I've been using the word “neurodiversity” a lot on this blog. I always meant to write a whole post about what it means to me. However, I hadn't gotten around to it until a reader asked me about it this afternoon.
It's finally time to write that post!
What neurodiversity is
The word “neurodiversity” means two different (but related) things.
The first meaning is the idea that different people's brains work differently. This is just a fact. Human brains have many variations. Some of them, we understand scientifically. Others, we don't.
The second meaning is the neurodiversity movement. This says that brain differences don't just exist – they are natural and valuable.1 It says we should support people with all different kinds of brains. Sometimes, brain differences come with problems, and we should find good ways to handle those problems. Sometimes, they come with advantages, and we should make good use of those advantages. Usually, they come with both.
Our society labels some ways of thinking as “normal”. When we talk about people who think in a “normal” way, we say they are neurotypical. When we talk about people who think in a way that's labeled “not normal”, we say they are neurovariant or neurodivergent. These aren't rigid categories, though. Different cultures have different opinions about what's “normal”. It can change from place to place or generation to generation. Also, some traits, like autism, exist on a spectrum. A person can be more autistic or less autistic. If a person only has a few autistic traits, it's not obvious whether to call zem “neurovariant” or “neurotypical”. These words are more useful for talking about general categories. If you want to find out how to describe a specific person, the best way is to ask them.
Discrimination against neurovariant people is called neurelitism, mentalism, or sanism. These are umbrella terms. They include all kinds of brain differences. They can apply to both major and minor issues.
What neurodiversity implies
Neurodiversity means asking your friends how they feel. You might sometimes be able to tell by looking at their face or their body language, but that doesn't always work. So ask. And if they tell you something that seems unnatural to you, trust them. Don't assume that they are dishonest or deluded.2
Neurodiversity means planning activities that appeal to introverts as well as extroverts. Huge, noisy gatherings appeal to some people. Small, quiet ones appeal to others. It means that acting like an extrovert is not the only form of “happiness”. It means not telling people what they are “supposed” to want.
Neurodiversity means accepting that not everyone will take part in every activity. Imagine you're hosting a party, or teaching a class, or running a conference. It's okay to propose a “fun” activity or an “icebreaker” game, but if someone says ze doesn't want to play, that's it. You must immediately accept that and move on, even if you don't think ze “has a good reason” to avoid the game. When you're dividing up work, neurodiversity means being ready to compromise and seek alternate solutions. Some things that are easy for you can be hard for others. Neurodiversity means not saying that a person is lazy if ze is too depressed to work, or that a person is selfish if ze can't do a certain task because of past trauma. It means accepting all of those things even if ze hasn't told you exactly what the problem is. It's not zir job to tell you zir psychological profile before you respect zem. Sometimes ze might not even be able to explain the issue in a way that you understand.
Neurodiversity means understanding that even if something doesn't hurt you, it can still hurt others. You might be able to ignore flickering lights, or background noise, or lack of background noise, or the smell of perfume, or the presence of cats or dogs. For some people, those things are overwhelming, or interfere with their ability to function. Neurodiversity means accommodating other people's needs, even if you can't see those needs.
Neurodiversity means giving trigger warnings before talking about things that can be traumatic. You usually don't know whether people are struggling with PTSD or self-harm or suicidal thoughts. Trigger warnings or content notices give them the chance to prepare, or to avoid the topic when they need to. It's better to let them choose when to engage, by giving notices, rather than to bring it up unexpectedly or to avoid difficult subjects entirely.
Neurodiversity means not making too many assumptions. It means not saying a person is “stupid” just because ze has trouble using a language. It means not saying a person is “immature” just because ze gets upset when you disrupt zir routine. It also means not assuming that a person doesn't have a mental disability just because you don't notice anything unusual about zem.
Neurodiversity means recognizing that brain differences are often good. Some traits are labeled as “mental illnesses”, “disabilities”, or “disorders”. However, it's up to each individual person to decide whether those labels fit. Neurodiversity means not calling a person's trait a “disability” unless ze calls it a disability zemself. It means not trying to “cure” someone if ze doesn't ask for it. It means valuing the perspectives of autistic people and allistic (non-autistic) people, extroverts and introverts, trans people and cis people, people with strong empathy and people with no empathy, sexuals and asexuals, multiples and singlets, people with spiritual instincts and those without.
Neurodiversity means not judging people for their feelings, even if you think those feelings are scary. It means not saying “pedophile” when you mean “child molester”, because people don't choose who they're attracted to.3 It means not stigmatizing people for their anger or obsessiveness or lack of empathy. The only real thing to judge is whether they actually hurt people or not. It means not writing people off as “attention-seeking”, because there's nothing wrong with trying to get some attention, especially if you're in distress.4
Neurodiversity means understanding that some people may enjoy things that you find disgusting, and some people may be disgusted by things you enjoy. It means that both of those are okay as long as you don't try to push your preferences onto each other. It means not trying to insist that some consensual sexual behaviors are “normal” and others are “perverted”. It means not ridiculing people from different cultural backgrounds, even if their traditions seem weird to you.
Neurodiversity means knowing that no story can have a truly “universal” message. A love story will not include a reader who is aromantic. A story about the folly of arrogance will not include a reader who struggles with feelings of worthlessness. What about a story about a person who fights with zir parents, but later comes to accept them? It will not include the reader who rejected zir abusive parents and completely cut ties with them. And the story about a person who fights back against abusers will not include a reader who is too empathetic to be willing to hurt anyone. Neurodiversity means believing that all those readers exist, and that they all matter. If you're a writer, it means finding ways to write about the experiences of all kinds of people, not just the most common ones.
And most of all, neurodiversity means talking about how we perceive the world. I had one conversation about neurodiversity where it turned out that some of us had visual snow and others didn't. The people who did have it hadn't known that most people didn't have it. But imagine a world where these kinds of conversations were normal and everyday. Imagine all the little secrets we would know about each other. Imagine a world where children grow up knowing how to talk about brain differences. Imagine them coming to understand other people so much better. In our world, neurotypical people often fear and abuse neurovariant people, but imagine that they simply understood them instead. In our world, brain damage can sometimes make people behave violently, but imagine that it was normal to help those people instead of isolating them until they get worse. Really, most of the problems in the world are caused, one way or another, by human brains. And how can we solve any problem if we don't know how to talk about it?
And once you've imagined that world, go out and make it real.
Some more resources about specific issues(This is a just list of some of my favorite resources that I know about. It's not comprehensive or anything.)
- Multiplicity: Healthy Multiplicity. the Zyfron system's educational (and super cute) webcomic.
- Trans stuff: Questioning Transphobia – an activist blog, with links to lots of other trans resources.
- Autism: The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network.
- Asexuality: The Asexual Visibility and Education Network.
- Empathy: I don't know of any sites that I like enough to recommend, but I wish I did. Empathy differences are probably the least-explored issue out of any of these. A lot of people are still happy to say that “not having emotional empathy” is the same as “being completely evil”. That is kinda... not true, and also a pretty horrible thing to say.
- Introversion: I don't know of any good introvert self-advocacy sites, but I bet they exist. Do you know of any? I'll try to find one I like and edit it into this post.
- A historical note: The word “neurodiversity” was first used in the autistic self-advocacy movement. Some people still use it to refer only (or mostly) to autism. “Neurodiversity” is obviously the right word for the broader ideas that I'm describing in this post, so if you don't think it means that already, I hereby steal it. back
- Especially because, when people lie about themselves, they usually choose lies that sound natural to most people. back
- Also, as far as I've heard, most child molesters aren't pedophiles. They target children because children are easy targets, not because they have any particular attraction to them. And why are children easy targets? It's not just because they are physically smaller and weaker. It's because other adults already told them to be ashamed of sexual things, so they're less likely to report the assaults. And it's because other adults might not believe the children if they do report. This is especially true for neurovariant children. Child molesters often target neurovariant children because they know that neurotypical adults are less likely to believe or protect those children. back
- People say this line a lot when female teenagers make suicide attempts. Usually, a person doesn't do that when ze doesn't have major problems in zir life. If you ignore zem or ridicule zem because ze's “just looking for attention”, you might be part of the problem . back