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Models of Disability: Foundational Principles of Neurodiversity

In our last article, we discussed the brief definitions of what neurodiversity is. Today, we hope to investigate the foundations of neurodiversity!


Before we tackle those questions, let’s realize what we’re talking about here. The neurodiversity movement does not define an exhaustive list of conditions or differences that people must experience to be considered neurodivergent; the avoidance of gatekeeping is the essence of the inclusive practices involved in the neurodiversity movement.


A Harvard Medical School study found that close to 46% of the entire American population is considered neurodivergent, even if these individuals are unaware right now. The experiences of the neurodiversity umbrella include neurodevelopmental conditions, neurologic conditions, and psychiatric disorders. Often, many of the communities falling under this umbrella have distinctive groups with histories of advocacy themselves. If there’s one key takeaway you get from this podcast today, it’s that neurodiversity isn’t a small movement. It’s a movement that advocates for the inclusion, acceptance, and destigmatization of almost 46% of the population with conditions and learning differences. That is the PRECISE reason why we’re asking you to listen. Now let’s dive in!


Neurodiversity is a cultural response to the specialized treatment options for various symptoms. It represents a social collective focused on improving the environment and stigmatization of neurodivergent individuals, while many medical and psychiatric approaches focus on curing the symptoms.


The term “neurodiversity” originates from a myriad of autistic activists in the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, as our team researched the past categorizations and specifications regarding neurodiversity, we found that United States-Hungarian psychiatrist Thomas Szasz released his book “The Myth of Mental Illness” in 1961, which rose to the top of anti-psychiatry movements. Szasz claimed that mental illnesses were not real in the sense that cancer was objectively real. Mental disorders, with few exceptions (e.g., neurodegenerative changes in Alzheimer’s disease), lack objective methods of diagnosis.


In this regard, diagnosis in psychiatry is meant to sustain the opinion of the people that provided the original criteria. According to Szasz, psychiatry deals with opinionated assertions rather than scientific tenets; the medical model of disability forced discrimination against those now considered neurodiverse. Psychiatrists from around the world joined in this criticism.


Almost thirty years later, the movement of neurodiversity truly developed. Jim Sinclar at the 1993 International Conference on Autism explained the motivations and beliefs in his now-famous speech “Don’t Mourn for Us”. The thesis of the speech is essentially to treat autism as “a way of being”. Quoted, he elucidates: “Autism is a way of being. We [in reference to autistic individuals across the world] are alive. We are real. And we're here waiting for you. This is what I think autism societies should be about: not mourning for what never was, but an exploration of what is. We need you. We need your help and your understanding. Your world is not very open to us, and we won't make it without your strong support. Yes, there is tragedy that comes with autism: not because of what we are, but because of the things that happen to us. Be sad about that, if you want to be sad about something. Better than being sad about it, though, get mad about it--and then do something about it. The tragedy is not that we're here, but that your world has no place for us to be.”


While Sinclair delivers the speech targeting autistic acceptance, the term became applicable to other neurodivergent conditions, whether psychiatric or neurodevelopmental, and represented the core beliefs of the neurodiversity movement.

The word was initially used by journalist Harvey Blume and advocate Judy Singer to articulate the needs of people who wanted to be viewed with natural differences. Blume initially compared the concept to general biodiversity and its benefits, detailing how worldly perspectives encompass people with neurological differences.


The next year, Judy Singer wrote “the ‘Neurologically Different’, which represented a new addition to the familiar political categories of class, gender, race, ethnicity, and various “minorities” and provided insights into the social model of disability. The premise, as she explains, is that you are born with the “condition” and that society should create accommodations for any manifestation that generates an impediment towards social interactions, education, or work-related productivity.


This covers the basics of the foundational understandings in the neurodiversity movement! In our next informative article, we will be moving towards the lines between self-advocacy and allyship, and how to promote neurodiversity!


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