How the Neurodiversity Movement Promotes Acceptance and Truth

Julia Maher ‘23

Chief Opinions Editor

Sociologist Judy Singer coined the term “neurodiversity” in 1998, and it has gained considerable traction ever since. The movement seeks to promote inclusion and acceptance of neurodivergent people. Neurodiversity was a term first used primarily by autistic individuals, but it has grown to encompass many other conditions, like ADHD, dyslexia, and Tourette syndrome, as well as certain mental health conditions, including schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and OCD.

Society has historically treated neurodivergent individuals inhumanely through institutionalizing them and pathologizing their neurological differences. Particularly with autistic individuals, many of them were misdiagnosed with other mental health conditions, and not with autism. This led to a lot of damage and mistreatment. According to an article titled “The Missing Generation” by Spectrum News, in the 1950s and 1960s many autistic children were misdiagnosed with other conditions and remained unidentified, and the word “autism” didn’t appear in the DSM until 1980. Because of this, many older autistic adults today still remain undiagnosed. One disorder that was commonly diagnosed instead of autism was schizophrenia. Psychiatrists were frustrated by the inefficacy of the treatment of autistic individuals with antipsychotic medication, but they failed to recognize that they did not need those medications. This misguided psychiatric approach caused a lot of damage.

Even still today, many people view autism as a disorder or a disease that needs to be cured. The most common “treatment” prescribed is Applied Behavioral Analysis. ABA, although seen as effective by the medical community, can be quite damaging. Many autistic individuals that are subjected to ABA therapy describe it as torturing and traumatizing. ABA wishes to eliminate stimming, which is a self-soothing behavior to alleviate sensory overload and manage emotions. Examples of this include rocking, flapping hands, touching certain textures, repeating words, and many others. Even neurotypical people stim, just in ways that are deemed more “normal” or “acceptable” by society. Neurotypical stimming may include bouncing your leg, chewing your nails, or twirling your hair. 

Photo courtesy of @Autism_Sketches from Twitter
Autism non-linear spectrum

ABA seeks to eliminate stimming in autistic individuals, but it remains ignorant of the reality that stimming is crucial for autistic people to regulate their emotions and sensory overload. An article titled “Problematic and Traumatic: Why Nobody Needs ABA” reveals that ABA providers shout at autistic individuals, slap them, and even have used electric shocks as aversive devices in response to their stimming to try to make them more “normal.” Some autistic individuals have even described ABA therapy as similar to LGBTQ+ conversion therapy, and some of them have been subjected to both forms of torture, since there is significant overlap between autistic and queer identities. Aiming to suppress stimming can even lead to self-injurious stims, such as head banging, which are dangerous. It is time for ABA providers to realize that stimming is not harmful, and they must be more accepting of neurodivergent people. There are much healthier alternatives that can improve the quality of life for autistic individuals and, frankly, everyone. These include occupational therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy.

The neurodiversity movement promotes the truth that autism is not a disease that can be cured; rather, it is a natural variation of the human brain that should not be pathologized. ABA only seeks to train autistic individuals to conform to neurotypical standards, which some view as the only valid or normal way of socializing. Neurodiversity of all forms should be accepted by society instead of trying to make people conform to the neurotypical majority. Suppressing autistic traits, also known as masking, can have serious effects on mental and physical health, including anxiety, depression, exhaustion, loss of identity, autistic burnout, and suicidal thoughts, according to various studies cited by Healthline. Autistic women and girls are much more inclined to mask their autistic traits, which leads to them being misdiagnosed or unidentified for many years, even until mid or late life.

Autistic women and girls are also under-diagnosed due to the strong male bias of autism in the medical field. The myth that only boys and men can be autistic still persists, and the consequence is many autistic women feel disconnected from their true identity after years of masking, which can lead to self-loathing and secondary mental health conditions. There are plenty of other myths about autism that the neurodiversity movement works to dispel, including that autistic people often have savant abilities (in reality, only about one in a million people do), that vaccines cause autism, that autism is caused by a lack of maternal warmth, that autistic individuals cannot be empathetic, and that they cannot feel emotions or love for other people. Most of these are just blatantly untrue, and every individual is different because the spectrum is wildly diverse.

The neurodiversity movement also favors the social model of disability over the medical model of disability. The medical model views disabled people as problems to be fixed and diseases to be cured, and ABA therapy aligns with this doctrine. The social model, however, proposes that people are actively disabled by their environment. Since our society is built for neurotypical people and often does not accommodate neurodivergent needs, autistic individuals often fail to thrive due to pressure to mask their traits, bright lights, and loud noises, which can lead to sensory overload.

Although some people criticize neurodiversity and the social model of disability because they believe that the concepts deny that some individuals struggle and have higher support needs, that is merely a misunderstanding. Proponents of the neurodiversity movement definitely still recognize that there are impairments associated with autism, and they seek to make society more accommodating instead of solely blaming the individual. This model shifts the blame from disabled individuals and recognizes the inaccessibility of our society, as well as the derogatory attitudes from neurotypical people toward neurodivergent people. These attitudes make autistic individuals feel inclined to suppress their traits to avoid bullying and violence. We must become more accommodating and accepting of neurodivergent people instead of dehumanizing and pathologizing them.

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