This is a transcript of the video Alyssa Hillary SDS 2014 Neurodiversity 101, which is posted on Youtube as well as being my presentation at the Society for Disability Studies conference.
I'm Alyssa Hillary. Because I'm in Tianjin, China, you're getting a video of me talking instead of me actually coming and talking, and I'm talking about neurodiversity.
Neurodiversity has a few things that you could be talking about when you say this word. There's the scientific fact that not all brains are the same, and in fact, no two brains are 100% alike. Given the number of neurons and possible connections in a brain, it's really not surprising that no two brains are exactly alike. What would be surprising would be if there were two brains which were exactly alike. So that's the scientific fact. Brains are different.
There's also an activism and advocacy type movement. That started off as a subset of autistic advocacy. It's sort of a civil rights movement that started off with autistic people and has expanded. You can talk about that with bipolar now, with ADHD, with dyslexia, with a lot of the more common things that called learning disabilities. I've also seen some related to Down's Syndrome, dyspraxia... It seems to be doing fairly well in the UK, they have a Developmental Adult Neurodiversity Association.
[Cut to another shot, and there is a black box with white text above my head which reads “I am now talking about paradigms. 3rd meaning of neurodiversity)”]
Pathology is a way of looking at how brains are wired. That's the idea that there's one right, normal, or healthy way for a human brain, mind to work, or a small range, where you're close enough, that's okay, and that if your neurological configuration and functioning, and as a result, your ways of thinking and behaving are substantially different from this dominant stanard of normal, that is a sign of there being something wrong with you. That's pretty much the default way of looking at neurological differences at the moment, as opposed to the neurodiversity paradigm.
There's three main ideas for that.i One, neurodiversity, the scientific fact, the diversity of brains and minds, is a natural, healthy, and valuable form of human diversity. Two, there is no normal or right style of human mind, any more than there is one normal or right ethnicity, gender, or culture. And three, the social dynamics that manifest in regards to neurodiversity are similar to the ones that manifest in regards to other kinds of human diversity, so race, gender, culture, sexual orientation. This includes power relations like inequality, privilege, and oppression, as well as the dynamics where when diversity is embraced, creative potential and other good things happen in society.
And for some definitions of other words I'm going to be using. There's neurotype. This is culturally and socially constructed, in that no two brains are exactly the same, but if they're close enough, they'll probably be put under the same neurotype. Examples would be neurotypical- close enough to the currently privileged “normal, right, healthy” under the pathology paradigm, autistic, bipolar, dyslexic, are all examples of neurotypes. The neurotypes that are not “neurotypical”are considered neurominorities, and you can also use neurodivergence or neurodivergent to apply to said neurotypes that aren't neurotypical. So if you're autistic, or if you're epilepticii, or if you have ADHD, or if you're some combination of these, you're neurodivergent, and you could also talk about those things as forms of neurodivergence.
Along the same lines as this neurodiversity paradigm and the privilege relationships, there's also differences in how somebody behaving in the exact same way will get constructed and viewed very differently depending on the person's neurotype, and depending on the environment that they're in. This is similar to how the same behavior across genders or across cultures can be viewed very differently. A gifted student... a student who is considered gifted and is now at a high-level university who lies down on the floor at a club meeting is generally going to be treated very differently than a developmentally disabled person who lies down on the floor in their school. The person who's at, say, MIT, is probably not going to get in trouble. The person who's labelediii as developmentally disabled is very likely to get in trouble. Or how in many cases, a person who is labeled as autistic is also going to be held to a higher standard or eye contact because of the neurological differences that make it harder for us to do eye contact.
If this neurodiversity paradigm looks a lot like the social model of disability, that's not a coincidence. The neurodiversity activist movements and scholarship are very much built on broader disability scholarship and activism, in that... for one thing, we are, under the social model of disability, neurominorities are disabled. And we recognize this, and we built and apply the way that the dynamics work when its specifically a case of a neurological difference, as opposed to a difference such as a mobility issueiv. And. So. It's not a coincidence. We very deliberately have been using broader disability (and yes, neurodiversity activists who are talking about neurodiversity paradigm as opposed to groups which may, and activists which may be simply moving the line of what's considered an acceptable brain type rather than attempting to get rid of the hierarchy) those who are attempting to get rid of the hierarchy and are actually using the neurodiversity paradigm typically do recognize that we are disabled and typically do recognize that our being disabled has more to do with societal barriers than with our actual capabilities and support needs.
And similar to how disability studies in the broader sense will often talk about representation in media, both because it reveals how people are currently thinking and because it can influence how people are thinking, neurodiversity activists and neurodiversity scholars will talk about representation of neurodivergent characters in media, both those who are explicitly labeled as such and those who, while not explicity labeled, can easily be read as neurodivergent. The ones who are being read that way but are not explicitly labeled tend to be better representations than the ones who are specifically stated as such due to stereotypes and stigma and pathologization of neurominorities, in much the same way that a physically disabled character will often be treated as a plot device rather than as a full character. And much like this treatment of characters who are disabled but neurotypical is very closely interrelated with how characters... with how real disabled people are treated, these connections can also be made when the disability is neurodivergence, when it's a neurodivergent character.
[Shot change again, volume decreases and it now looks like a selfie video because it is one.]
When using oral speech, I tend to go on tangents and miss things, so addendums.
One: In terms of history, a lot of people think of Jim Sinclair's piece, Don't Mourn For Us, as being the start of the neurodiversity did not get coined until several years later in an honors thesisv. In its initial use, it was applied to a much narrower range than it is currently applied to. Things change.
[Cut back to being videoed from a distance, with higher volume.]
Addendum two: Neurodiversity paradigm absolutely stands in opposition to the societal pressures of pushing everyone to have one sort of mind or to fake having that sort of mind, behaving like the neurotypical norm, if they do not actually have that sort of mind. And we absolutely oppose treatments chosen by others meant to enforce this sort of conformity. We also recognize that these forces are not the same thing as an individual choosing to do something that modifies how their neurology or cognition work based on an individual preference. These are different things. Even if one influences the other, and they often do, they are not actually the same thing.
[Cut back to selfie video and lower volume.]
Addendum three is a quote from High Wizardry, a young adult novel by Diane Duanevi in the context of the creation of a new species:
"Dairine would start making them different from one another. But they were going to have to be different on the inside, too, to do any good. If some danger comes along that they have to cope with, it’s no use their information processors being all the same: whatever it is could wipe them all out at once. If they’re as different as they can be, they’ll have a better chance of surviving."
This is, to some extent, the basic idea. It's not about one kind of information processing, one kind of sensory processing being the best, it's about needing to have as many different kinds as possible.
[Cut back to being videoed from a distance and higher volume.]
Addendum four, um, there's absolutely parallels between thinking about neurodiversity versus pathology and social model versus medical, charity, and moral models for disability, in that the medical model, moral model, and charity model are all pathology types, and the social model is not a pathology type. It puts disability as something that's created by social forces, much like the neurodiversity paradigm says that the issues people have based on being of a different neurotype, such as by being autistic, have a lot more to do with societal barriers and discrimination than with the actual status of having different needs than what's expected of a neurotypical.
[A black box with white text reads: “There is stuff that's hard. But tech and teaching focusing on convenience for dominant folks instead of helping with what we think needs to happen I society. So I still say society is the bigger issue.]
Addendum five: “Our minds are fine”, and “Our bodies are fine” are just ways of moving the line of what's acceptable. “All minds are fine”, “All bodies are fine” actually takes out the hierarchy that put abled folk on top, and this is a much more effective way of challenging ableism as a whole than just chosing a different subset of disabled people as a whole to be thrown under the bus in an effort to get rights for oneself, or to get better representation for onesself.
When we want to get out from under inequality, working together gives us more numbers, and also, we're all disabled. We should not be throwing each other under the bus. The way that physically disabled people are treated when people assume cognitive disability isn't right when the person actually is neurodivergent, and opposing that as the right way to handle neurodivergence is very important.
[Speaking ends. There is now a black screen with white text which reads:
I want to thank Rita Kwan from American Council's Tianjin Flagship program for helping me with the recording of this presentation. The parts that don't look like iPad selfie videos were recorded in her home and office, using her camera.
I would also like to thank my classmates and teachers this year in general. Considering that I'm apparently the first openly autistic student at Tianjin Normal University, this year has gone very well. This ha a lot to do with my classmates and teachers. Most of what they're doing right really should be the default, but it's not and I recognize that they're unusual. [I also loudly complain about the fact that it's unusual.]
And of course, I thank all the writes and activists and thinkers whose work I'm building off. There are a lot of you.
If you have questions for me, wnt to see more of my work, have ideas of how I could be more accessiblevii, or just generally want to talk to me, you can reach me at AlyHillary@gmail.com]
iv Sorry, I mean mobility difference or mobility disability. This is why I prefer writing to speaking.
v Judy Singer's thesis, “Odd People In.”
vi I do suggest the whole series, so long as it's the new millenium edition e-books. Both editions have good characters who can be interpreted as neurodivergent, but only the new editions represent the canonically autistic character well once he comes along.
vii This is for serious. I might need assistance doing some of the things because of my own disabilities, but I will do what I can myself and find help where needed.