing the principles of universal design, for example.

The neurodiversity paradigm doesn’t reject the narratives of how problematic and complicated it can be to live as a neurodivergent person. It does, however, ask that neurodivergences be considered without judgement; it advocates for abandoning models that construct neurodivergence as “less than”, “defective”, “broken”. 

What does neurodiversity mean for the way we think about Autism? 

For Autism, the neurodiversity paradigm asks that we divorce the neurology, Autism, from the ideological construct of “disorder”. A useful analogy here is giftedness, which is also a specific neurodivergence. We do not “diagnose” a child with giftedness. They do not “suffer” from the “disorder” of giftedness. There is no “cure” for giftedness, no “treatment” to lessen its impact on the way that a gifted neurodivergent person experiences and perceives and processes the world. And, indeed, we would not expect there to be, because, as a society, we generally value giftedness. We do not judge gifted neurodivergence as lacking or deficient. And yet, gifted individuals often testify to the challenges and negative experiences arising from their giftedness: giftedness is not without its own struggles.

But if we can value the potential of giftedness alongside its concurrent challenges, if we can respect and accept the worth and value of giftedness as a marker of human diversity, then it is not so great a leap to extend the same respect to Autism.  

The neurodiversity paradigm offers the Autistic community a framework by which we can celebrate who we are, how we exist, and what we have to offer. It allows the Autistic community to describe all of ourselves, including our Autism, without pathology, which is especially important since so many Autists are “multiply neurodivergent” (that is, our brains diverge from the “norm” in multiple ways). Adopting the neurodiversity paradigm means that we can encompass our whole authentic selves without listing each and every “disorder” or “diagnosis”. We can just “be”, genuinely and entirely, ourselves, with worth and value because of our differences, not despite them. Existing without judgement

Indeed, research shows that Autistic individuals who identify more strongly with the neurodiversity construct think about their Autism more positively as an identity, and are able to use that Autistic identity to experience the kinds of self-esteem that protect against mental health conditions. 

So, I ask you to consider the value of thinking differently. Thinking differently is a multifaceted concept which both requires us to value Autistic ways of thinking differently, and challenges us to think about Autism differently. One crucial way in which we, as a community, can think differently about Autism to effect positive change for the Autistic community, is to embrace the neurodiversity paradigm. 

For more of Reframing Autism’s Introduction to Autism series, please click on the following links:

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