Neurodiversity is Not An Autism First Movement And Cannot Be Autism Exclusive

Disclaimer: this post is about my personal experiences with the neurodiversity movement. If others have more positive experiences, please point me in the direction of those communities. I would love to find them.

The concept of neurodiversity originated in the autism movement, and was created by an autistic person (from the research I have done, it was created by Kassiane, although as an internet term it’s a little bit difficult to know who was the first person to ever use it). Most everything I’ve ever read about neurodiversity is written by an autistic person or is focused on autism acceptance. Few mention other neurodivergences by name.

Ableism is unfortunately incredibly common, but for some reason I see a disproportionate number of conversations about ableism circulating around autism, and when people are accused of not understanding or being comfortable with neurodiversity, it’s nearly always that they have not respected autistics or their needs well enough. This first came drastically to my attention a year or so back when an autistic writer got into it with Rebecca Watson over using the phrase “too stupid to breathe,” (and apparently additional comments, although no one has been clear to me about what those comments were). It ended with Rebecca asking that writer to leave the site.

Many people have criticized Skepchick of being ableist since then, but for some reason no one brings up the fact that nearly every writer on the network has some combination of depression, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders, ADHD, dyslexia, or a personality disorder. There are many writers who write openly and often about those issues on Skepchick (including yours truly). IT is of course possible for a place to include many neurodivergent individuals and still be ableist, but it seems odd to not address those neurodivergent individuals when asking if the place is welcoming to them or not.

Note: none of this is to speak one way or the other on how that incident went down. It is to say that many other writers who are neurodivergent were blatantly ignored in the conversation. I find it telling that none of them have autism but do have mental illnesses or learning disabilities.

I’m incredibly grateful to autism advocates for starting this movement. What I’m not ok with is the way that any form of neurodivergence other than autism seems to disappear in discussions of the movement. Sometimes learning disabilities or ADHD get a shout out, but despite the fact that I am deeply enmeshed in the movement, I still find myself unsure if mental illnesses “technically” count as neurodivergences. But if anything is a sign of your brain working a little differently, chronic anxiety, depression, or a personality disorder has to be it. And if the neurodiversity movement wants to be serious about accepting and supporting all diversity, they have to be willing to accept those whose brains changed over time, not just those who were born that way.

I am multiply neurodivergent. I only found out this month that I am autistic, and still have not talked publicly about it very much. I have never felt welcome in the neurodiversity movement. I often find that my experiences are talked over by folks with autism because mental illnesses occupy a hazy status in the movement. Some people don’t want to be associated with them because they are more clearly “broken” or “disordered” than autism. That is not ok.

If someone doesn’t understand autism or isn’t willing to make certain adjustments for autistic individuals, it doesn’t seem to matter whether or not they have been strong supporters of folks with other neurodivergences. And I understand that doing well many times doesn’t fix messing up. But why aren’t we even talking about it?

The latest incident happened over at The Mighty. They posted something fairly shitty, people called them out on it, they took it down and apologized. I feel like it should have been an open and shut case, because they took full responsibility for a lapse in judgment and did what they had been asked to do. But instead, people started jumping on the ‘fuck you Mighty’ bandwagon. Now there have been a number of criticisms, some of which seem really legit (way too much inspiration porn, not enough people getting paid) and some of which I have issues with. Namely that many criticizers say that the Mighty is prioritizing parental voices over the voices of people who are autistic and disabled, and that they don’t post from people who actually are disabled.

Which is, to be honest, bullshit. The post that fucked up in the first place was written by an autistic. I write for The Mighty and I am clearly, openly, someone with not an NT brain. The one place on the Mighty that does seem to be parent dominated is autism articles, but if you look at the mental health writing it is primarily by people who have mental illnesses. For some reason that all gets ignored and talked over by the people who say that we need to have platforms for people with disabilities.

You don’t get to ignore the voices of people who don’t agree with you and act as if their identities don’t exist because they aren’t how you express your identity. There are autistic people on The Mighty who are parents and post those Mommy Blogs you hate so much. And those people are still autistic and they still have a place in the autism community. There are people on The Mighty who post useful, interesting information about how they deal with their mental illness or disability. They count as part of the neurodiverse community that we’re aiming for, even if they aren’t autistic.

And that’s true of a lot of sites that are criticized for being ableist. Other disabilities, especially things like depression, anxiety, personality disorders, or eating disorders, get ignored. Sites are criticized for not listening to disabled voices when the people being criticized ARE THEMSELVES DISABLED. This is mind boggling to me, as the neurodiversity movement purports to be helping all people who aren’t neurotypical.

If you want to have a conversation about the right and wrong ways to talk about and approach disability that’s fine. But when your criticism is “you’re not listening to disabled people and you’re silencing disabled voices” you better make damn sure that you’re not talking to any disabled people because you have just erased their identity. And I see that happening over and over in incidents when neurodiversity advocates are calling out ableism.

There are important criticisms to be made of a variety of sites that host parents of people with disabilities or even people with disabilities themselves. There is such a thing as internalized ableism, and it’s important to call out things like inspiration porn or sites that host more parents than individuals actually affected or parents sharing personal information without a child’s consent. We should talk about these things. But those sins are not the same as silencing disabled voices. They are about balance and how all people (including neurodivergent individuals) tell stories about disability. And more often than not, an organization is not all good or all bad. It is more and more common for a site to be hosting mentally ill individuals writing about their own experiences but focusing on parents instead of developmentally disabled folks. That’s a dynamic we should be talking about.

But I do not feel welcome in the neurodiversity movement when the (very real) criticisms about autism parents are allowed to eclipse any writing that I may do or the fact that there are boatloads of neurodivergent people speaking up about their (not autistic) experiences. Those experiences just don’t always match up with what neurodiversity advocates think they should be, and they often aren’t about autism. There needs to be space in neurodiversity advocates for all kinds of neurodivergence. The movement cannot prioritize the needs of autistics over anyone else. I recognize that the focus on autism comes from a history of abuse, but autistics aren’t the only ones who have lived that history. Neurodiversity movements need to do more work to accept and support the diversity part of  neurodiversity.

I want to love the neurodiversity movement. I just don’t see it loving me back.

4 thoughts on “Neurodiversity is Not An Autism First Movement And Cannot Be Autism Exclusive

  1. Jono says:

    Kassiane didn’t create the neurodiversity movement. It started as the Autism Rights Movement which later diversified to include other disorders and the Autism Rights movement itself was started in the late 1980’s by Jim Sinclair of the ANI (Autism Network International).

  2. flutistpride says:

    This comes from a mentally ill autistic with ADHD. The Mighty is a site with highly variable content quality, but the content all seems to fit a specific temperamental pattern. I take issue with this because the editors make these pieces fit a MelPhleg or MelSan temperament pattern. They don’t think of the ChlorSan’s audacious spark, a SanPhleg’s lighthearted sociability, or a PhlegChlor’s nonchalance.

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