After neurodiversity


Holly Roos and her son Parker, who is autistic, touch feet as they read stories on the couch at their home in Canton, Illinois, 4 April 2012. PHOTO/Jim Young/Reuters

We live in a world that must move beyond identity politics and embrace new models of the mind. Enter psydiversity

The concept of ‘neurodiversity’ has gained enormous cultural influence in recent years. Computer scientists and ‘techies’ wear the ‘neurodiverse’ label with pride; businesses are building ‘neurodiverse’ workforces; scriptwriters strive to represent and cast ‘neurodivergent’ people. Those framed as ‘different’ have been given a remarkable new lens through which to reimagine that variance.

The sociologist Judy Singer coined the term ‘neurodiversity’ in the late 1990s. Inspired by other emancipatory social movements based on race and gender, Singer used her standing as an autistic person to rally together neurodivergent people. This was partly a response to what Singer called the ‘social constructivist’ view of autism, where the condition was seen as having no solid biological basis. This denied the reality of neurological difference, according to Singer. In reply, she offered up ‘neurodiversity’ in the spirit of biodiversity, in that it recognised and respected natural variance among humans.

The movement quickly gained support via online forums and new social networks. Since Singer’s first use of the term, neurodiversity has widened beyond autism to include people who identify with categories such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, bipolar disorder, depression and more. It’s come to mean any real mental differences – neither choices nor simply illnesses – that aren’t problems to solve so much as enrichments for society. Neurodiversity has done brilliant work in breaking down social barriers, challenging stigmas, and raising awareness. But it also contains limitations, and these are becoming increasingly prominent as the concept expands into new domains.

The main premise of the neurodiversity movement is that society should be robust enough to embrace and celebrate all people, no matter how their brains are ‘wired’. That’s a laudable goal and shouldn’t be tricky for anyone to wrap their head around. Yet since the beginning, critics of neurodiversity have claimed that its mantra of radical acceptance could hinder treatments and interventions for those who are suffering. Embracing neurodivergent thought too enthusiastically, they say, risks distracting from genuine physical, emotional or social needs that require attention.

This debate quickly descends into unhelpful recriminations. But it also distracts from a deeper philosophical problem that neurodiversity must confront as it expands into new territory. Neurodiversity’s vision of inclusion, alluring as it is, tends to rely on the idea that neural wiring is at the root of all differences in how humans relate to the world. But reducing diversity to brain-based distinctions can stand in the way of more sensitive and potentially fruitful ways of understanding mental life. In fact, the success of neurodiversity has exposed the glaring lack of any shared vision or sense of solidarity around mental difference that isn’t anchored in brain-based accounts. So while we can applaud neurodiversity’s ethos of acceptance, we should question its commitment to achieving legitimacy through false ‘neuro’ certainties.

There is a different way forward, in which we fashion our political advocacy and scientific reasoning not on the brain but the ‘mind’. I call this programme ‘psydiversity’.

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