I’ve been thinking a lot about neurodiversity and the neurodiversity movement over the past few weeks. At its heart, to adapt the definition pulled from wikipedia, it is the concept that neurological differences are simply a result of normal variations in the human genome or, we are all human here!
Neurodiverse most often refers to people who are neurologically “atypical,” or rather, people who are not neurologically typical. But it seems to me that if neurology is typically diverse — normal variations of the human genome!— then neurodiversity best describes the entire population in order to include all neurologies, “typical” and “atypical.”
I embrace the idea that neurodiversity could encompass all neurologies, that there should be no dividing line, because a) it makes sense and b) it highlights the problem with our current perceptions of neurology as a binary of typical/ not typical. Queer theory and critical race theory have already debunked the race and gender binaries that society so furiously clung to (clings to?!) in order to categorize deviance from the “norm.” Yet binaries of the brain remain.
Perhaps it is because the brain is what makes us most human—an utterly complicated, absolutely incredible and totally mystifying part of ourselves. And although human “intelligence” has, for so long, been put on a pedestal, it is important to question what kind of human intelligence. Certainly, not all types of intelligences are privileged and much of the Western world has been been taught (perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not) to prize a particular type of intelligence in order to maintain a culture of power and privilege for those who achieve in particular ways:
ü The totally independent (do those people exist?)
ü The brainy brains (99th percentile thinkers!)
ü The obedient and conforming (you will pass if you simply sit and your seat, stay quiet and listen!)
ü The white and the wealthy (didn’t George W. Bush get into Yale?)
ü The “verbal” and the articulate ( FC can’t be real!)
Neruodiversity challenges these accepted and valued intelligences, recognizing that they are mere social constructions. And if given the chance to expand its breadth and encompass everyone, neurodiversity can highlight that if we are all normal variations of the human genome than there is room for all types of beautiful in this world (I adapted that line from poet and scholar Joshua Bennett’s spoken word poem for his brother Levi).
But still there remains a problem with neurodiversity: Will the perceptions around intelligence and neurology actually change, or will neurodiversity simply be a fancy word that sounds lovely and does nothing to change public school systems, university structures, workplace structures, etc.? In my attempt to understand and better articulate what I was thinking, I ended up reading scholar Sara Ahmed’s blog, feministkilljoy, as she is known for her work on diversity. I was fascinated by her post The Problem of Perception, which discusses how “diversity becomes about changing perceptions of whiteness rather than changing the whiteness of organizations.” Replace whiteness with neurology and intelligence and you have the new problem the “solution” of neurodiversity poses. Ahmed says that often, “Rather than challenging the perception, the strategy becomes to generate a different kind of image.” I can see how easy it would/will be for society to recognize neurodiversity as nothing more than a poster child for change, without doing little to actually adapt and modify the systemic barriers and attitudes that maintain value for particular neurologies.
So my question to you all is: What can we as advocates, educators, and community members do to assist neurodiversity in challenging the actual systems that maintain hierarchies? How do we keep neurodiversity from becoming a hollow image, something that for-profit college campuses simply mention in their brochures?