Neurodiversity, language, and the social model

Neuro-what?

neurodiversity the diversity of human brains and minds.

The neurodiversity movement is an approach that recognises neurodiversity as natural and positive, similar to natural diversity in gender, sexuality, race, and more. The approach also states that the idea of one ‘natural’ or ‘right’ form of neurology is socially constructed and inaccurate.

Note: people who support the neurodiversity approach (like me!) still use the word ‘neurotypical’. That’s because there is a societal idea of a normal or natural neurology. Yes, in an ideal world, there wouldn’t be. But most people see it that way, so neurotypical is an important word to describe someone whose neurology is considered normal in current society.

Models of disability

A disability is something which limits or reduces a person’s abilities in a certain area. An impairment is something which is different about a person’s body or brain that means it cannot function so effectively. There are several different models used to define and describe the relationship between disability and impairment.

You are probably most familiar with the medical model of disability. The medical model states that a person is disabled by their impairment (for example, a paralysed leg). The way to fix that disability is to ‘fix’ the impairment. The disability is seen as inherently negative, and should be eradicated however possible.

The social model states that a person is disabled by society. The person might have an impairment (e.g., a paralysed leg). But that impairment only becomes a disability when society fails to accommodate them (e.g., not having a wheelchair-accessible entrance). An example of the social model in action is short- or long-sightedness. These impairments are not considered disabling, because glasses are so readily available and accepted.

The social model states that the way to improve a disability is to improve the way society treats a person’s impairment. Note that it doesn’t say people’s impairments must not be cured, simply that cure is not the only option and should not be forced or expected.

Neurodiversity and the social model

The neurodiversity movement is heavily based in the social model. Impairments in human brains (for example, epilepsy, or depression) are not inherently flaws. They become a disability when society does not accommodate them, or discriminates against people for them.

Neurodiversity also adds another complicating factor, though. The social model of disability makes the distinction between impairment and disability, but the neurodiversity approach also includes things which aren’t necessarily impairments at all.

Autism is an example of that. Autism is pervasive and incorporates a person’s whole existence. It consists of a wide variety of different traits, some of which are impairments and some of which aren’t. For example, I consider my predisposition to anxiety to be an impairment. It’s a fundamental problem in the way my brain works, that makes it harder for me to function effectively.

But I don’t consider my atypical communication to be an impairment. That’s just a difference, which is pathologised because autistic people are a minority. If autistic people were the majority, then neurotypicals would be diagnosed with “inability to use concrete language” and “excessive reliance on other people for happiness”.

The key feature of neurodiversity and of the social  model is that the impairment or difference is not the problem. People are diverse in all kinds of ways, and treating those differences as inherent flaws is just a result of society’s harmful views. The neurodiversity approach doesn’t say that impairments shouldn’t be cured, or that people aren’t allowed to want treatment for them. If I could take a magical cure that would put my anxiety on a level with neurotypical people, I would do it in an instant.

The point is that being cured or treated should be our choice , and that if we don’t want to or can’t be treated then society should accommodate us. I can’t cure my anxiety, and so I need other people to help me deal with it. I wouldn’t want to cure my communication differences, and so neurotypical people will just have to meet me halfway when we’re trying to understand each other.

Language

The neurodiversity approach has important implications when it comes to language. A lot of people (typically neurotypical people who are helping or caring for autistic people) support ‘person-first language’ to describe autism. This means referring to someone as a person before stating their disability, a “person with autism”.

You might have noticed that I do not use person-first language. What I use is called ‘identity-first language’. This means referring to autism as an aspect of someone’s identity, an “autistic person”.

People who support person-first language say that no-one should be defined by their disability, that they are a person before they are anything else. It sounds like a noble aim, and they generally have good intentions. The trouble is, the very idea that person-first language is necessary comes as a result of the medical model of disability. It’s bad to define a person by their disability if you think a disability is inherently a bad thing.

Identity-first language accepts that neurological differences and impairments are not inherently positive or negative, they are just aspects of a person’s identity. You wouldn’t dream of saying “a person with homosexuality”, would you? Because that implies that being gay is negative, as well as something that could even theoretically be separated from the person.

The neurodiversity approach says that being autistic is comporable to being gay. It’s an identity, and a natural and value-neutral aspect of human variation. And autistic people should be accepted and accommodated in the same way as gay people. If there are problems associated with being autistic (or being gay), like finding it difficult to communicate (or finding it difficult to get married) – those problems should be accommodated by society.

When you use person-first language, you are saying “Being autistic is entirely and inherently negative”, and “Being autistic makes you less of a person”, and “I have to be reminded that autistic people are human”. Please stop saying those things to us.

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