Understanding Neurodiversity: A Model of Disability

Neurodiversity is a concept that has its roots in the social model of disability, which views disability as a civil rights issue. This model rejects the notion that an individual must be “normal” to experience the full range of human experiences, and instead holds that an impediment should not be a barrier to inclusion or access. The term “neurodiversity” was first used in the 1990s by Judy Singer, an Australian graduate student in sociology, after reading a book on the social model of disability. This book proposed that disability is a product of how society is organized, and not of the limitations imposed by an individual's condition.In a world without wheelchair ramps or accessible buildings, wheelchair users have very few options about where they can go.

However, in a world that accommodates wheelchair users, they have many more options. Neurodiversity extends this social model of disability to the realm of cognitive differences, such as autism, dyslexia and ADHD. The Neurodiversity Movement is a social justice movement that seeks civil rights, equality, respect and full social inclusion for neurodivergent people.Previously (and in many places today), neurological differences such as autism or ADHD were considered medical deficits. Neurodiversity is an alternative approach to learning and disability that shifts the focus from treatment and cures to acceptance and adaptation.

By the end of the decade, I expect to see universities establish research centers on neurodiversity, degrees in neurodiversity studies and chairs in neurodiversity studies.The language of neurodiversity is being used more and more to talk about accepting and supporting autistic differences. While therapies such as ABA (applied behavioral analysis) are quite controversial because they focus on “curing autism” rather than helping the neurodivergent individual, there are many people who believe both in neurodiversity and in the assistance of medicine and therapy.On the contrary, while they have some superficial overlap with Szasz in the sense that they challenge pathologization, the perspective of neurodiversity and my ecological model present a novel philosophical position that is equally at odds with conventional psychiatry and the Szazzian tradition (including its various ramifications). Respecting neurodiversity means listening to autistic adults and taking them seriously when they tell us that the psychological cost of adapting generally outweighs the benefits.In my own work, I developed the ecological model of functioning to help clarify and formalize the theoretical basis for the emerging change in the scientific paradigm and to challenge the default pathologization of neurodivergence. Although Singer's chapter was relatively brief, it had a great influence on the movement, and I consider it another of the fundamental texts of the theory of neurodiversity.To that end, the citations and resources below provide an introduction to neurodiversity, the social model of disability and design for real life.

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