Wednesday February 16, 2022 — Taipei, Taiwan

The term “neurodiversity” has recently become somewhat popular. In doing so, though, it seems to have lost some of its original meaning, which I think is unfortunate. Wikipedia writes:

Neurodiversity, or ND, refers to variation in the human brain regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood and other mental functions in a non-pathological sense.

The article that coined the term is a interesting read as well:

Until recently, [neurotypicals] have had the privilege of believing that their form of wiring was the standard for the human brain.

The common assumption in cognitive studies these days is that the human brain is the most complicated two-and-a-half pounds of matter in the known universe. With so much going on in a brain, the argument goes, the occasional bug is inevitable: hence autism and other departures from the neurological norm. ISNT suggests another way of looking at this. Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general.

However, as the term has grown in popularity, it has also started to lose much of its original meaning — I frequently see people use the term “neurodiverse” to mean specifically people who have any one of a handful of particular conditions listed in the DSM (typically, autism, ADHD, ADD, etc). We already have terms for these things. Being “diagnosed” as neurodiverse is meaningless, because the term itself was created in fundamentally opposition to the medicalization and pathologization of normal variation the way people’s brains work.

Further than that, talking about a individual person being “neurodiverse” is similarly meaningless — diversity is a property of an ensemble, not a individual. The idea behind neurodiversity is to recognize that there is wide variation in the way brains operate, and that specific forms of operation aren’t inherently good or bad, but rather better or worse at working towards particular goals within particular contexts. Being “neurotypical” simply means having a brain that operates in a way works well within the current societal context one is in.

The goal of using the framing of “neurodiversity” in advocacy, then, should be to recognize that while no context will work best for everyone, everyone has the right to operate in a context that will work well for them. When society is arranged around assumptions about how people’s focus, energy, attention and mood operate that are not reflective of reality, we should not require that people change, but instead change the environment so that all sorts of people are able to thrive.

Using the term “neurodiverse” as a way of describing “mentally ill” without implying a diagnosis does disservice to the fundamental ideas that make “neurodiversity” a useful framing in the first place.