There’s Room for All Types of Beautiful Here! or what can we do to help neurodiversity influence real systemic and perceptual change so that it doesn’t become a hollow “image” of change

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?

On the Outside

“I’m with you,” my husband said, “but I need some talking points, you know, for the next time I face an inquisition on inclusion.” The usual glimmer of wry humor was there, but there was weight in his tone and he twisted his moustache between his forefinger and thumb. He always did that when he was considering something of consequence.

“But wait,” I said needing clarification, “he asked if you’d want our hypothetical child to be in an inclusive class?”

This tended to be something people asked when Danny or I tried to explain what I studied.  As if they could get behind the abstract idea of the research— inclusive education, huh?, probably a lot to study there—  but couldn’t imagine that we would want our own children to be involved in such a thing.

He feigned offense, “Personally, I like to call them our future-kids.”

I waited for him to continue, but he had this way of sitting on a conversation, letting it take up space. “Danny,” I nudged, “You said yes. Right?”

“Yes, of course. I said we would absolutely want our kid in an inclusive class and world,” he looked at me incredulously, “But then Elijah asked this follow up question— what if we have a super smart kid?”

He held his hands out, palms up.

“And if we do?” I asked.

“I told him my undeniable charm and musical prowess would be passed down to the kid. But if the kid is smart, then he’s in AP classes or whatever. Is that a thing still? And I was thinking— is that inclusive? So I couldn’t give a definitive answer. I did say kids with physical disabilities and learning disabilities, right, they for sure could be included in AP classes.”

I remembered that Elijah’s dad was a special education teacher. Had this question been discussed over their family dinner table? Had Elijah confronted his own wife with worries of disability in the classroom? I wondered about the fear of difference— how it could hang so palpably in the air and how good people could still fail to see the injustice.

“But that’s not what he was after,” he said and then threw a few cocktail nuts from the small dish on the coffee table into his open mouth.

“What he was worried about, I guess, were the kids with autism or the mentally retarded, although I told him I’m pretty sure we no longer use the “R” word.  I did tell him that Mikey has autism and he rocked his regular classes at Murrow, but that I didn’t think he took AP classes. But I think I wrapped up with the fact that all the little punks should get to go to school together because it’s right,” he shrugged and smiled just wide enough to show off the jagged front tooth that had recently lost its cap to a barbeque sandwich, of all things.

My heart beat a little faster, as it always did when I was getting ready to defend something I considered to be a truth and yet so many others considered a fiction. But before I could offer the talking points he wanted, although it sounded like he did a solid job on his own… a feeling rose in my gut. Something hiding just behind the thrill of defending my beliefs.

I was an “expert” but I was not an insider. And this mattered to people.

I was flooded with the memories of past students and families; of the hopes and trust they placed in me, as well as the frustrations and anger when inclusion wasn’t “working” or when it was perceived to threaten a child’s education. I felt my throat tighten as I remembered the embarrassment of belittling comments or the hot guilt that rose when I was accused of not understand a parent’s struggle. I thought of the narratives of Judy and Sean Barron, of Temple Grandin and her mother— families grappling to find balance between dis/ability and the socially constructed norm.

And though I could provide insight and strategies and ideas and, yes, I had experience— I did not have their lived experience with dis/ability; I was an outsider looking in. Who was I to tell them that  inclusion is good for all students, or for anyone who demanded social justice?

I remembered, of course, the many families who worked alongside me to get their child included and the many successes of those stories were deeply powerful and motivating. But there were families I could not reach.  Who did not seem to care that I could prove success through past experiences or research.  They seemed intent only on the fact that I did not have a child with a disability.

—   What do you know about my dreams for my child?

—   Will you be taking care of my Darren for your whole life?

—   It’s just not realistic to have Tamantra in classes that will make her feel stupid.

—   We can try Gen Ed for a bit, but I really don’t feel comfortable having Marcy in regular classes.

Or, that I wasn’t considering how inclusion affected the “normal” children in class.

—   John tells me that he is Drew’s helping-partner at least once a week. I don’t see how that situation, in any way, benefits John’s learning. He isn’t a tutor.

—   I know its a legal issue, with some of, uh— the disabled students. But I don’t want to see the curriculum watered down for my Annie. She’s a sharp student.

No matter how well thought out or example-ridden my response, many families could not or would not hear my reasoning.  Almost always during conversations with concerned parents, I was asked if I had children. I’d explain that no, I was not a mother. But that I’d taught many students with and without disabilities in many different schools throughout New York City; yes, I loved and cared for all my students and their families; yes, I really did know how to adapt instruction for students with many different needs and abilities. Yes, I really did believe inclusion could work at the high school level. I had seen its successes.

But sometimes it just wasn’t enough. Heads would shake. Or tears would fall. Or shouts would ring.

I was an outsider looking in.

My hand went to my left temple as I felt the old eye-twitch coming on. I thought of Judy Barron’s isolation as she attempted to create truths for her family in the midst of confusion and unknown. I thought of the experts seeking to blame mothers. I thought of the feelings of mistrust.  I thought of so many voices silenced and so many misconceptions perpetuated.

Could I be an expert and an outsider and still be heard?

Two cocktail nuts hit my shoulder and my husband looked at me, “Babe, hello? Talking points?”