Recently I put into my “to-consider” shelf on Goodreads the Anil Seth book, Being You: A New Science of Consciousness, so I thought I’d check out this interview with Emily Cooke for Nature. As it turns out, there’s a thing I want to get into a bit.
Over the past decade or so, there has been much emphasis on neurodiversity, the idea that there are many different ways of experiencing the world, and that this cognitive and perceptual variation enriches society. However, the neurodiversity label has come to be associated with specific conditions, such as autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ironically reinforcing the idea that if you don’t identify with a neurodivergent condition, then you experience the world as it is, in a neurotypical way.
Here’s the thing, though: the terms neurodiversity and neurodivergence aren’t merely scientific(ish) terms. They, or at least the latter, are political ones. They are meant to draw attention to the othering based upon our socially-normative set of defaults.
While it’s strictly true that “neurodiversity” by necessity and design encompasses everyone because the point is to consider neurodivergence just a part of the natural variety of human brains, “neurodivergent” is different. It’s specifically meant to draw a political line against the ignorance and privilege afforded the the neurotypical.
So, while it’s true that “perceptual diversity exists among all of us” you’re in general not going to be othered by society if you don’t agree with most people on the color of the sky or if you’re unable to conjure mental images into your “mind’s eye”. In the latter you could make the case for not being neurotypical but the reality is that in a not insignificant way you still “count” as neurotypical because you pass for “normal” in every day society.
This is not the case for what for lack of a less artless phrase I’ll call here the “true neurodivergent”.
There’s a bit, in Seth’s conception here, of that shopworn and hackneyed statement, “Well, we’re all a little bit on the spectrum.” No. No we are not.
There’s a sort of end result here that indeed could be seen as the ultimate goal: the understanding and acceptance of the fact that, yes, across humanity writ large our brains have a lot of variety and yet we also are all humans deserving to have our inherent dignity and worth recognized.
But we’re not there yet, and defining and discussing the terms neurodiversity and neurodivergence this way is like trying to get to the end without doing the work necessary to get there. We are all on the spectrum that is humanity, but some of us more than others need to be allowed to stake a claim.