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What is Neurodiversity?

John Elder Robison is an adult with autism and the parent of an adult son with autism. He serves on the Autism Speaks Science Advisory Board. For more about John visit his website. See our last blog by John here. The following blog post was originally published here, by Psychology Today.

To me, neurodiversity is the idea that neurological differences like autism and ADHD are the result of normal, natural variation in the human genome.  This represents new and fundamentally different way of looking at conditions that were traditionally pathologized; it’s a viewpoint that is not universally accepted though it is increasingly supported by science.  That science suggests conditions like autism have a stable prevalence in human society as far back as we can measure.  We are realizing that autism, ADHD, and other conditions emerge through a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental interaction; they are not the result of disease or injury.  

At the same time, we are identifying diseases and injuries (physical and environmental) that will produce brain injuries whose effects look very similar to autism and other differences.  Acceptance of neurodiversity certainly does not include passive acceptance of such injury and insult, though we should unconditionally accept individuals who are so impacted.

Smallpox is a disease that attacks healthy people; one can seek its eradication by understanding its foundations and planning an attack at that level.  Autism – as a lifelong part of otherwise healthy person – may be understood at that basic level but if it’s an innate part of the person it’s not subject to attack and cure in the same simplistic manner.  That’s why the remediation of its medical complications is such an incredibly complex challenge.

Indeed, many individuals who embrace the concept of neurodiversity believe that people with differences do not need to be cured; they need help and accommodation instead.  They look at the pool of diverse humanity and see – in the middle – the range of different thinking that’s made humanity’s progress in science and the creative arts possible.  At the edges they see people who are functionally crippled by being “too diverse.”  When 99 neurologically identical people fail to solve a problem it’s often the 1% fellow who’s different who holds the key.  Yet that person may be disabled or disadvantaged most or all of the time.  To neurodiversity proponents, people are disabled because they are at the edges of the bell curve; not because they are sick or broken.

As an adult with autism, I find the idea of natural variation to be more appealing than the alternative – the suggestion than I am innately bad, or broken and in need of repair.  I didn’t learn about my own autism until I reached middle age.  All those (pre diagnosis) years I assumed my struggles stemmed from inherent deficiencies.  Asserting that I am different – not defective – is a much healthier position to take.  Realizing the idea is supported by science is even better.

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The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.