Autism and the Neurodiversity Movement

You may have recently started hearing about the concept of neurodiversity or the terms “neurotypical” and “neurodivergent.” The Neurodiversity Movement is an effort, spearheaded by the autism community but also very much carried by people with long-term mental health diagnoses, to de-pathologize and reduce stigma around these diagnoses. The idea is akin to the Ableism Movement for people with physical handicaps who are fighting back against society treating them as less capable or more needy members of society. Both groups argue that their less typical expressions of humanity can be an asset to society and that the stigmas and stereotypes that exist trap them in lives where they are not permitted to accomplish more and damage their well-being by imposing beliefs that lower their self-worth and sense of personal capacity. Both efforts aim to dismantle the language and systems around physical and mental diversities that propagate internalized helplessness and social marginalization.

So what does this look like? Predominantly it’s an effort to change the conversations around diagnoses like autism, bipolar disorder, or depression and anxiety disorders to focus less on problems and incorporate positivity. It’s an effort to celebrate people with neurodiversity who have impacted society in meaningful and lasting ways such as Alonzo Clemens, Temple Grandin, Ernest Hemingway, Dimitri Mihalas, or Satoshi Tajiri. Identifying the strengths and benefits that come with neurodiversity instead of focusing on the challenges results in empowerment, accommodation, and inclusivity. It also highlights how the challenges endemic to neurodiversity are sometimes used as scapegoats for the emotional trauma caused by society’s many forms of marginalization.

What isn’t a part of the Neurodiversity Movement? Minimization of treatment. Neurodiverse individuals should never be looked at as broken people and their unique perspectives and abilities are needed in society, but their unique neurology presents challenges in interacting with larger society. Just as people with physical differences need physical or occupational therapy and therapeutic devices to help them develop strategies and strengths to independently navigate the world, so do neurodiverse people. This is why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends screening for autism as early as 18 months old. Children on the autism spectrum benefit from early intervention therapies like speech therapy and behavioral intervention to teach them verbal and social skills that will help them engage with greater society more effectively promote independence.

As a neurotypical person, I want to support neurodiverse people in finding their own unique way to be in the world. As a nurse, I want to provide medical resources that help them develop skills and strategies to overcome their challenges. Some of those resources are pharmaceutical, some are psychological, and sometimes the resource I can offer is just respect. Autism or bipolar disorder is not just a diagnosis, it’s a part of how a person identifies their experience on a fundamental level. Understanding that experience involves not only listing and dwelling on the challenges, but also celebrating the successes, the moments of beauty and connection, and the realization that sharing ones own differences makes the world a bigger, broader, more colorful world for everyone.

Want to hear about neurodiversity from someone on the spectrum? Here’s an article from Psychology Today by John Elder Robison.

There’s also this heartwarming video of middle schoolers providing a wonderful example of embracing neurodiversity.