The Convergence of Neurodiversity and Autism

Which is right for you? Identity or medical diagnosis, and why?

Posted Jun 28, 2019

Neurodiversity—the idea that neurological diversity is a natural part of our species–has taken hold among many people diagnosed with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and other conditions which have a strong heritable component.

While neurological diversity is a fact, the neurodiversity movement or philosophy is a much more amorphous and controversial thing. Diversity is good for our species, but too much diversity is unhealthy for us as individuals. Extreme diversity is unpleasant or even deadly. Furthermore, diversity is not all inherited. Some is a result of accident, injury, or toxic exposure. While those things are natural, they are also hazards we seek to prevent, not simply accept. 

People’s neurology differs in innumerable ways. Some of us are good with math, some are emotionally intuitive. Some of us are very smart and some of us are slower. For each of those attributes, there is a place in society where one person will have an advantage over another.

The same is true for body size and type. Some people do better in small spaces or cold climates. Diversity is one of the attributes that allowed early man to colonize so much of the globe and be so successful.

Diversity does have its limits. Adults who are four foot eleven have the same general health outcomes as adults who are six foot four. But an adult who is three feet tall, or eight feet tall, is likely to have medical complications associated with the extreme of that attribute. The same is true for traits in the mind. One of the doctors who originally described autism believed a dash if it was essential for success in the arts and sciences. But “too much” leads to crushing disability with little corresponding gift.

In every realm of diversity, physical or cognitive, the farther one diverges from the midrange, the more medical problems one is likely to have. The extremes of diversity shade into pathology, and when they extend far enough, a divergent fetus will not survive. Those who are born with the greatest divergence are much less likely to marry and pass on their genes.

That harsh natural selection is why human traits tend to cluster around a midpoint, and also why human diversity is self-limiting.

Within those limits, people with different neurology have always been part of the population, just like people with more visible forms of diversity. When psychiatrists picked out our deficits and named us with their labels, a new generation grew up diminished for it.

By labeling us with autism, ADHD and other diagnoses, expectations for us were lowered, and we were left feeling like damaged goods. “Timmy has autism” became synonymous with “Timmy will never amount to anything.”  Psychiatric diagnosis has certainly benefited many people, but the stigma and marginalization that accompanies those labels is a heavy burden indeed. 

It should not be surprising that some people cast aside their medical diagnoses in favor of the community-sourced term: neurodiversity, with people who are “different” being neurodivergent.  In doing so, the mantle of shame is set aside, and the person is free to interpret themselves as they choose.

If you say, “Bill’s son was diagnosed with autism,” the common response is still, “I’m so sorry to hear that!”  But if you say, “Bill’s son is neurodivergent,” people don’t know where to go. They say, “What’s that?”  The door opens for a positive dialogue.

Critics of the neurodiversity movement say it paints autism and certain other diagnoses in a positive light, when in fact they can be incredibly disabling. What that critique misses, is this: autism is a medical diagnosis bestowed by a trained clinician. There is no limit to how severe autistic disability can be.  

Neurodivergence, on the other hand, is an identity a person adopts.  Whether you are clinically diagnosed or you just see traits of autism or ADHD in yourself, you are free to say, “I identify as neurodivergent”.

Some people who appear seriously disabled can and do identify as neurodivergent, while others reject the label forcefully, or offer no comment at all.  What that shows, is that neurodivergence is an identity we choose, and the tradeoff of disability versus exceptionality we see in ourselves may be very different from what others observe.

The statement “I was diagnosed as autistic” has very different implications from “I identify as neurodivergent.”  Identity is one’s choice, whereas diagnosis is a thing that happens to us, usually in response to a problem.

Therefore, the limits of autism are those of survivability.  At the extremes, autism presents with so many co-occurring medical complications that a person cannot generally survive for a typical lifespan, and their quality of life is diminished. The limits of neurodiversity are much milder. Neurodivergence as identity extends as far into the neurodiversity realm as people choose to take it for themselves.

A doctor can bestow an autism diagnosis on anyone, even if their disability is so great that they cannot understand the words. No one diagnoses a person as neurodivergent; that identity label is an individual’s choice (or not).  The limits of neurodiversity are reached when someone cannot so identify or declines to so identify. 

Neurodiversity and neurodivergence are there if you want to choose them as a way to describe yourself. Autism, ADHD, and other medical diagnoses are handed out by trained professionals.

As one of my trans friends pointed out, we cannot choose our neurology. My words about choosing apply only to the disclosure, not to our underlying selves. We are what we are. All we can choose is whether we stay silent about it, assume an identity we can feel pride from, or present ourselves to the world with a medical diagnosis.

Medical diagnoses are usually necessary for children to receive therapy and support services. They help some adults qualify for services, too. For those people, the medical diagnosis is beneficial and, in some cases, lifesaving.  For others, diagnosis is optional, and neurodivergence is an identity choice to consider. 

It’s up to you.

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