• Sam Melnick

Neurodiversity and Autism

Neurodiversity is the concept that the human brain has many natural variations, of which autism is one. It is a paradigm aligned with the social model of disability which states that people are disabled fundamentally by an inaccessible society and not their medical state. This does not mean, as many people think, that neurodiversity advocates deny that autism is a disability; we do not. We do, however, believe that autism is a natural variation of the human brain and does not need to be “cured”.

Neurodiversity advocates want to create a world where everyone is accepted regardless of how their brains are wired. In such a world, autistic people wouldn’t be subjected to behavioural therapies designed not to improve quality of life, but to make the autistic person act unnaturally and fake being neurotypical. In such a world, people would not be locked in institutions and hidden from the public. In such a world, autistic people would not be subjected to painful pseudoscientific cures and people would not be searching for a way to eradicate us from existence.

I first discovered the autistic community online when I was nineteen. I had been diagnosed at twelve, and growing up I’d been ashamed of my condition and the fact I was different. This was not helped by a society in which ableism was commonplace and bullies targeted anyone who stood out. I thought I was broken and defective; that my autism was something that needed to be hidden. Now I found people who assured me I was not defective; I was just different.

My first interactions with the autistic community were on twitter as part of the hashtag #AutChat, which is a twitter chat for autistic people that happens every Sunday. Through this, I connected with a number of autistic self-advocates. It was in this way that I discovered autistic activism and the neurodiversity movement. My involvement has grown since then; I’ve attended real life demonstrations supporting autistic rights and I was invited to speak at Autistic Pride Brighton in 2019. This year, I’ve been part of a group trying to start an autistic-led organisation, the Glasgow Autistic Rights Network.

There are many issues important to autistic people within the neurodiversity movement. One of these, which is often discussed in autism circles, but is barely known about among the wider public, is opposition to Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA). This is a common autism “therapy” which was developed by Ivar Lovaas, the same man behind gay conversion therapy. ABA operates on similar principles; forcing the autistic person to fake neurotypical behaviour in order to access rewards or avoid punishments.

Anti-institutionalisation campaigns are also something autistic activists take part in, generally as part of a coalition with other disability rights organisations. Historically, autistic people were often locked in institutions from childhood and prevented from living their lives freely in the community. Despite excellent progress in reducing the institutionalisation of disabled people, unfair detention remains an issue to this day and in some places, we are going backwards. Autistic people detained under the Mental Health Act in the UK find it very difficult to get discharged as natural autistic behaviours are seen as pathological.

The fight against harmful autism pseudoscience is one of the most difficult. Andrew Wakefield, the discredited former doctor who published a study linking autism with the MMR vaccine has done unmeasurable damage to the autistic community by creating a society which views autism as worse than preventable potentially-deadly diseases. Anti-vax conspiracy theorists are not the only pseudoscience believers we have to deal with: there are also those who push harmful autism “cures” like the Magic Mineral Solution (MMS), which involves forcing autistic children to drink bleach.

The neurodiversity movement is not limited to autistic participants. There are multiple other types of neurodivergence which are included in the umbrella, and neurotypical allies are needed to advance our cause, gain more recognition and attract public support for our campaigns. There are a number of petitions online; in pre-covid times there were sometimes physical demonstrations; and we especially need parents and scientists who are willing to counter harmful stereotypes and help change the narrative.

Autistic activism is vital in working to improve the lives of autistic people across the planet, counter harmful narratives and safeguard our human rights. Autism politics can be a bit of a minefield, but the neurodiversity movement has gained significant ground even since I first learned of its existence five years ago. Allies are welcome, but autistic-led advocacy efforts are vital in going forward. Neurodivergent individuals must lead the way in advocating for neurodiversity. As the disability rights slogan goes: nothing about us without us.