Chances are you are neurodiverse or know someone who is. We all have idiosyncrasies with which we struggle, benefit, or perhaps both. However, some of us have been stigmatized to our detriment.  

Neurodiversity is a word that you’ve probably never heard. It is the concept that autism (among other disorders), which has long been considered a mental-health disorder, is actually a natural difference in normal brain functioning.

People with autism are not broken with the need to be fixed. They are just like everyone else. Leading autism researcher and Cambridge professor Simon Baron-Cohen, a proponent of neurodiversity, says, “...[neurodiversity] encourage[s] us to recognize autism as an example of diversity in the set of all possible brains, none of which is ‘normal’ and all of which are simply different.”

With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting that 1 in 59 children in the United States are now thought to be autistic, neurodiversity has the potential to be a revolutionary concept.

In fact, neurodiversity originated in the autism community as a response to the negative way autism is often characterized. Many autistic people find these depictions to be rejection of who they truly are as individuals, and deeply offensive.

Language used in autism research, search for a cure fundraising, treatment advertising, and even some autism advocacy organizations use descriptions like “autism steals, traps, or ruins” those who “suffer” from it.

The impact of such language is far reaching into schools, work, and community environments and contributes to the isolation and devaluation of autistic people by society. The anti-vaccine movement is an example of the damage caused by these kinds of destructive attitudes towards autism. Parents are so afraid that their children might become autistic that they would rather run the risk of exposing their children to potentially debilitating or fatal yet completely preventable illnesses, than inoculate them with a vaccine proven time and again not to cause autism.

Neurodiversity is much more than combating negative stereotypes though. It is an assertion of identity. Many autistic people feel that autism is an inherent part of their nature as it shapes the way in which they perceive, interact with, and experience the world. Neurodiversity embraces the benefits of autism.

Some of the most brilliant minds, present and long past, are believed to be autistic. Researchers and autism experts are just beginning to delve into the areas of intelligence that autistic people excel. These areas of intelligence are unique and specific to autistic people. Neurodiversity is also a call to allow autistic people to be autistic. It maintains that research and therapeutic techniques should focus on helping autistic people function as themselves, rather than making them appear less autistic.

The main message of neurodiversity though is something from which we all gain. There is no one way to be normal. We are all differently normal.

If you are interested in learning more about neurodiversity, read “Neuro Tribes: The Legacy of Autism” and the “Future of Neurodiversity” by Steve Silberman. It can be found at the Walla Walla Public Library.

Do you think you might be autistic? For a fun quiz that tests for neurodiverse traits, look up The Aspie Quiz (bit.ly/1c6xCp0).

Carolyn Leonhard lives in Walla Walla. She is a recent graduate of Western Washington University and is planning to pursue a master’s degree in social work. Are you interested in learning about autism advocacy? The Autistic Self Advocacy Network is an advocacy group by autistic people for autistic people — autisticadvocacy.org

Recommended for you