Erasure is a problem when people write about the neurodiversity movement. It is generally acknowledged that an Australian white academic coined the term neurodiversity, but the fact that the same person did not contribute to the neurodiversity movement in any way that could be called positive is seldom mentioned.
In fact, she did the opposite (TW on that link: retroactive diagnosis of awful people as autistic). Yet, her name appears in books about neurodiversity. Her name appears in threads about the neurodiversity movement.
I’m not suggesting that we stop acknowledging that she coined the term neurodiversity, but I do think that we need to stop erasing the people who have made far more valuable contributions to the neurodiversity movement.
My go-to list with regards to terms related to neurodiversity has always been this post by Nick Walker. If you haven’t read it yet, please read it (and then read everything else on his site too). I want you to specifically note the name of the person who coined neurodivergent:
“The terms neurodivergent and neurodivergence were coined by Kassiane Sibley, a multiply neurodivergent neurodiversity activist.”
Remember that name. Kassiane Sibley is younger than Judy Singer. She is a person of colour, and she was not an academic when she coined the word neurodivergent.
Is that why her name is never mentioned in books about neurodiversity that have been written by white people? Oh, before you cry about “not all white people,” please know that I am a white person too. We, as a group, treat people of colour appallingly, and if you can’t acknowledge that, then this site is not the site for you to visit. We, as a group, continually try to erase people of colour from the history books.
It is time to stop that. It is past time that we stop that.
So, now I would like to give you three reasons why I personally love the word neurodivergent:
1. Neurodivergent is a strong word
In my mind, there is something intentional about the word divergent. It connotes deliberate action rather than just something that just happens. Most of us are born either neurodivergent or neurotypical. But, when we embrace our neurodivergence we get to live our lives on our own terms. We can practice being proudly neurodivergent. In this way, we can live our lives in ways that fit with the way we process the world.
2. Neurodivergent does not contain a value judgement
I’ve seen alternate words used by people. In some cases, they haven’t come across the word neurodivergent before. In other cases, they have decided to contribute to the erasure of the person responsible for coining it. I can’t say for certain which it is. But, I can say that the alternate words that I’ve seen contain value judgements. For example, neuroexceptional seems to imply that we’re more special than neurotypical people. Neuroatypical implies that we’re the opposite of neurotypical. As a slight aside, the spelling of neuroatypical is too close to neurotypical, and that could cause some confusion too.
Neurodivergent means that we diverge from typical. It doesn’t imply that typical is right (or superior), and we’re wrong (or inferior). It acknowledges that we diverge.
3. Neurodivergent is inclusive
Neurodivergent does not mean autistic. It includes everyone whose neurocognitive functioning differs from that of the social standard of “normal”. It’s an inclusive word. It acknowledges that there are many different forms of neurodivergence, without creating any form of hierarchy of neurodivergence.
Please stop erasing our history. If you weren’t aware of this before, then you are now, so now that you are, please help ensure that Kassiane Sibley’s name is no longer erased in discussions concerning the neurodiversity movement.