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Is Slate misrepresenting the Neurodiversity movement?

Posted Jan 22 2013 5:14pm

In a word, yes. In, Is the Neurodiversity Movement Misrepresenting Autism?, Slate.com author and autism parent Amy Lutz argues that the neurodiversity movement is essentially dividing the autism community between “high-functioning” adults and parents of “low-functioning” children. Shannon Rosa clarifies this point for Ms. Lutz in Why Did Amy S.F. Lutz Attack the Neurodiversity Movement? That is a more full discussion of the article than here, and I encourage readers to read Ms. Rosa’s account.

I’ll consider two segments of Ms. Lutz’ article. First, what is essentially her conclusion:

What I am saying is that a real autism rights movement would recognize that people are truly neurodiverse, with brains of very different levels of functioning, instead of implying that we are all the same, with “intact minds” that just need to be accessed.

The author doesn’t see neurodiversity as a “real” rights movement because, in her view, neurodiversity implies that “we are all the same, with ‘intact minds’ that just need to be accessed.”

To anyone who has spent any time seriously considering the neurodiversity movement, the above statement is an obvious misconception. A straw-man argument, if you will. Just start with the name: neurodiversity. How one gets from a diversity movement to “we are all the same” is beyond me. Even after reading the article. Yes, I see the argument the author tried to make. I also know that her argument is full of misconceptions and, frankly, attacks.

I am more moved by ideas than movements, so I don’t use the term neurodiversity much. However, I can put my view simply: you and I think differently, but we are equals. You can derive a lot from that, but it’s one way of seeing “neurodiversity”.

Despite this overwhelming evidence, the cases discussed above have had a huge impact on the autism community, which has increasingly been divided between those who consider autism a disability and those who believe it is merely a different, not worse, way of thinking and interacting with the world.

Let’s take this in two pieces. First, her “overwhelming” evidence is basically arguments that some of the more known names of significantly challenged adult autistics are not what they present themselves to be. An easy argument to make if you misrepresent how these adults have represented themselves. Claiming that Amanda Baggs presents herself as typical of autistic development, for example, is plainly false. It is a rehash of old, tired attacks.

Now to the more important part the supposed division “between those who consider autism a disability and those who believe it is merely a different, not worse, way of thinking and interacting with the world”.

First off, didn’t she say in the quote above that Neurodiversity proponents see people as being “all the same” and that if they were a “real” diversity movement, they would acknowledge that there are differences? But in this quote neurodiversity proponents believe autism is a “different” way of thinking.

Leaving aside the logical inconsistencies of the article, this line is an old false-dichotomy argument. Who says there is a division between disability and difference? A disability is a difference. Another way to say it is that autism is a disability and a difference. It’s redundant in my opinion, but sometimes redundancy is needed. Would I say “not worse”? Yes. Does that mean I deny the disability? That I don’t acknowledge the challenges posed by autism? That I don’t believe life is more difficult for autistics than non-autistics? No, no and no.

As I read it, Ms. Lutz’ comment implicitly states that disability is worse than not being disabled. From one online dictionary, I get this as the number one definition for “worse”: of more inferior quality, value, or condition. I have no reservations saying that my child has huge challenges, many of which will not be overcome even with great effort. Is any part of my child of “inferior quality, value, or condition”? No. I see different, not less. Not inferior. In need of great support, yes. But as an equal, not out of pity and without taking away rights and dignity.

Ms. Lutz finishes her article by positing that neurodiversity propenents act out of some level of ignorance, fed by what she asserts is misinformation about what autism really is. I believe Ms. Lutz has some ignorance to overcome on her own. She closes with a statement about “kids with the unfortunate trifecta of autism, intellectual disability, and dangerous behaviors” and how “any portrayal of autism that glosses over their profound disability closes the door on them all over again.” I would say that first we need to acknowledge that (a) this is not confined to children and (b) autism and dangerous behaviors can come without intellectual disability, and that segment of the population should not be glossed over either. But that aside, consider the basic question of how do we move forward with a very diverse population and see that all are served appropriately? The fact of the matter is that intellectual disability, especially those unable to read, write and/or speak, is a small segment of the autistic population. And as we learn more about autism, this fraction is an ever shrinking percentage of the identified autism population. But the way forward is not to claim some schism between “high-functioning” autistics and parents of those with different challenges. My experience is that once a person sees a strong civil rights aspect to autism–and disability in general–one sees the need to work for all in the population.


By Matt Carey


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