Neurodiversity or ND refers to variation in the human brain regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood and other mental functions in a non-pathological sense. It was coined in 1998 by sociologist Judy Singer, who helped popularise the concept along with journalist Harvey Blume…
Most people are neurotypical meaning that the brain functions and processes in the way that society expects. 1 in 7 people are neurodivergent meaning their brain functions differently in one or more ways than is considered standard or typical. Their unique traits are often characterised as ‘neurodiverse conditions’.
The neurodiversity movement has so far been dominated by autistic people who believe their condition is not a disease to be treated and, if possible, cured, but rather a human specificity (like sex or race) that must be equally respected, as well as other neurological or developmental conditions such as ADHD or learning disabilities. The neurodiversity movement emerged during the 1990s, aiming to increase acceptance and inclusion of all people while embracing neurological differences. Between 30% and 40% of the population are thought to be neurodiverse. The remaining majority are neurotypical. Autistic self-advocates largely oppose groups of parents of autistic children and professionals searching for a cure for autism, how identity issues are frequently linked to a ‘neurological self-awareness’ and a rejection of psychological interpretations. The preference for cerebral explanations cannot be reduced to an aversion to psychoanalysis or psychological culture. Instead, such preference must be understood within the context of the diffusion of neuroscientific claims beyond the laboratory and their penetration in different domains of life in contemporary biomedicalised societies. Within this framework, neuroscientific theories, practices, technologies and therapies are influencing the ways we think about ourselves and relate to others, favouring forms of neurological or cerebral subjectivation and how neuroscientific claims are taken up in the formation of identities, as well as social and community networks. In 1998, in an often quoted article emblematically entitled ‘Thoughts on finding myself differently brained’, US autistic self-advocate Jane Meyerding makes the seemingly odd observation that she ‘was surprised to find [herself] moving into the realm of neurology’.
The process can be understood as involving ‘technologies of the self’ (Foucault, 1988) and the diffusion of expert knowledge in popular culture. ‘Making up people’, as Ian Hacking (2002: 111) calls it, involves the creation of descriptive or diagnostic categories through expert knowledge; individuals assimilate these categories into their descriptions and practices of the self, and thereby transform them and bring about realities that experts must in turn confront. Such co-construction of categorical and personal identity is what Hacking (1995) has characterised as the ‘looping effect of human kinds’. The psychiatric label of autism or Asperger Syndrome affects the persons so labelled and/ or their families and caretakers, and potentially changes their behaviour and hence the meaning of the label itself. The label has undergone transformations because of changing neurobiological and genetic theories. The looping effect encompasses not only scientific and diagnostic developments, but also parent and self-advocacy groups as well as general images of autism and Asperger Syndrome in popular movies, TV programs, personal testimonies, novels, blogs and other internet resources. Some autistic persons and groups draw on neuroscientific terms and metaphors in their self-definition, in their claims to neurodiversity, and in the practices consistent with those claims pro-cure parent and professional associations refuse to identify positively with the condition (because they see autism as a disease, and therefore something one is afflicted with), autistic self-advocates take pride in the condition. This is epitomised in their rejection of the term ‘person with autism’ and the adoption of labels such as ‘autistic’ or ‘aspie’.
The self-identifying label of “neurodivergent” originally focused on those who are autistic. However, in more recent years it has been used to describe those who think, behave, and learn differently to what is typical in society. Being neurodivergent should not be considered an inherent deficit but simply a difference in processing the world around us.
In the 1990s, sociologist Judy Singer rejected the notion that people with autism are “disabled.” (Singer herself identifies on the autism spectrum.) She advocated for the proposition that the autistic brain simply works differently from non-autistic brains.
Neurodiversity is a scientific concept arising from brain imaging. A number of brain studies have shown that people with learning or thinking differences are “wired” differently than their peers. In other words, some children are born with brains that think, learn and process information differently than others. The term neurodiversity has since come to include not just autism, but other neurological conditions as well.
Neurological differences can pose challenges for children, particularly in classrooms. For example, children with dyslexia may have a harder time learning to read, take notes or sit for standardised testing. The neurodiversity movement sees dyslexia and other issues as normal variations in brain functionality. In this view, there is nothing “wrong” with children who have these differences.
Types of Neurodivergence
Examples of conditions/labels that come under Neurodivergent are Autism, Asperger’s, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Pathological Demand Avoidance or Sensory Processing Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Tourette’s Syndrome, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Dyscalculia, Dysgraphia, Meares-Irlen Syndrome, Hyperlexia, and Synaesthesia.
Some other conditions such as schizophrenia, OCD, anti-social personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, dissociative disorder, and bipolar disorder can be classed as a form of neurodivergence too. Individuals can have two or more neurodivergent categories/labels (e.g., autism and ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia etc.). Such individuals are called multiply neurodivergent and this is common amongst neurodivergent people. In addition, people who suspect that they might have one of the labels/categories listed above may identify as being neurodivergent, but do not have a formal diagnosis. Neurodivergent people exhibit their conditions in different ways based upon their gender, race, and culture, and some neurodivergent people (e.g., autistic people or those with ADHD/ADD) may mask their neurodivergent characteristics in order to fit into society’s standards of neurotypical behaviour; this is called neuronormative. Therefore, intersectionality always has a hand to play, so it is good to keep an open mind for both awareness and inclusion purposes.
Degrees of Neurodiversity
The current edition of “the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)” has placed several diagnoses under the category of autism spectrum disorder. These include:
- Asperger’s syndrome
- childhood disintegrative disorder
- pervasive developmental disorders not otherwise specified
The DSM classifies autistic spectrum disorder with three levels of severity. Severity is based on how much impairment you live with in the areas of social communication and restricted or repetitive behaviours.
- Level 1 is given when you need support.
- Level 2 is given when you need substantial support.
- Level 3 is given when you need very substantial support.
Autistic cultures and neurodiversity
The term ‘neurodiversity’ is generally credited to Judy Singer, a sociologist diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, who used it in a 1999 article titled ‘Why can’t you be normal for once in your life? From a ‘‘problem with no name’’ to the emergence of a new category of difference’. The term also appeared in Jane Meyerding’s 1998 ‘Thoughts on finding myself differently brained’, and Singer herself wrote, ‘I am not sure if I coined this word, or whether it’s just ‘‘in the air’’, part of the zeitgeist (quoted in Meyerding, 1998).’ As already mentioned, ‘neurodiversity’ asserts that some features usually described as illnesses are in fact only atypical or ‘neurodivergent’, i.e. they result from a specific ‘neurological wiring’. Therefore, it is merely a human difference that must be respected like any other such difference (be it sex, race or any other attribute). Such individuals are ‘neurologically diverse’ or ‘neuroatypical’. People diagnosed with autism, specifically Asperger Syndrome and other forms of ‘high-functioning autism’, are the driving force behind this movement, although some prominent self-advocates, such as Amanda Baggs, do not speak and define themselves as ‘low functioning’. It should be noted that having expressive speech does not necessarily correlate with overall cognitive ability, although it is difficult to test cognitive ability in an individual with poor communication skills. For them, insofar as autism is not an illness, but rather a constitutional part of who they truly are, searching for a cure implies refusing it as ‘a new category of human difference’ (Singer, 1999: 63). According to some activists, if neurodiversity is considered a disease, then ‘neurotypicality’ should be too. Muskie, creator of the satirical Institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical, explains that he decided to express ‘autistic outrage’ after noticing that what ‘experts’ and ‘professionals’ write is ‘arrogant, insulting, and just plain wrong’. He defines the ‘Neurotypical Syndrome’ as a ‘neurobiological disorder characterized by preoccupation with social concerns, delusions of superiority, and obsession with conformity.’ Neurotypical individuals (NTs), ‘often assume that their experience of the world is either the only one, or the only correct one. NT’s find it difficult to be alone. NT’s are often intolerant of seemingly minor differences in others.’ The stated goal of the ‘Institute’ is to deconstruct the pro-cure rhetoric by demonstrating the absurdity involved in trying to diagnose or cure ‘normalcy’ or ‘neurotypicality’. But if we thoughtlessly accept the pro-cure rhetoric of associations like Cure Autism Now, Defeat Autism Now or Autism Speaks, why not try to cure the ‘neurotypicality’ they identify with health and normality? Neurodiversity advocates claim that proposing to cure a ‘neurotypical’ would be on a par with curing a gay, black, left-handed or autistic individual: if the one were legitimate, so would be the others. But none are pathological conditions, only ways of being (Harmon, 2004a, 2004b, 2004c). For disability studies theoreticians, such a perspective transforms the dominant discourse of dependency and abnormalcy into the celebration of difference and an assertion of pride that goes beyond the circle of the disabled, their families, physicians and caretakers, into the domain of public health and educational policies (Corker, 1999; Swain and Cameron, 1999).
If you do not believe there is a disability, if you do not believe there is anything that needs to be ‘cured’ or genetically prevented—that disability is indeed little more than a social construction—then you will likewise be freed from the need for a cure. (Cheu, 2004: 209)
Parent and professional associations which search for a cure for autism usually refuse to acknowledge the very existence of an identity issue. For them, autism is simply a disease. Children are not autistic, they have autism. As Kit Weintraub (2005), mother of two autistic children and a board member of Families for Early Autism Treatment, wrote in response to autistic self-advocate Michelle Dawson’s ‘The misbehaviour of behaviorists: Ethical challenges to the autism-ABA industry’ (2004): I love my children, but I do not love autism. My children are not part of a select group of superior beings named ‘autistics.’ They have autism, a neurological impairment devastating in its implications for their lives, if left untreated. … In other words, it is no more normal to be autistic than it is to have spina bifida. (Weintraub, 2005)
As mentioned, autistic identity is sometimes experienced as a source of pride, some go so far as seeing it as a ‘gift’ (Antonetta, 2005). Even high-functioning autistics who do not experience their disorder as a gift have reported the ‘comfort’ they felt upon being diagnosed. ‘Finally an explanation, finally a sense of why and how’, wrote a man diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome at age 36, shortly after his 4-year-old was diagnosed with the same disorder (Shapiro, 2006). Ian Hacking (2006) has noted that ‘any misfit adults now recognize themselves as autistics, or so they say. It really helps to be able to put a label to your oddities. It brings a kind of peace: so that is what I am.’ Judy Singer (1999: 62) expounds on the ‘benefits of a clear identity’, and self-advocate Jane Meyerding (2003) speaks of an ‘aha! moment’, when she came across autism as an explanatory system. She thereby found a community whose thought patterns and language were more compatible with hers: ‘All my life, I have been forced to translate, translate, translate. Now, suddenly, I have people who speak my own language.’ Autistics may use the diagnostic label positively; the autism language generates ‘signposts’ and ‘shorthands’, as Meyerding says, that enable autistics to position themselves with respect to the surrounding culture. Labelling metamorphoses from stigma to instrument of liberation. The identitarian affirmation is often associated with a rejection of psychological explanations and psychotherapies. The latter are a waste of time if not downright dangerous. Autistics counter psychology with a ‘neurological self-awareness’ (Singer, 1999) that is abundantly explored online, and that allows them to bypass the medical establishment. The identitarian affirmation is often associated with a rejection of psychological explanations and psychotherapies. The latter are a waste of time if not downright dangerous.22 Autistics counter psychology with a ‘neurological self-awareness’ (Singer, 1999) that is abundantly explored online, and that allows them to bypass the medical establishment.
As highlighted by the very notion of neurodiversity, autistics’ identitarian assertion is often linked to the cerebralisation of their condition. As T.M. Luhrmann (2000) has shown in her ethnographic account of American psychiatry, the biologisation and neurologisation of mental illnesses often does away with the subjective and experiential dimension of the disease. This has a positive consequence, since ‘the body is always morally innocent’. Talking about her own experience of manic depression, anthropologist Emily Martin (2007: 13) recounts: ‘I often heard from my psychiatrist that my problem was related to my neurotransmitters, and I always found this comforting.’ In contrast, ‘if something is in the mind, it can be controlled and mastered, and a person who fails to do so is morally at fault’ (2007: 8). When a biologically oriented psychiatrist speaks of depression as a cardiologist speaks about cardiopathies, a space is introduced between the patient and the disease. When Mrs D was informed she was suffering from physical depression, the diagnosis ‘objectified her distress and shifted it away from her interpersonal concerns’, directing them towards an ‘impersonal causal realm’ (Kirmayer, 1988: 72).
A female diagnosed with autism testified that, after spending her teens ‘in a state of suicidal clinical depression as a result of bullying and feeling that I must be a failure or insane for being different’, she found this opinion ‘only reinforced by the psychotherapist I got sent to, who decided that all my problems must be the result of ‘‘sexual repression’’’. Proud to have ‘walked out after six sessions’, she sees being diagnosed as an autistic as ‘the best thing’ that ever happened to her (quoted in Blume, 1997a)
Neuroscientific theories, practices, technologies and therapies are shaping the way we think about ourselves and relate to others. As Blume notes, autism: … is hardly the only—and far from the main—reason for the current elevation of neurology. The opposite may be closer to the truth: the elevation of neurology supplies us with a reason for the increasing attention being paid to autism. (1997a). The interpenetrations of mind and brain at work in the neurodiversity context reflect the persistence of important continuities behind updated vocabularies, and this is typical of the entire neurocultural world. For example, behind its neuroscientific varnish, the neurobics market that has been growing since the 1990s does little more than carry on, in updated form, self-help regimens that sometimes date back to John Harvey Kellogg’s late nineteenth-century hygiene and diet prescriptions (Ortega, forthcoming).
The neurodiversity movement can serve as a critical text case for those who believe that ‘the neurosciences have irrevocably dissolved the Judeo-Christian image of a human being’, and therefore have generated an ethical vacuum in which nothing ‘could hold society together and provide a common ground for shared moral intuitions and values’. We see, on the contrary, how a solipsistic and reductionist ideology that turns humans into cerebral subjects has served as the basis for identity formation along with social and community networks. We could therefore paraphrase Foucault and state that every ‘dispositif’ of knowledge/power which functions as a mechanism of subjection, opens up a possibility for resistance. Autistic self-advocates must therefore navigate between their cerebralistic identity politics, and their quest for significant forms of sociality.
Autism is only one of many conditions currently determined to be psychopathology that can be reinterpreted as a mismatch between environmental (dominant) expectations and a potentially valid, though divergent, way of being in the world. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and learning disabilities like dyslexia have also been championed in the neurodiversity movement as simply a mismatch between valid ways of the brain functioning and what is required in our dominant-culture-defined educational system, including sitting still in class for hours, listening to lectures and absorbing information, and so on (Armstrong, 2015; Rentenbach et al., 2017). Locating “disorders” like ADHD entirely within the individual allows intervention recommendations to focus on medication treatment, skills development, and compensatory behaviour training, all ways of altering the individual. However, reframing the problem as a mismatch between educational environment and the way an individual’s brain works allows interventions to broaden in scope to thinking about altering the educational paradigm in some way, whenever possible (Gobbo et al., 2019). This is also true with hiring practices and workplace environments for adults with ADHD and other neurodiverse presentations (Krzeminska et al., 2019; Sumner & Brown, 2015). Like with autism, this frame also respects the potential for individuals with ADHD and learning differences to contribute significantly to society, given the skills and talents that accompany the presentation (Moore et al., 2021; von Karolyi et al., 2003; White & Shah, 2011). As with each model presented, conceptualising these disorders as mismatches between functioning and contextual expectations does not undermine the diagnosis itself; clients can both hold these diagnoses and be conceptualised in a way that values the interaction between personal characteristics and contextual demands.
It is important to note that while the neurodiversity movement has focused heavily on what are considered neuropsychological presentations, such as autism, ADHD, and learning differences, there have been positive traits associated with a wide variety of other presently-defined mental disorders, including bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and others (Babineau, 2012; Brune et al., € 2012; Simeonova et al., 2005). Broadening the understanding of neurodiversity to psycho-neurodiversity, viewing even defined mental illness as a mismatch between current functioning and what is required in an individual’s everyday life as it currently stands, can again reduce some of the onus on the individual themself and set the groundwork for adapting environments, in addition to individual intervention (Armstrong, 2015).
Psychometric testing and Neurodiversity:
Neurodiverse people can struggle to complete some forms of a psychometric test for recruitment effectively due to a combination of anxiety and executive function challenges. When a candidate loses time trying to understand the intent of a question or starts to over analyse the relationship between different questions, they may have a hard time finishing.
The modern trend towards gamification of psychometric testing can also complicate things. Between the need to both read and interpret the question, understand the expectations of the task or manage their anxiety in completing the ‘game’, candidates can perform poorly on these tests. Visually overcomplicating tests may be best avoided. The wrong choice of test can lead to a particularly problematic hiring error called Type 2 error (an error where highly suitable applicants are missed and not selected due to faulty hiring practices). These applicants are often lost to competitors.
To further assist candidates who may require special consideration, RightPEOPLE have developed versions of standard tests that provide additional time limits as well as additional practice examples. These tests also work well with those candidates requiring invigilation (assisted supervision). Importantly, we believe that a well-balanced assessment approach is critical when considering neurodiverse candidates. Having a candidate assessed on a broad range of tests is best and especially important for ND candidates. Collecting data on a candidate’s current skills and knowledge, cognitive ability, and a personality test assessment is the recommended approach because it gives a balanced view of a candidate.
This multifaceted assessment approach properly captures the concept of neurodiversity in terms of the variations in a wide variety of cognitive processes, skills and disposition. A well-balanced assessment methodology might for example include tests of fluid problem solving (such as conceptual reasoning, quantitative reasoning, working memory, logical reasoning), verbal reasoning, personality style, work motivators and values and specific knowledge tests. RightPEOPLE also offer expert advice on selecting the appropriate assessment for each circumstance and interpreting a psychometric test used for recruitment.
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