N is for Neurodiversity

by Dani Alexis Ryskamp from Autistic Academic

N is for Neurodiversity

Hang out long enough in any space where the word “autism” is used, and eventually you’ll also hear the word “neurodiversity.”  In some spaces, “neurodiversity” is treated as a good thing; in others, it’s treated as the enemy.  But why?  What’s going on – and just what is “neurodiversity,” anyway?


The word “neurodiversity” means this: brains can be different from one another.

That’s it.

Where people get confused is in conflating “neurodiversity” with idea systems that treat it as a thing to be embraced, praised, or fought for, like the neurodiversity paradigm or the neurodiversity movement.  We’ll get to those in a moment.

Neurodiversity is, bluntly, a fact.  There is a large variation in the structure and operation of human brains, and there is an ever-growing body of scientific evidence to demonstrate it.  Stick any hundred randomly-selected humans in an MRI machine and you will get images that clearly differ from one another.

Some images will differ only a bit from one another; others will differ dramatically, depending on what you’re looking at.  For instance, conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can show up on an MRI as clear structural differences in the amygdala, compared to a brain without PTSD.

As a concept, neurodiversity encompasses every possible type of human brain configuration.  It includes brain-things we have diagnostic categories for (like autism, ADHD, epilepsy, and cerebral palsy) and brain-things we do not have diagnostic categories for.  It can include the so-called “neurotypical” brain, as one of the many variations on brains that a person might have.  (To talk about brains that differ or diverge from this “typical,” we use the term “neurodivergent” – see below.)

The Neurodiversity Movement

So if neurodiversity is a fact, why do some people seem to be so adamantly against it?  Why is it that, when you start typing “neurodiversity is….” Into Google, one of the first autofill responses to pop up is “neurodiversity is bullshit”?  And why is it that when you click “I’m Feeling Lucky,” you get a forum post titled “Why ‘Neurodiversity’ is wrong” from Wrong Planet – a site that exists on the premise that autistic brains differ from non-autistic brains?

Typically, when people sound off against “neurodiversity,” they aren’t refuting the claim that human brains vary from one another.  Instead, they’re using the word “neurodiversity” as shorthand for the “neurodiversity movement.”

Unlike neurodiversity, which is a fact, deciding what we should do about it is an opinion.  And different people have different opinions about what we should do about human neurodiversity.  Once we can identify the ways in which some brains differ from other brains, should we segregate, isolate, and discriminate against certain identifiable groups of brains?  Or should we believe that different brains don’t mean different quantities of humanity, and fight to make it easier for anyone with any brain to take advantage of all the opportunities society offers?

The neurodiversity movement wants to go the second route.  It might more properly be called the pro-neurodiversity movement or the pro-embracing-neurodiversity movement, because that’s what it’s about: taking the fact “human brains vary from one another” and saying “okay, cool, then let’s make it possible to have as many different types of brain participating in society as we can.”

So what are people so angry about?

First, there’s a commonly-repeated but never-cited belief out there that “Neurodiversity proponents claim autism is not a disability.”  For everyone disabled by autism on a daily basis – and the people who love us and yet watch us struggle – that sounds like bullshit, sure.

But it’s not just bullshit because autism is a disability.  It’s bullshit because the pro-neurodiversity movement does not believe anything of the kind.  In fact, the neurodiversity movement is among the loudest groups stating that autism, and other types of neurodivergence, are disabilities.

The difference is that the neurodiversity movement sees “disabilities” as limitations that are imposed by a brain/body coming up against an environment that is not suited or adapted to its needs, instead of as a medical problem to be driven out of an individual.  As such, the pro-neurodiversity movement is much more interested in changing society than it is in forcing individuals to work with what’s available.  It says, “yeah, you’re disabled.  How do we change your environment so that it enables you instead?”

Neurodiversity and Neurodivergence

The other way “neurodiversity” as a word gets confused in a lot of writing is when it is mistaken for or swapped with “neurodivergent” or “neurodivergence.”  To help clarify the difference between these terms, I have enlisted the help of my two cats, Fizzgig and Gracie.

Fizzgig is neurotypical.  His neurotypicality means that he functions just fine in the average feline environment, without a need for accommodations.  While he prefers an environment with lots of tummy rubs, he does not need such an environment to survive or to accomplish his activities of daily living.

Because most cats have a brain like Fizzgig’s, and because the things Fizzgig needs to carry out his activities of daily living are provided in the average feline environment, Fizzgig is a member of the neuromajority.

Gracie has epilepsy.  Epilepsy makes her brain different from the typical feline brain.

Gracie is neurodivergent.  Gracie’s neurodivergence means she needs certain accommodations in order to function.  Gracie’s medications and staying away from flashing or strobing lights are not preferences; she needs them to survive and to carry out her activities of daily living.

Because most cats do not have epilepsy, and because the things Gracie needs to carry out her activities of daily living are not provided in the average feline environment, Gracie is a member of a neurominority.

Within this group of cats, there are different types of feline brain.

The group of cats is neurodiverse.  This depicts an example of feline neurodiversity.  With the right adaptations, all the cats can carry out their activities of daily living in the same environment (even if Gracie does think Fizzgig is a bit odd).

The neurodiversity movement promotes the adaptation of the environment to allow all the cats to do their thing together, because it sees Gracie’s disabilities as social impositions that can be mitigated.  It considers Gracie’s chance of living her best life to be contingent on accommodation and inclusion, and it sees Gracie as a full feline citizen.  The anti-neurodiversity movement is not primarily interested in adapting the environment to allow all the cats to do their thing together, because it sees Gracie’s disabilities as medical impositions that should be “fixed” or “cured.”  It considers Gracie’s chance of living her best life to be contingent on the elimination of epilepsy, and it sees Gracie as less than a full feline citizen due to her brain type.

Would Gracie like to have her epilepsy cured?  It’s certainly possible.  Although her seizures are rare, she does seem to be in a great deal of distress during and immediately following them.  But since that cure does not exist, Gracie is in favor of adapting her environment to reduce her seizures to as few as possible – and she is very in favor of being fed, snuggled, and spoiled just the same whether she has them or not.

This is part of a series of posts addressing themes from the neurodiversity movement and paradigm which will be published during the course of April 2016. To read the rest of the posts, please click here.