Monday, October 5, 2015

NeuroTribes and the Proper Use of 'Neurodiversity'

Shannon Des Roches Rosa

Steve Silberman's NeuroTribes is a large, densely packed book about autism's past, present, and future. I found myself overwhelmed by the amount of information contained in each individual paragraph, in considering how much research and synthesis it took to create those paragraphs -- and in knowing that NeuroTribes's information matters so much, while acknowledging my kind of brain can't possibly retain it all. 

It doesn't surprise me, then, when other people have trouble remembering every important point in NeuroTribes, because the book is an 500-page information tsunami. Due to those info overload risks, however, some of NeuroTribes's themes need to be repeated more than once or twice for people to get them right. 

One theme that needs more emphasis is NeuroTribes' clarification about neurodiversity: The term is not limited to autistic people who communicate independently, or indeed only to autistic people. 

Neurodiversity is the full range of human neurological experiences. That means you, your loved ones, and every other person on this planet is included in neurodiversity. And that means the term 'neurodiversity' is not only not a synonym for Asperger's syndrome, it is also not a synonym for all diagnosis-worthy brain wirings, be they bipolar, ADHD, dyslexia, clinical depression, OCD -- or, you know, autism. 

A Neurodiversity Symbol
source: Wikimedia Commons
[image: a rainbow-hued infinity symbol]
When you're referring to brains that need support and accommodation, then you're talking about neurodivergence, not merely neurodiversity. If you're talking about your own, or another's, individual differently-wired brain, then the relevant term is neurodivergent. (Nick Walker wrote a go-to terminology briefing on neurodiversity and related terms, and I recommend it to anyone compelled to write on the topic.)

It follows that the opposite of neurodivergent, which is 'neurotypical' or 'NT', also includes more than non-autistic people -- even though NT is sometimes used as shorthand by authors with definitive writings on neurodiversity. 

And that means that if you mean 'non-autistic,' you should say "non-autistic," and not "neurotypical," or "NT." (Another word for non-autistic is 'allistic,' and people I respect have good reasons for using allistic instead of non-autistic, but I like Mel Baggs's explanation as to why non-autistic is preferable.)

People also tend to mistakenly conflate the term 'neurodiversity' and the term 'neurodiversity movement.' According to Nick Walker, "The Neurodiversity Movement is a social justice movement that seeks civil rights, equality, respect, and full societal inclusion for the neurodivergent." So when people get pissy and write things like "neurodiversity is evil," they are not merely letting their ignorance flags fly on more than one frequency, they are not only being hateful -- they are also flat-out incorrect. (Quixotic self-appointed neurodiversity foes will get their own article, later.)

Back to NeuroTribes: Silberman mentions that the neurodiversity movement includes more than autistic people at least twice, once in the development of the very term 'neurodiversity,' based on the dynamics of InLv, an early autistic culture mailing list:
"People with dyslexia, ADHD, dyscalculia, and myriad other conditions (christened 'Cousins' in the early days of ANI [Autism Network International]) were also welcome to join the list. The collective ethos of InLv, said writer and list member Harvey Blume in the New York Times in 1997, was 'neurological pluralism.' "
And again in the introduction:
"One of the most promising developments since the publication of [Silberman's 2001 Wired article] “The Geek Syndrome” has been the emergence of the concept of neurodiversity: the notion that conditions like autism, dyslexia, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) should be regarded as naturally occurring cognitive variations with distinctive strengths that have contributed to the evolution of technology and culture, rather than mere checklists of deficits and dysfunctions."
I am glad Mr. Silberman wrote those two passages. I am highlighting them in the hope that more 'cousins' witnessing the positive press swirling around NeuroTribes and the concept of neurodiversity will understand the neurodiversity movement includes them, even if they're not autistic.

As for using the proper terminology, well, that can take practice and, for some (ahem) the occasional refresher -- even for those to whom the terms personally apply. In most cases, if your obvious goal is to be welcoming and inclusive, and to highlight the needs of neurodivergent and autistic people and/or amplify such voices, folks usually will cut you slack. Unless the specifics of their own personality or neurodivergent nature requires them to address the misuse of terminology first and foremost. And that's OK, and to be expected, if we're truly working towards understanding and accepting neurodivergence and neurodiversity.