The problem with neurodiversity


Neurodiversity is the buzz word of choice for today’s autism activists. They argue that autism is a beneficial part of human diversity, and that it is even advantageous from an evolutionary perspective. It is considered ‘cool’ and forward thinking to embrace neurodiversity, and anyone who exposes the concept to critical judgment is typecast as regressive and conservative.

Neurodiversity is beyond judgment,  and it has become an article of faith. There is a circular, tautological reasoning behind its assertions: neurodiversity is a fact, it cannot be denied that we are all neurologically unique, and to the extent that autism can have a large genetic component, it is a ‘natural’ phenomenon. As soon as objections are raised, you are reminded that neurodiversity is an essential truth, and the argument is foreclosed. I would, therefore,  like to state very clearly that I accept the basic fact of neurodiversity. I also wholeheartedly agree with the related social model perspective, which argues that society should provide autistic people with appropriate support and reasonable adjustments to enable them to live a meaningful and fulfilled life. However, I take issue with the underlying ideology behind the neurodiversity  movement, which cloaks the indelible facts with social  construct theory. This means that  hardcore neurodiversity proponents  argue that autism is not really an essential impairment or disability, but is actually a selective advantage that is only disabling because mainstream neurotypical society does not adequately accommodate the autistic ‘life-style’. Indeed, autism is celebrated as an essential part of the person’s identity, as if you have no personality and identity apart from the autism.  Autism is said to confer unique advantages that add to the pool of human talent and diversity. Again, I cannot disagree with the basic fact that all human beings, disabled or not, are uniquely talented and worthy of respect and recognition. Every person possesses a unique set of strengths, and has something to offer society, even if it simply involves having a good sense of humour! Autistic people are human beings first and foremost, and no two autistic people share the same strengths. An autistic person’s strengths are shaped primarily by their interests and environment, and I would argue that this has a bigger impact than the autism.

Certain cognitive biases such as attention to detail and inability to see the big picture  might affect the  way strengths are expressed, but these cognitive biases are not unique to autism and not all autistic people are extraordinarily detail focused. Indeed, if an autistic person has visual spatial or attention deficits, pattern recognition and block design tests might be an area of relative weakness. For example, due to my spatial weakness, I only got a 2 on block design, which is on the 1st percentile – I clearly do not possess this supposedly ‘autistic strength’! In any case, an autistic person’s strengths should not be explained away as simply resulting from their condition, as if the strengths were magical skills that required no personal choice or effort. In order to be good at anything, you have to decide that you are interested in the subject or activity, and then you have to work hard to hone the skill. Autism in itself does not compensate for the disability or essential deficit. What can appear to be uniquely autistic strengths (such as attention to detail) are simply the fragments of typical functioning that normally go hand in hand with being able to see the big picture. Because an autistic person cannot see the big picture, they might compensate by over focusing on the details, and with time and practice this might become a strength. But for most autistic people, the relative ability does not adequately offset their disability because the skill is not integrated. For example, age 10 I could read at the level of a 15 year old because of my attention to word detail, but I had minimal comprehension for what I was reading and so what looked like a strength was actually part of my essential disability. As I have grown older, my skills have become slightly more integrated, and this is positive and encouraging.  However, my autism means that I can only focus on one task at a time. This mono-focus is often said to be an ‘autistic strength’, but in my own experience it is a disability. I find it hard to prioritise and this can result in indecision and information overload. I can focus on one fragment of my life at a time, but I struggle to integrate the fragments into a meaningful whole. Consequently my parents and support workers help me with form filling, financial management, and other everyday living tasks. If I attempt to spread my energy more widely and take on too many tasks at once, I experience extreme stress and anxiety.

Neurodiversity advocates argue that autism is a positive part of their identity, and they do not believe that their autism is something that should be ”overcome”.  They are entitled to their opinion, but it is not the only perspective and  autism is not always experienced in this way. The autism that I have is a problematic  outlier, and I try my hardest to subjugate the autism.  I use the strengths and interests that are part of my personality, to challenge the deficits that are caused by my autism. I firmly believe that with enough effort and determination I can keep the autism at arm’s length so that it does not prevent me from doing what I,  as a person,  would like to do. Of course autism is part of my identity, and it has shaped my experience and molded my personality. However, autism is only a small part of my identity and I am not defined by my condition any more than I am defined by my height or gender.

My autism is a series of deficits, and there is nothing positive about my condition.  Unfortunately neurodiversity advocates misrepresent my perspective by casting ad hominem aspersions (a logically fallacious argument directed at the person rather than the position they are maintaining). For example, they sometimes claim that people like myself are full of self hate and negativity (confusing my feelings about my condition with my feelings about myself), when this could not be further from the truth.  I am a very positive person and this is precisely the reason why I keep fighting against my condition, even though this makes me feel very stressed and anxious. I am very pleased with myself whenever I make progress in any area that is affected by my condition (social, academic, or organisational). When ad hominem attacks fail, it is sometimes argued  that advocates who are against the neurodiversity movement  are in the same camp as eugenicists.  This is a desperate but sloppy attempt to silence the opposition; it is a verbal war of attrition that ultimately prevents rational debate through the use of scaremongering, extreme rhetoric.  Neurodiversity extremists make short shrift of a person’s right to choose whether or not they would like a cure for their own condition, and in doing so, they deny a person’s right to control their own body.  Just as a woman should be able to choose whether or not to have an abortion (no-one else owns her body), an autistic person should have freedom of choice as to whether or not they would accept a cure.   Currently no cure exists so this argument is purely academic, but I think that Science should research what has gone awry in the autistic brain, and should aim to develop specific therapeutic interventions.

Neurodiversity activists will often bring out a potpourri of historical prime specimens to add flavour and spice to their argument.  A never ending list of celebrities, dead and alive, is supposedly on the autism spectrum. Aside from the dubious veracity of retro-diagnosis, genius is often equated with autism. Genius in and of itself often makes someone a bit eccentric, and  so called geniuses often find it hard to relate to other people simply because of their extraordinary intellectual ability. However, this does not mean that they necessarily fall within the autism spectrum.  We simply do not know whether or not Einstein, for example, was autistic, so the claim that he was tells us more about our present day stereotypes and story telling than it does about any historical truth.  However the claim that Einstein was autistic is not purely academic because such questionable hypotheses directly affect the way people view autism in the present. Some autistic individuals use the Einstein myth to bolster their own egos because they can pretend that they are more ‘special’ than anyone else by laying claim to a piece of Einstein’s magical  fairy-dust DNA.  ”Einstein was autistic, so it follows that because I am autistic, I must have extraordinary intellectual ability”, is the oft recited mantra of their circular and untenable reasoning.

The Einstein myth downplays the ordinariness of autistic people and enhances the general perception that autistic people are mysteriously not quite from this world. This narrative creates an ‘us versus them’ dichotomy, which is not at all helpful for the vast majority of  autistic people, who are just struggling to get by and to live their lives as ordinary human beings. For many autistic people, success would mean just being able to get outside of their house, to travel on public transport, or to achieve some level of employment.  The vast majority of autistic people are not endowed with extraordinary intellectual abilities, and they ordinarily fall  within the same IQ range as the general, neurotypical population. Moreover, before the welfare state  came into existence, most autistic people would have ended up in the workhouse or asylums because they would have lacked the ability to fend for themselves. And going back even further, in our evolutionary past, autistic people would most likely not have been sitting in a cave developing tools as neurodiversity activists like to claim. It is far more likely that autistic people would have faced a frightfully brief existence because they would have been excluded from the group as children and would have lacked the common sense and flexible thinking that would have aided survival.

The unfortunate outcome of the neurodiversity movement is that autism has been re-branded as merely a special difference as opposed to the serious and life limiting, disabling condition that is the common reality for most autistic people. The move away from talking about disability, in the name of ‘positive’ psychology, contains a regressive and reactionary undertone. After all, if autism is erroneously perceived as just an eccentric personality quirk, society might be less willing to provide support for autistic people in the form of benefits and social care. The autism movement has arguably been hijacked by incredibly able and successful people, which has created an unequal ‘class’ structure. The autistic upper crust, people with autism who can hold down full time jobs and lead successful lives, will view autism very differently to the disenfranchised autistic majority, who are often on benefits,  unemployed, and lack the organisation required to even think about joining the boards of charitable organisations.  I would argue that autistic people who are able enough to steer policy and join committees have a duty and a responsibility towards their less fortunate brethren. They should climb down from their ivory tower and humbly acknowledge their privileged position, and should refrain from branding autism as an  advantageous neurotype that is not intrinsically disabling.  They have every right to talk about themselves in these terms, but they should be aware that they are speaking from a minority perspective that does not represent the whole autism spectrum.  As I mentioned previously, we should all unite to campaign for better services and more support for autistic people, which includes supported employment and suitable housing. However, we also need to acknowledge the physical nature of autism that can cause its own pain regardless of the society that we live in. Alongside this campaigning we also need to research therapeutic interventions, and even cures, for the innately disabling aspects of the condition.


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