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Neurodiversity - What Does It Mean?

People Walking On Steps
People On Steps

In 1993, an article was published in “Our Voice” the newsletter of Autism Network International.  The piece was written by Jim Sinclair, a writer and activist who deliberately chooses to refer to himself as an “autistic person” as opposed “a person with autism.” For him, the latter implies that autism is somehow a negative characteristic that can be separated from who he is.  Instead, he says people need to remind themselves that  “I am a person, without trying to define a feature of my personhood as something bad.  I am autistic because I accept and value myself the way I am.”

Addressed to the parents of autistic children and titled “Don’t Mourn for Us”,  the central message in his ground-breaking 1993 essay urged parents and caregivers to acknowledge and make room for their own sense of loss, dashed hopes and expectations. Whilst doing so, he says, parents should support their child by accepting and embracing their difference.  He presents a moving and compelling argument and I would urge anyone to read it.

However, although introducing a new perspective, the origin of neurodiversity did not come from Mr Sinclair.  This is correctly attributed to Judy Singer, a remarkable and inspirational lady who in an interview in The Guardian in 2023, outlined how in 1997 she quietly but quite deliberately introduced the word neurodiversity to The World.  Neurodiversity was the well-aimed rocket and her 1997 undergraduate thesis was the launchpad. But what does neurodiversity mean?

Neurodiversity is clearly much more than a single word or umbrella term to use when referring to people who are autistic, dyslexic, or who have ADHD for example.  Definitions vary, for some it is about the seemingly infinite variations in human brain functioning – akin to “biodiversity” in the natural world. For others it is more of a socio-political movement, which at its core, demands acceptance and freedom for a minority of people who’s brains’ are wired differently from the majority and who historically have been misrepresented and discriminated against.  As Judy Singer put it, “the neurodiversity movement is a political movement for people who want their human rights”.

Much has happened since 1997 and much has been written.  In many ways, The World has gradually caught up with Judy Singer as we have moved away from a medical model, towards a social model of disability; a model that emphasises that it is not the person that is broken or disordered but that problems arise from being expected to function and thrive in an unsuitable environment. 

This idea is certainly gaining prominence in the workplace as business and organisation not only place an emphasis on access and inclusion but also realise that diversity in teams adds strengths and advantages that are not delivered by uniformity.

The Power of Neurodiversity by writer and educationalist Thomas Armstrong PHD offers compelling, evidence based insights on this subject without medicalising.  It is a good read, as is Neurotribes, by Steve Silberman.  I’m not getting royalties folks, but I recommend both for a deeper dive into this fascinating, topical and relevant subject.    


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