Straw man arguments against neurodiversity are back in style like some terrible ’90s fashion trend returned from the thrift store sale bins. Once again, some people are trying to tell the “hard truth” that neurodiversity doesn’t and can’t work. It isn’t clear which of these individuals really believe what they say and who is just taking an “edgy” branding tack, but what is obvious is that they aren’t engaging in the kind of good faith debate that makes ideas stronger through the pressure and accountability of an opposing point of view. They’re setting up straw men, misrepresenting what neurodiversity is and knocking it down. This is a problem for anyone who identifies with the ideals of the Neurodiversity Movement because people who are new to autism, disability, or neurodiversity issues may not buy into its agenda if their first encounter with what it ostensibly means is one of these straw man explanations. Proponents of neurodiversity have pushed back, but so much of that conversation is inevitably about what neurodiversity isn’t. While standing up to people who misrepresent neurodiversity is important, we can’t expect anyone to buy into what our ideology isn’t. It’s also important to reiterate what neurodiversity actually means.
Neurodiversity starts by assuming that living human beings are persons. Everyone gets the same basic rights. Everyone can be assumed to have the range of human needs and desires, for things like belonging and autonomy, that are practically universal unless the individual in question specifically says otherwise. There are no exceptions for label, IQ, or degree of support needs. It moves on pragmatically from there. For the time being, there is no “cure” for most neurological differences that are far enough from the norm to be characterized as disabilities. Some Autistics, other disabled people, parents, siblings, caregivers, and professionals are happy that there isn’t a way to prevent most neurological differences or normalize most neurodivergent people. Others aren’t. The average neurodiversity proponent is opposed to a cure and worried about society’s eugenic tendencies, but having a specific sense of what an ideal world would look like isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for finding neurodiversity useful. The crucial thing is accepting that people are people, and, love it, hate it, or feel ambivalent about it, there is no cure today.
Make the value judgement that we should err on the side of treating every human being as a person, accept the fact that medicine doesn’t have an answer to neurological variety, and questions about how to help people with significant support needs exercise their rights and get the things practically everyone wants inevitably feel urgent. Neurodiversity isn’t an idea whose usefulness is limited to people who are “high functioning” or “just quirky” because it inherently looks at people who will have extensive, expensive support needs for the foreseeable future and asks how we can help these people build the best possible lives for themselves. Neurodiversity looks to every idea, tool, and practical solution it can lay hands on to answer the question of how to have a good life with an IQ of 30, executive functioning difficulties, schizophrenia, no verbal speech, or all of the above. Where medicine is stumped, and the people affected may not even want a “cure,” neurodiversity draws heavily on the social model of disability to offer something unique: hope.
Start asking questions about how to help people with significant disabilities who are alive today live well and it becomes hard to watch a disproportionate share of the research dollars going to medical model solutions while the supports that make for good lives are underfunded. Spending millions of dollars trying to figure out how to normalize disabled people starts to seem silly as soon as one gets to know some people with extremely significant support needs and adequate supports. Meeting someone whose support needs and day-to-day quality of life both exceed one’s own demonstrates that the idea that degree of impairment determines quality of life is just an ableist assumption. Meet someone whose quality of life is miserable because adequate supports aren’t available, and the present balance of research funding starts to feel like a moral outrage.
Neurodiversity isn’t a feel-good concept for successful people who are “a little different” but doing fine. It’s the courage to entertain the idea that people with significant disabilities can have lives worth living and embrace that idea’s excruciating implications for what lives wasted by filicide, institutionalization, other forms of segregated, congregate settings, and even low expectations and learned helplessness in the community might have been. It’s living with the knowledge that human lives are being wasted that way now. Neurodiversity is an idea for strong people, as it bites and claws at everyone who embraces it. There is no way to imagine a better world without confronting how bad things are and have been. The ensuing sense of outrage routinely changes the course of people’s lives.
For many of neurodiversity’s conventionally successful, Autistic adherents, it brings about a commitment to helping fellow Autistics achieve joyful, useful, self-directed, interesting lives and experience the same rich variety of options available to nondisabled people. Neurodiversity’s end goal is good lives in all the infinite variety of what that means. It isn’t an easy self-esteem boost or an affinity club for educated professionals who are “just quirky.” It’s a robust supported decision-making agreement, Autistic friends with complimentary strengths and weaknesses helping each other, a person with ID demanding a home that passes the burrito test, funding for more and better AAC, comprehensive and accessible sex education, support staff who facilitate people with I/DD maintaining meaningful relationships over time and distance, an Autistic pride sticker on a sports car, an SLP who helps rude teenagers learn how to cuss. Neurodiversity is insisting that people with disabilities affecting the mind deserve more than the dull, small lives they have been given in the past, that a lifestyle no one with real options would ever accept isn’t good enough for anyone. It’s accepting the hard reality that none of us will ever be secure in our freedom or safety until the most vulnerable members of society are, too.