Features, Human Rights, Neurodiversity

The Problem with the Neurodiversity Movement

Every morning when I wake up I feel a heavy sense of trepidation as I contemplate the complex series of social interactions I will have to navigate in order to make it through the day at work. Being on the autism spectrum makes me instinctively averse to the superficial chit-chat I am expected to engage in in my job as a retail cashier. To my mind at least, small-talk serves no real practical purpose. It just makes me feel on edge and increases my overall stress levels as I expend huge amounts of cognitive energy decoding idioms and non-verbal communication. Unfortunately, retail work is about the only employment option available to me at the moment because my Asperger’s Syndrome affects my ability to relate to others. Because of my condition, I am prone to be blunt, sometimes to the point of rudeness, which is a personality trait that tends not to sit especially well with many members of the so-called ‘neuro-typical’ or non-autistic world.

As a relatively isolated 20-something Aspie with few friends, I decided to take to social media in the hope of finding a community into which I could assimilate and no longer feel like a routinely-shunned outsider. In online autism circles, I frequently came across the term ‘neurodiversity’, a term used to denote a collective of atypically-minded people with a range of conditions including ADHD, dyspraxia, dyslexia, and autism. The aim of the movement is to celebrate these distinct conditions as natural variations in the human genome rather than viewing them as pathological disorders deserving of medical interventions and cures. The term itself can be attributed to Judy Singer, an Australian social scientist on the autism spectrum, who wished to encapsulate a notion of neurological difference across humanity akin to the variation we see in plants and animals in biodiversity. The term was an instant hit and went on to spawn a left-wing political movement inspired by past and present civil rights causes. Indeed, the aim of neurodiversity is to champion the rights of ‘neurodiverse’ individuals in society and campaign to achieve the correct accommodations for them in the workplace and the wider society in order that they may live rich, fulfilling lives. The idea of curing conditions like autism is anathema to neurodiversity advocates, who often compare such a notion as akin to curing homosexuality, which was considered a psychiatric disorder until the late 80s.

The aims of neurodiversity are ostensibly virtuous and rooted in a compassionate social view of disability. Many of its members declare that they are ‘autistic and proud’, a slogan that was readily appealing to someone who’d long felt ashamed of admitting to being autistic, even to close friends. Reconceptualising autism as a different operating system as opposed to a series of deficits seemed fresh and invigorating and it wasn’t long before I started to champion the movement’s key tenets. I was told by countless enthusiastic advocates that the disabilities accompanying my autism were not so much the result of autism itself but by a systemically ‘ableist’ society that routinely marginalises and oppresses neurodiverse individuals. After years of feeling bitter and resentful at society, it was tempting to run with such a view and become a full-fledged supporter of the neurodiversity viewpoint. However, while some of this rhetoric may contain a kernel of truth, the reality soon dawned on me that autism is a far more complex picture which cannot be reduced to a single redemptive philosophy. The anti-cure stance may ostensibly seem the most moral, at least for the time being, but the prospect of one day finding a cure for autism should not be ruled out entirely.

It may be the case that accommodations are the way to go for those that are mildly autistic and have a very mild variant such as Asperger’s, but for many autistic people, especially those labelled as ‘severe’ in their disability, the view that this is essentially all the fault of society is hardly persuasive. And in its most disabling forms, autism cannot be viewed merely as benign variation in human neurology. Self-injurious autistic behaviours such as head-banging and arm-scratching which are often associated with severe forms of the condition are evidently pathological. Given the severity of such symptoms, parents, carers, and relatives of such individuals who engage in them can be forgiven for wanting an autism cure.

Neurodiversity proponents on the other hand will vehemently decry any suggestion of a pro-cure stance, brazenly stating that it’s akin to eugenics and even genocide. I became alarmed by such a fanatical view and by the cult-like dynamics evident in online neurodiversity circles. Those who disagree with its axioms are often shunned and, worse still, abused and attacked verbally. One such individual is Jonathan Mitchell, an autistic man from California who rejects any notion that autism can be viewed simply through what he considers to be the rose-tinted lens of the neurodiversity credo. In fact, he is often dubbed a ‘self-hating autistic’ who attributes his lack of employment and romantic partner to his autism. He strongly wishes for there to be a cure and has even pledged to donate his brain to science in the hope that one day it might find an answer as to the causes of his condition. While Jonathan represents the other extreme of the vicious and often fiercely tribal pro-cure/anti-cure debate, I cannot help as a fellow autistic to sympathise with where he is coming from. I now find myself in the invidious position of sharing the same impulses as those in neurodiversity tribe—for social justice and better rights—but at the same time I feel critical of the ideological fanaticism and rigidity that pervades the movement as a whole.

It seems that neurodiversity has been infiltrated quite insidiously by a postmodern ethos that attempts to turn autistic people into an oppressed group to be used for political gain. A liberal spirit of free and vigorous discussion seems wanting as neurodiversity proponents eschew alternative viewpoints and live in an echo-chamber of mutual-validation and political correctness.

Being a left-leaning liberal, I am somewhat tilted towards the neurodiversity position in certain respects. Like them, I believe autistic people deserve better accommodations at work and in the wider society. I also support those who promote the potential of different minds and the strengths they bring to companies, and I welcome autism-friendly showings and events in public. These are undoubtedly brilliant ideas and I have no quarrel with them at all. What I don’t respect are the radical ideologues who consistently browbeat those who disagree with them and wilfully ignore the real difficulties faced by a vast number of autistic people.


Autism is a disability first and foremost. It should never become another edgy identity label for people which is sadly what is happening in certain sections of the neurodiversity movement. When autism is so severe, it can be deeply troubling to see. I’ve seen kids and adults who are incontinent and have to wear diapers, who smash their skulls against walls, who have frequent epileptic fits and who have a very poor quality of life despite all the provisions made for them. This is quite clearly not a social justice or intersectional issue and to pretend otherwise is to be deeply dishonest. Autism this severe does in fact merit a lot of scientific investigation and potential treatments, not necessarily “cures”, to mitigate dangerous and disturbing behaviours.

In Beijing, TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation), which is a safe, non-invasive treatment used often to treat mental illnesses, is being used in one of the city’s main hospitals to mitigate the worst symptoms of the condition in order that the most disabled autistic people can live better quality lives. There is some evidence to suggest this is efficacious.

For me, as a mildly autistic young man, it’s a very different story of course. I don’t want TMS and if I were to have it, it would be to treat my depression which has plagued me since before I can remember. My Asperger’s is a part of me, even if the social difficulties it entails limit me in my interactions a lot of the time. But I am worried that the fringe elements of the social justice and neurodiversity movements are prone to fanaticism and will insist that any hint of treatment or alteration of the sacred autistic ‘identity’ is somehow ‘fascist’ or ‘eugenicist’. In its moralising crusade, it will aggressively oppose any treatments and medical interventions for the most disabled autistic people. This, in my view, is a thoroughly wrong-headed approach. While I understand and appreciate that mildly autistic people do like their autistic label—that should never trivialise the condition for those that are so limited in their functioning and overall quality of life.

Neurodiversity, like many identity movements, while noble in its intentions, buys into the myth of human solvability and implies that, with the correct accommodations, autistic people will be absolutely fine and problem-free. But the issue is far more complex than that and the question of whether autism should be accommodated, treated, or even cured remains an important part of legitimate debate. This requires people to set aside their prejudices and preconceived ideas and engage into a dialogue with those with whom they may disagree or even hate. The future of those living with autism depends upon it.

Filed under: Features, Human Rights, Neurodiversity

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Thomas Clements is a 29-year-old shop assistant from the UK with Asperger's Syndrome. He has recently written a book entitled 'The Autistic Buddha' which details his experiences of the condition and how Buddhist meditative practices have helped him live a nobler and more peaceful existence on the autism spectrum. The book is due to be released at the end of the year by 'Your Stories Matter', an imprint which specialises in the storytelling of people with neurodevelopmental disabilities.

24 Comments

  1. Neurodiversity aka Marxism for mental handicaps. Don’t buy into it Marxism has proven to be a illogical dead end of a philosophy. Firstly you should never feel ashamed for being who you are especially sense it is the only thing you can ever be. Secondly society can worsen a problem by creating extra stresses but those stresses have a core of cause outside of that of society. A way to look at it is if you have a bruised arm and someone touches it then it will hurt but if it isn’t bruised and someone touches your arm it wont hurt. The concern I have about “curing” such things in society is it may well be a situation like the movie serenity as it is those of us with not normal minds that have created the advances of society for the last 8 thousands years. Lastly just one though linked to last statement there is no fine line between genius and insanity the one that makes the one possible makes the other possible as well.

  2. Thanks for the great perspective. We have to remember that autism is a hard-wired, structural difference that has proven genetic underpinnings.

    One note: homosexuality was removed as a disorder in 1973, not the ‘late 80s’. And another thing to remember is that paranoia, heart disease, and a host of other menatl and physical ailments were ascribed to homosexuality, which we know are not because of autism but either unrelated or because of attitudes toward it. The same is true of autism: so much lies under the autism umbrella that really needs to be reevaluated, but our understanding of the brain is still very much in its infancy.

    Attitudes toward differences matter.

    • Karin says

      Oy vey! Dave, that is ridiculous. There is a whole world out there of people who have differing opinions and attitudes from yours. Shocking, but true.

  3. My own thoughts about this subject are too longwinded / well-developed to fit as a comment here, but you can find them in Chapter 2 at http://www.pseudoexpertise.com along with other relevant material.

    I would just add that getting very angry (and violent) at different viewpoints is a famous sometimes symptom of mercury poisoning and I reckon the odds are very much that the prevalence of such intolerance in younger generations (safe spaces, trigger warnings, snowflakes, “words are violence”, criminalisation of supposed “hate speech” etc.) is due to the same excessive mercury that has caused various other changes in recent decades.

    • Paolo says

      I suspect mercury poisoning is not a plausible explanation of the phenomena you mention. Violence, and maybe therefore the most intense forms of anger, has been constantly declining in our societies, contrary to what one would expect after the Mercury thesis.

  4. What an interesting post, thanks for sharing your perspective! I am familiar with the “ableist” movement but had no idea the strong debate going on within the autistic community over this. I agree with you that it’s not right in all cases to just accommodate the person. And certainly not right to denigrate those yearning for a cure for autism.

    The close-mindedness you describe is akin to what I encounter among feminists who I try to have reasoned debate with. It rarely happens, as they just do not want to hear someone, another woman no less, saying that our society is not systemically sexist against women and we are not being oppressed by some invisible patriarchy and that to be taught this actually takes power away from us as individuals.

    Different “victim” group but same tactic all under a Marxist umbrella. Good for you for being aware and speaking out.

  5. Matthew Young says

    You sound like me and I always thought I was just politically incorrect, a family trait. I must see a shrink soon, someone once told me I might have your condition. Knowing I have it won’t help, I would be politically incorrect about it.

  6. Makes a lot of sense. People would, and often do, want cures or treatment for some symptoms you mention such as incontinence and arm-scratching. It’s not considered ableist to sell incontinence pads or prescribe creams for eczema. So why should it be different when those same symptoms are produced by autism.

  7. Eliza says

    Thank you so much for this article. I have a son who was diagnosed with “severe” ASD at 2&1/2. I’ve lost count of how many times I have been abused on internet forums, called a “bad mother” and accused of “traumatising” my child, and even blocked – because we do ABA. This is despite the fact that my son, who is now 6&1/2, is “verbal”, independent with many skills, can interact with others, attends a mainstream school and is doing really well academically, but most importantly is witty, loving, affectionate, and a really amazing little guy. He wants to be a paleontologist or a museum curator, and no doubt, knows more about dinosaurs than his science teacher. We are not trying to cure our son’s ASD – we are simply trying to unlock his full potential. What the “neurodiversity” movement advocates (no therapy, just learn to accept your child the way they are) is quite simply negligent.

    • Braxton says

      I think you might be misinformed about what we actually believe about therapy. The majority of autistic adults are against ABA, not all therapy. We are against ABA because it teaches us to be compliant, not independent. Because it makes us more anxious and so on and so on. I won’t fill up this space with an ABA rant.

      What I will say is that we are totally fine with occupational therapy, speech therapy, and any other assortment of therapies that are not geared around behavior modification and compliance, and founded on the premise that we autistic people are not actually people and that ABA is about building a person. ABA came out of some VERY toxic opinions and still caries much of it’s abusive baggage today.

  8. Peggy Jaeger says

    I too have felt the attacks from people who identify theirselves as autistic because to them, to be seeking cures is in the genocide aspect for them. Trying to have a conversation about the different kinds of Autism is futile as is telling them no one wants to do away with them. They lack the capacity to comprehend it.

    In the early years of our grandson’s life, in the Mid 1990’s, I was online a lot in several list boards about Autism or disabilities and they were always attacked by the Autist’s who thought we meant to annihilate them when we were seeking cures for the results of encephalitis in the brain brought upon our children by vaccines. They just do Not or would not or could not understand the difference between a diversity caused by a medical mal practice and an unknown factor causing brain changes in DNA in utero, aka, Kanner’s Classic Autism. Those who posted in scathing replies on such list boards with the claim of being Autists, were ..almost…always highly emotional with their own lives in mind as comparisons. A few weren’t so unwilling to listen and were deeply thoughtful and empathetic.

    As the years have gone by and the research scientists with the alternative therapies have advanced their studies, many new things about causes have come to light that would apply to both Kanners Classic Autism and the Autism caused by vaccines that might be leading to that cure as being partially from health conditions of the Mother that were never investigated nor diagnosed, the long trail may be coming to a definitive end. But more as a Preventive than changing a body already forming in utero or having been already born or even those damaged by vaccines.

    Hereby letting it be known, our alternative therapies have helped many many millions of affected children to gain more of their potential. The terminology needs to be changed from ‘cure’ to alleviating and healing. The causes most of us in the groups believing vaccines caused a dreadful brain encephalitis, will go on the same as if it were…a broken arm.

    From grandma peg

    • Braxton says

      Vaccines DO NOT cause Autism. This has been thoroughly debunked multiple times, and Andrew Wakefield is a fraud.

      And the “alternative therapies” that you anti-vaxxers claim help us often are harmful, and have killed some of us. Chelation therapy, unscientific diets, bleach enemas etc.

      You people and your misinformed crusade against science actively causes suffering for us, and frankly you should be made to feel bad and like you are advocating genocide, because, despite your good intentions, you are spreading misinformation that both harms autistic people and causes the spread of preventable diseases, which can kill immuno-compromised people, children in utero and infants.

      And no, we don’t lack the capacity to understand anything. If anyone is lacking any capacity it’s you lacking capacity to understand how your anti-science beliefs cause us to literally suffer and die.

  9. The problem isn’t really the concept of neurodiversity, nor the movement.

    This is typical of all human identity groups.

    The map is not the territory.

    The group is not the theory.

    None of them are the condition itself.

    .

  10. Claudia Mazzucco says

    Dear Thomas Clements,

    Have you ever been asked “what is the difference between yourself and someone without autism”? Which term exactly would you choose to define your differences with those you call (for no reason at all in my humble opinion) “Neuro-Typicals”?

    I am careful always not to disturb other people personal beliefs but when their beliefs have a negative impact in their lives, causing such pain and distress, is it not time to change them?

    A person is not blunt to the point of rudeness because he/she has Asperger Syndrome. I would compare such a notion as akin to believing that Stephen Padock has become a mass-murderer in Las Vegas because an evil spirit took possession of his soul.

  11. lauraparishealingartscom says

    I am a mother of a child who may be ASD, and is certainly “neuro-atypical”, and this was posted on my birthday and fell into my lap somehow…. Such a thought-provoking topic! We moved cities in January this year so our son could attend a school that not only accommodates, but very consciously nurtures, the neurodiverse, as well as those who learn differently. Additionally, the small school is known as the only safe high school for transgender in our very progressive county, and trans youth are also part of the population. It’s middle and high school. My short experience with this neurodiverse community is that it has been enormously successful for my now 13 year old. For so many years in conventional and “alternative” schools he was viewed as a problem, and now he is flourishing and most of all happy. Accepting his differences and learning to work WITH them instead of AGAINST them has been the best for him, in school and at home. It doesn’t help any of us to focus on potential cause, pathology, or even diagnosis. I speak as an outsider, and look forward to when my son is older and has developed thoughts on this topic. I know how important it is to have “tribes” in communities that are marginalized or oppressed. This school is not about forming a neurodiverse tribe as it is about serving a very underserved population, successfully and safely. But, a tribe forms nonetheless.

  12. I have Asperger’s, which is considered a disability.

    However, if I was non-autistic and thought I could cure Asperger’s by hugging autistic kids or pumping bleach up their arses I would be considered normal.

    I’ll take autism, thanks.

  13. I have to agree with this. I have very severe ADHD (I have to rely on Ritalin and Strattera to function like a normal person), and I’ve been told by people that I just “think different”, and my mom bought into that “indigo child” crap for years before taking me to a Neurologist to get treated properly. I wouldn’t wish this disorder on my worst enemy.

  14. Danni says

    My little one is almost 4 and started a Verbal Behaviour ABA programme at 2 and 10 months. The programme is play based and he absolutely loves his therapy team. When they arrive the fun begins! It’s time people understood that ABA has evolved. It is no longer something that causes anxiety or just makes people compliant and not independent (Braxtons comments). In fact it has the complete opposite effect. My son is so happy and doesn’t even realise he’s having therapy as it’s all delivered through play. When ABA is done the right way the child will be having fun. How can supporting a child to learn how to talk be taking away independence or causing anxiety? Surely this is how independence can be achieved and reduce anxiety by being unable to communicate your needs. AbA is used to teach new skills to enable independence such as to help potty train, learn to feed yourself, get dressed etc. I am not trying to cure my son of autism. I don’t believe this is possible and I adore him just as he is. I just want him to be able to be as independent as possible when we are no longer here to support him. I also don’t stop his self stimulatory behaviours unless they self injurious or dangerous to others. ABA has helped me find ways to help him replace these dangerous behaviours with something equally satisfying but not harmful. My advice is always use a BCBA and if you tell your consultant you are unhappy about any aspect of the programme they should be more than willing to change it. Parents looking to help their children lead a more independent life shouldn’t be made to feel guilty. We love our children which is why we are trying to help them.

  15. sam rush says

    As someone with an ASD diagnosis, this rings true. I feel that a baseline acceptance of ASDs is important for society in as much as such disorders are a permanent feature of the landscape and everyone has to be able to get on with their lives, but the overshoot that results in romanticism, importing the autistic with special perspectives and abilities and so on, masks the real pathologies of these disorders and might dissuade people from getting necessary help.

    I’d like to point out that despite better understanding, the quality of life of people growing up with ASDs is probably getting worse rather than better. Among other things personal computers, video games etc. can indulge obsessive interests/stimulation-seeking to an unlimited extent, so people with obsessive temperaments as part of their ASD are at risk of addiction and personal dysfunction. Technology generates compulsive behaviours even for NTs (phone checking, mobile games etc.) so the danger to the vulnerable is extreme. Dissociating from social interaction is also easy due to generous safety nets and lack of oversight. In all it’s very easy to fall into a black hole that swallows your life, hence it’s probably best that parents take interventionistic, controlling approaches when raising young autistic children, including therapy and training, even if the process looks ugly from the outside. Doing too little is definitely worse.

    I’m sceptical of accommodation as a social strategy, especially in business. Those on the left sometimes fall into the trap of treating businesses as social vehicles, forgetting that a business exists to make money and if it doesn’t, it fails, hurting everyone involved. The hard truth is that unless people with ASDs can reliably be made to generate a net profit that offsets the internal burdens of accommodation (HR, mentoring, counterfactual hiring etc.), they don’t belong anywhere in a business. It’s not fair to business owners or shareholders to have to absorb the costs of helping certain groups. Externalising the costs to the taxpayer through subsidy is hardly fairer, unless it can be shown as being cheaper than welfare.

    Acceptance and a degree of normalisation is going to be important for those with ASD going forward (especially since many people are having kids older, causing rates of many congenital disorders to rise), but tolerating or praising dysfunctional behaviour creates a perverse incentive and can only lead to lower quality of life for the affected. A final word to activist types interested in treating the autistic well: some autistic people just want to try to exist as human beings and not be socially marked if avoidable, especially amongst strangers. For people with social anxiety, having a “problem” label and different treatment can be brutally unpleasant (not least because it makes social interactions *more* complex). If you want to do the best thing, it might be better to privately ask someone that you know to have an ASD about how they prefer to be treated. Their reply may surprise you.

  16. Carl Sageman says

    I am married to an Asperger. I have a child who is an Asperger. I’d like to share my story and I feel my advice could have helped the author.

    Firstly, we are all on the spectrum by definition (that’s an error in the article). Secondly, I’m going to differentiate Autism and Aspergers (DSM5 no longer recognises Aspergers). Aspergers are high functioning autistics (HFA). Autistics (lower functioning autistics) are significantly problematic. Aspergers are not.

    I do not support social justice in the slightest. It undermines the individual and labels them. When I first realised my child was Aspergers, I had two choices, molly coddle or help shape an independent child who was not a victim. I mention victims because social justice creates victims “you are a victim because you are/have …”.

    I learned my child’s limitations first. I worked on strategies to address them. I found occupational therapy to be exceptional for self-management. I realised early on that we all need to conform, my child included. The world does not accommodate each and every difference. So, most aids were evaluated very carefully. We rejected coloured cards (it discourages talking), a wiggle cushion helped (its the equivalent to kids chewing pens or twirling hair). Training is always better than a gadget. Only you or the family can make that assssment.

    After several years of guiding my child through body language, audible queues, personal space, language pacing, word choice, my child started to master the routine. Evenrually, my child went on to win school student representative by a wide margin. That never would have happened a few years ago, especially if I encouraged a victim mentality.

    How? I enabled my child. I never told my child they were a victim. Aspergers is different but ok if managed. I told my child they must conform to work with others (and in reality, we all need to do this). We coached social interaction. We coached “it’s ok to be different, we all are in some way”. We openly discussed strengths and weaknesses and Aspergers.

    Much of what you said was good. However, you have that victim language (I’m different, society should cater to me). As another commenter said, this sounds like another prominent social justice group who I firmly oppose (starts with “f”).

    I now have a well adjusted, self regulating, confident, enabled, independent Asperger who is proud of their uniqueness.

    If I had a rough checklist, it would be
    – no victimhood, minimal special treatment (eg. By teachers)
    – understand limitations and seek training to cope with or eliminate limitations (eg. Time out space to escape noisy environments).
    – minimise gimmicks, seek very specific aids (less is better)
    – conformance but independence is essential
    – socialisation and training on social queues are essential
    – try to avoid underestimating an Asperger. Expectations make a significant difference.
    – if there’s a trade off between superficial society expectations and your (your child’s) whims, give society the benefit -in other words,pick your battles carefully. Society always copes better with similarity rather than difference.

    This advice won’t work on Autistics. I’ve applied it on quite a few Aspergers with positive results.

    Note: I rushed this post. There may be obvious errors in it. Sorry!

  17. Pingback: Response to a Critic of the Neurodiversity Movement | Age of Neurodiversity

  18. Also an Aspie here, with Type 2 Bipolar as a bonus gift from nature (inherited the first from my father’s side, the latter from my mother’s). I think very much the same as you regarding the Autistic spectrum. It should not be sugarcoated when it is serious. I can’t begin to imagine what a “cure” would look like, even in my Asperger, much less in severe autism. One is just wired so differently. But there is plenty of treatment and management for symptoms available.

    There is some room for activism towards awereness about people who are “high functioning” (though not that high). It would be a lot better for my life if I could “out” myself at work without repercussions. Much better than skirting, pretending, letting other people misunderstand you (fortunately, I have a government job, otherwise my lack of interpersonal skills and low productivity would have left me unemployed). I think I can relate to the time when gay people had to be “in the closet”.

    But the in-your-face, fuck-you-bigot identity politics is something to which I will always say “not in my name”.

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