As visitors to my Autism Self-advocacy Services business website can observe, the Home page displays a photo of me beside a gigantic flag consisting of a multi-coloured infinity symbol, with the Rotunda (platform area) of Toronto City Hall in the background. While this symbol is very familiar to virtually all hard-core autism self-advocates including myself, I’m dedicating my FIRST EVER post in this brand new blog to the meaning of this symbol and the significance of the event to which it took place. That symbol represents neurodiversity, which emerging from the 1990s Autism Rights Movement, asserts that autism is simply another form of human diversity and as such, calls for Autistic individuals to be appreciated and accepted the way we are, as opposed to being viewed as in need of so-called “normalization,” “rehabilitation,” or “correction,” as has been broadly seen in society. However, the symbolism of that photo goes deeper, and the event organized by the strictly Autistic-run organization Autistics 4 Autistics (A 4 A), was the first ever time the neurodiversity flag was raised at at Toronto City Hall, which is a powerful turning point for the autism community! In addition to admiring the flag being raised, the approximately 50 or so attendees, many to which identified as on the spectrum, enjoyed a humongous gluten-free neurodiversity themed cake, which was provided by A 4 A and was delicious! It was a day which I’ll never forget and I hope after the physical distancing measures due to the pandemic are lifted, results in more such gatherings.
Since neurodiversity is described at length in the unpublished portion of my soon-to-be-published 2014 Critical Disability Studies Master’s thesis “Barriers to Rewarding Work: employment issues among people on the autism spectrum,”, I am including the following excerpt from the introductory chapter to contextualize the significance of the subject:
Neurodiversity is constructively and productively used to contextualize and understand the lived experiences and perspectives of individuals with autism. In contrast to deficit-focused approach prevalent in the medical and scientific literature, neurodiversity frameworks on autism present autism as an aspect of human diversity and a ‘way of being’ not in need of correction (Baker, 2011; Murray, 2008; Straus, 2010). Baker (2011) observes that the concept of neurodiversity was originally influenced by autism-related activism during the 1990s, but has recently expanded to include individuals with various neurological differences, such as those with learning and cognitive impairments. It was a response to “largely negative publicity and public discourse surrounding perceived growth in autism incidence,” much of which “focussed almost exclusively on finding a cure” (p. 20). Baker further adds that these responses were heavily influenced by application of essentialist understandings of disability, which unlike constructionist views, “considers disability to be entirely located within an individual” (p. 7-8). Neurodiversity therefore is politically and culturally motivated and seeks to redefine autism and other neurological differences as an existential valued form of human diversity.
Neurodiversity perspectives seek to redefine autism and rebuke the deficit-focussed approach to autism. Promoting the strengths, abilities, and talents commonly associated with autism, Robertson (2010) argues the neurodiversity perspective portrays autism as “a form of human diversity with associated strengths and difficulties” (p. 1). Likewise, O’Neil (2008) points out that the strengths in intelligence among individuals with autism suggest that autism is not a disorder, but rather a difference with associated benefits. Similarly, after analyzing published accounts by people with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), Allred (2009) opined that AS is not a mental disorder as claimed in the DSM IV but rather a “socially constructed human difference” (p. 343). Finally, noting that A.S. is a neurological difference that has been socially constructed as a disorder, Molly and Vasil (2010) argue that the special education system plays a major role in shaping this construction as their primary goal, which is to rehabilitate or normalize children with differences.
Culture is another area of focus explored through neurodiversity perspectives. Noting that culture affects how autism is viewed, Grinker (2007) argues that recent improvements in accuracy of statistics on autism are a sign of increased acceptance and understanding of “a kind of human difference that [society] once turned away from and that many other cultures still hide in homes or institutions or denigrate as bizarre” (p. 5) Highlighting that there are varying representations of autism, Murray (2008) observes that autism is “ configured, understood, and discussed in vastly different ways in different parts of the world (p. 16). He challenges the traditional idea of disability as an absence and argues that autism is “a way of being in the world” (p. 6) that does not require treatment.
Another way culture is emphasized by perspectives on neurodiversity is identity, pride, and community. Stressing that autism is a “valued social and political identity” (p. 537) consisting of a “distinctive and valuable style of thinking and imagining” (p. 542), Straus (2010) highlights the various forms of autistic high culture exhibited among this population, including writing, music, and art. Referring to remarkable achievements among individuals with autism, he argues “for a new generation of people with autism, it is not about what they can do despite autism (not about overcoming), but about what autism enables them to do, what they do through and with autism” (p. 550). Hence, employment success among individuals on the spectrum is both correlated and connected with development of autistic culture, pride, and community.
Neurodiversity not only gives insight to the cultural perception and redefinition of autism, but also constructively informs its policy formulation. According to Baker (2011), there are four primary agenda types with regard to autism policy: cause, care, cure, and celebration. She argues that both neurodiversity and neurological disability reflect rising public sector challenges and that future policy development must include all stakeholders including perspectives of individuals on the spectrum (Baker, 2006b). Another element of policy informed by neurodiversity is promotion of awareness and acceptance of autism. Baker (2006a) highlights the significance of dedicating specific times of the year to commemorate autism and argues this enhances rights-based policies for this population. She observes that this both promotes general awareness of autism and encourages education of public management of autism.
Simkover, T. (2014). Introduction (Unpublished portion of Master’s thesis), “Barriers to rewarding work: employment issues among people on the autism spectrum,” 8-10.
Allred, S. (2009). Reframing Asperger syndrome:
Lessons from other challenges to the Diagnostic and statistical manual and ICIDH approaches. Disability & Society, 24 (3), 343-355.
Baker, D. L. (2006a) Autism as public policy. In: D. Pothier and R. Devlin (eds.) Critical
disability theory: Essays in philosophy, politics, policy and law, Vancouver and Toronto, UBC Press
Baker, D. L. (2006b). Neurodiversity, neurological disability and the public sector: Notes on
the autism spectrum. Disability & Society, 21 (1), 15-29.
Baker, D. L. (2011), The Politics of Neurodiversity: Why Public Policy Matters. Boulder,
Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publisher, Inc.
Grinker, R. (2007). Unstrange minds: Remapping the world of autism, New York, Basic Books
Molloy, H., & Vasil, L. (2002). The social construction of Asperger Syndrome: The
pathologizing of difference? Disability & Society, 17(6), 659-669.
Murray, D. (2008). Coming out Asperger: Diagnosis, disclosure and self-advocacy, London,
Jessica Kingsley Publishers
O’Neil, S. (2008). The meaning of autism: Beyond disorder. Disability & Society, 23(7), 787-799.
Robertson, S. M. (2010). Neurodiversity, quality of life, and autistic adults: Shifting research and
focuses onto real-life challenges. Disabilities Studies Quarterly, 30(1). Retrieved from http://www.dsq-sds.org/article/view/1069/1234
Straus, J. (2010). Autism as culture. In: L. J. Davis (Ed.), The disabilities studies reader
(pp. 535-559). New York: Routledge