28 Nov 2019

What is Neurodiversity?

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Hello Friend! When I started looking for Twitterers to follow about autism, I soon came across @NeuroRebel. She has been (among other things) a great inspiration to start this blog. She is someone who fights for acceptance of autism and similar characteristics. The Twitter title she uses is “Neurodivergent Rebel” and that is freely translated “Neurodiverse Rebel” and soon made me look at the term neurodiversity.

What is neurodiversity anyway? And why is it used? It’s a term first used in the late 1990s by sociologist Judy Singer and journalist Harvey Blume. They are talking about natural variations in the human brain on different fronts such as sociability, learning, attention, mood and other mental functions in a non pathological way. Pathology is disease theory, or the study of diseases. By describing autism in a non-pathological way, we try to deviate from the view that autism is a disease. Rather, it is a social handicap in a non-autistic world.

Neurodiversity contains more than just autism

Although the term was used in the late 1990s as an alternative way of looking at autism, it was later adopted to encompass more than just autism. Today, it is applied to other neurological disorders such as ADHD, developmental speech disorders, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dysnomy, intellectual retardation and Tourette’s syndrome; and mental disorders such as bipolarity, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

As you can see, it includes many different forms of deviations from what is considered normal. Neurodiversity breaks through thinking of autism (and the other conditions) as diseases. People with these conditions are not wrong or sick, but deviate from the norm that society imposes on people. It states that we are all people with something that makes us different from the people around us. Whether this is that we experience our environment differently, or that we see our own personality differently than people around us, does not make us sick.

Why would we want to use this term?

One of the most important things about the way we look at autism is whether we do this from the perception that autism is a disease, or a deviation from the norm. If we see autism as a disease (disorder or disorder), we are suggesting that we can look for a cure. Or that it is something that needs to be eradicated. Or at least that it is something that people should be afraid of.

However, if we look at autism as a form of neurodiversity, we get this stigma much less. Autism is basically a different way in which the brain works. We certainly face difficulties in a world that is not autistic. The problems we experience as autistic people are not diminished by not seeing it as a disease, but it is better to think in terms of deviating from the norm than to see it as a disease in my eyes.

If we use the term neurodiversity, we also distance ourselves from the old ideas that autism is a disease that needs to be solved. It also offers reassurance to parents and caregivers that their child is not ill.


In a 2009 study, 27 students (with autism, dyslexia, developmental coordination disorder, ADHD and stroke) were divided into two categories of self-image: ‘a’ difference ‘- in which neurodiversity was seen as a difference with a set of strengths and weaknesses, or a ‘medical/deficit’ vision - in which neurodiversity was seen as an adverse medical condition. They found that although all students reported a uniformly difficult career with exclusion, abuse and bullying, those who viewed themselves from a different perspective (41% of the study cohort) indicated higher academic self-confidence, confidence in their skills and many (73%) expressed significant career ambitions with positive and clear goals.

In 2013, an online survey was conducted on the way autism was perceived. This showed that when people looked at autism from the point of view that autism is a form of neurodiversity, people thought better about themselves and their future.

When I look at my own views on autism, I think I am clearly in the camp of “autism is not a disease, it is a different way of thinking”. It should come as no surprise then that I am a supporter of the term neurodiversity. I think it’s a much healthier view of autism, because it doesn’t label you as wrong or unhealthy. It calls you “different”.

Neurodiversity as a tribe

Man is a tribal animal. We are always looking for a group to belong to. We want to be part of something (with some exceptions) and it can sometimes be difficult to be part of a group where others classify you. In the case of autism we are sometimes classified by people as “bad” or sick. The people who are more of a burden to other people than a help. But neurodiversity offers an alternative for this. It can even be used as an alternative to say that you have autism. I don’t know if you have to do that. I have no problem telling people that I am autistic, in fact I am very open about it. Otherwise, I wouldn’t write these pieces under my own name on the “big, angry” internet.

One of my goals is to fight for acceptance of autism, and I think the term neurodiversity is one of the means to achieve this goal. Now that the term is also used by non-autists, I think it has become a stronger tribe. We are neuro atypical, we are different, we are neuro diverse. We are not sick. There is no cure. We are autistic and we are part of the neurodiversity of life. Lovely, isn’t it?

Thanks for reading
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Tags: autisme neurodiversiteit persoonlijk dit-is-autisme 
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David Westerink
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I am David, born in 1984 and I'm autistic. I write blog posts and advocate for autism acceptance. I'm willing to talk to anyone about anything.

I have my own podcast (in Dutch) about autism and neurodiversity! Checkout the AutCast!

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