The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Sarah Hopp

Why neurodiversity is not a diagnosis

Misuse of the term neurodiversity can promote a ‘them and us’ attitude, Sarah Hopp argues. Instead, she explains how to truly embrace our differences and uniqueness.

In recent years, the term ‘neurodiversity’ coined by Judy Singer in 1998 has become prevalent in educational literature and policy and in social media. It has been used by different professionals, parents and students in numerous contexts, however, careful consideration of the term is required if neurodiversity is to be accurately understood.

Infinitely different minds in infinitely different bodies

Singer (1998) recognised the infinite variation in different types of minds that reside within equally diverse bodies, embracing a wide understanding of what it means to be human and highlighting the complexities and uniqueness of the human condition.

She states that neurodiversity acknowledges that ‘…every human has a unique nervous system with a unique combination of abilities and need’ accentuating the argument that we are all dignified human beings and as such deserve mutual respect.

Vulnerability is not a weakness

Singer also highlights that neurodiversity is an amoral concept: none of us are morally perfect, as diverse creatures we can all choose to do good or bad, we all have our positive and negative days, our gifts and our vulnerabilities.

We all share then, a certain vulnerability as part of the human condition and I believe that it is this vulnerability that can unify and teach us if we truly and respectfully listen to each other.

Neurodiversity: a political movement, not a diagnosis

It is respect and recognition that the neurodiversity movement strives for in the workplace. Singer understood that people with different kinds of minds were oppressed in the same way that women and gay people were and that neurologically diverse people required a social movement, so she chose the term ‘neurodiversity’, a shortened version of ‘neurological diversity’ as a catchphrase for the movement.

Singer (2020) states that the term ‘neurodiversity’ is not a psycho-medical diagnosis for an individual nor a tool for dividing people into groups. She states ‘you can't say Worker A is "neurodiverse" while Worker B is not. If Worker A has identified themselves with a specific syndrome, e.g. autism, they can be called "autistic". But they are no more neurodiverse than anyone else on the planet.’

Rather, Singer coined the term ‘neurodiversity’ for two specific political functions.

  1. To promote an acknowledgement and understanding of the sophisticated and complex inter-relatedness of the human condition.
  2. To suggest an umbrella term for the social and political work for the Autistic Self-Advocacy Movement. 

Neurodivergent vs neurotypical

Inter-relatedness in this sense is the interconnected nature of the social dimension of an individual’s situational context such as a person’s psychological and biological disposition, culture, class, gender and sexuality. This interconnected nature is completely unique as no single person will have the same disposition or life experiences.

A similar approach comes from the social philosopher Martha Nussbaum (2006), in her version of the Capabilities Approach, a theoretical framework that has two normative claims.

  1. That the freedom to achieve wellbeing is of primary moral importance.
  2. That wellbeing should be understood in terms of people’s capabilities, and their being and doing has at its core individual dignity, value, and respect.  

As our dignity is in our uniqueness, therein lies the mutual respect we should have for each other without judgement and without prejudice. Often, I read in educational reports, in literature or on social media phrases such as ‘she is not neurotypical, she is neurodivergent’, creating groups of people, and promoting a ‘them and us’ attitude.  

In contrast, I suggest that both Singer and Nussbaum might argue that there is no such being as a ‘neurotypical’ person, there is no ‘normal’ as no two human beings are exactly alike.

Depending on our individual positionality and context, our functioning and capabilities, our beings and doings may be prevented from evolving if the environment within which we find ourselves excludes us or does not enable us to flourish.

Understanding the concept of neurodiversity may encourage individuals, especially in education and work and institutions, to reflect upon their biases both conscious and unconscious and provide a more conducive learning or working environment that encompasses all different kinds of ways of thinking and being.

What does neurodiversity mean to me?

I’m dyspraxic. For me, neurodiversity involves recognising the complex intersecting factors that make me who I am including my interactions with my family, friends and work colleagues and my life experiences. 

On an individual level I think neurodiversity has a slightly different meaning for different people as we all have diverse perspectives and ways of thinking and being. Instead of a single truth, there is an individual’s reality, created by the factors influencing emotions, thoughts, and beliefs, whether they be good or bad which in turn influence an individual’s perspectives on life and interaction with others and it is constantly evolving.

On an institutional level, neurodivergent inclusivity means embracing a broad and real definition of being human and true acceptance and celebration of the uniqueness and dignity of the individual gifts that people may bring to the society within which they reside. To achieve this, institutions need to be open minded to divergent and creative thought, they need to be good listeners, supportive and ready to evolve.

The concept of neurodiversity should encourage healthy debate and conversation to improve understanding and create change. As society changes and evolves through dialogue around neurodiversity so the definition of neurodiversity should be reflected upon and evolve too.

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