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News & Blog > Blogs: "Perspectives, Provocations & Initiatives" > Neurodiversity: Alternative Approaches to Social Change

Neurodiversity: Alternative Approaches to Social Change

Theresa Flach (MAFood05) explores how neurodiverse ways of knowing, thinking, and doing can open up new pathways of social change.
Image by wildpixel via iStock
Image by wildpixel via iStock

Most people would agree that biodiversity - the biological variety in plants, animals, and microorganisms - supports the processes responsible for the health and sustainability of natural ecosystems. Biodiversity is essential for life on Earth.[1] Applying the same perspective to humanity begs the question of whether neurological variation in humans plays just as significant a role as biodiversity does.

Variation in the human brain and mind is dominantly seen as a ‘disorder’ or ‘disability’, but critical disability theory highlights how this is a social construct. Those who do not meet societal expectations of ‘normal’ human thinking and behaviour are farmed as cognitively impaired ‘others’. These normative assumptions lead to the marginalisation of the neurodiverse and the  exclusion of their perspectives from research and governance.[2]

If we shifted the perception of neurological difference to ‘diversity’ and considered its value for the human race, we could open up new opportunities for social change. As journalist and sociologist Harvey Blume said: “Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of wiring will prove best at any given moment?”[3]

What is the Neurodiversity Movement?

Founded in the 1990s by autistic Australian sociologist Judy Singer, the neurodiversity movement is a social justice movement that struggles for the recognition of neurological conditions including autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia, and Tourette syndrome as variations in normal human function. In other words, neurodiversity refers to the idea that some people think and experience the world differently from those considered cognitively ‘normal’ or neurotypical.

The serious challenges and difficulties that come with neurological differences are recognised by the movement, as are the strengths and agency of neurodiverse individuals. The movement argues that there is no right way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and neurodiversity should be accepted and embraced.[4],[5] It fights against stigma around neurological differences that prevents public disclosure and silences voices that have long been spoken for in various disciplines from research to policymaking.[6]

Neurodiversity and Social Change

So, what if we embraced neurodiverse ways of knowing, thinking, and doing?

The world and the human race are facing numerous complex challenges, from poor governance to anthropogenic climate change and natural ecosystem degradation. Clearly, we are at an impasse. The status quo is arguably no longer working and we need to change direction.

Take the relationship between humans and non-humans, for example. The separation of humans from nature is a characteristic of capitalism. Capitalism and the relentless drive for profit view nature through the lens of what it can do for humans. In other words, the value of nature derives from its usefulness for humans, and more specifically, capital accumulation. Capitalism commodifies and financialises natural resources.[7],[8] From this perspective, ‘common sense’ tells us that plants, soil, or rivers exist for human domination and control, and a lot of nature is commodified for human consumption.

Neurodiverse perspectives hold potential for challenging this notion. Autistic geographer Sara Judge, for example, writes that those that struggle with human-human interaction due to neurological difference can find relationships with non-humans to have profound significance for their lives. These individuals understand places, organisms, and objects to have personality that often makes more sense to them than that of humans. The idea that an autistic person’s relationship with a tree, animal, or place can constitute a meaningful social relationship opens up new possibilities for the consideration of non-human entities, no longer seeing them as ‘less-than-human’ and available for commodification.[9] 

The consideration of neurodiverse perspectives – alongside others – in research and policymaking could improve our understanding and appreciation of more-than-human relationships and, thus, alternative ways of relating to and engaging with the natural ecosystems we are a part of.

When it comes to governance and leadership, the categorisation of neurological differences as ‘disabilities’ can negatively impact peer and public perception and, thereby, leadership role occupancy. The focus on ‘impairment’ legitimises approaching neurodiversity from an accommodation perspective, which suggests that neurodiverse individuals require intervention to help them perform the essential functions of their role.

Neurodiverse individuals may not be considered to have leadership potential since they don’t fit within the traditional models of leadership. Reconceptualising ‘disability’ or ‘impairment’ as cognitive variation and challenging the normative idea of what it means to be a leader opens up new pathways of governance. The neurodiverse are now seen as potential leaders rather than in need of leadership.

While accommodation and support may be required for neurodiverse individuals to navigate an alien world, they also possess unique strengths and capabilities. Novel thinking, or viewing problems or crises through an atypical lens, could allow neurodiverse leaders to challenge the status quo and introduce alternative ways of governing a team, a business, an organisation, or a country. [10]

Imagining a Neurodiverse World

The neurodiversity movement advocates for a shift in perception of autism, ADHD, and other neurological conditions from disorder, disability, or impairment to variation in human function and diversity. It fights against stigma and for the representation of neurodiverse voices in all dimensions of society.

Looking at how neurodiverse individuals experience more-than-human relationships or how they apply a novel, atypical lens to nature or leadership or other complex challenges, we can imagine new ways of knowing, thinking, and doing.

If we embraced neurodiverse perspectives, we could build a more inclusive world and open up alternative pathways of social change.

Can you imagine what such a world would look like? I challenge you to learn about neurodiversity, to open up or expand dialogue and debate, and turn this vision into reality.


This is one of a series of blogs supported by the IDS alumni office and written by current IDS students and PhD Researchers from academic year 2022-2023 Spring Term. 


[1] The Royal Society, Why is biodiversity important? Available at:  https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/projects/biodiversity/why-is-biodiversity-important/#:~:text=Biodiversity%20is%20essential%20for%20the,also%20value%20nature%20of%20itself (Accessed: 29 March 2023).

[2] Roberson Q., Quigley N. R., Vickers K. and Bruck I. (2021) ‘Reconceptualizing Leadership From a Neurodiverse Perspective’, Group and Organization Management, 46(2), pp. 147-460. doi-org.ezproxy.sussex.ac.uk/10.1177/105960112098729.

[3] Specialisterne Foundation, Neurodiversity. Available at: https://specialisternefoundation.com/autism-neurodiversity/ (Accessed: 29 Marc 2023).

[4] Baumer N. and Frueh J. (2021) What is neurodiversity? Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/what-is-neurodiversity-202111232645 (Accessed at: 29 March 2023).

[5] NHS Foundation Trust, Autism and.. Available at: https://www.oxfordhealth.nhs.uk/news/autism-and/ (Accessed at: 29 March 2023).

[6] Judge, S. M. (2017) ‘Languages of sensing: Bringing neurodiversity into more-than-human geography’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 36(6), pp. 971-1153. doi-org.ezproxy.sussex.ac.uk/10.1177/0263775817748944. 

[7] Newell P. et al. (2021) ‘Toward transformative climate justice: An emerging research agenda’, WIREs Climate Change, 12(6), pp. DOI: 10.1002/wcc.733.

[8] Yasin, Z. T. (2022) ‘The environmentalization of the agrarian question and the agrarianization of the climate justice movement’, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 49(7), pp. 1355-1386, doi-org.ezproxy.sussex.ac.uk/10.1080/03066150.2022.2101102.

[9]Judge, S. M. (2017) ‘Languages of sensing: Bringing neurodiversity into more-than-human geography’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 36(6), pp. 971-1153. doi-org.ezproxy.sussex.ac.uk/10.1177/0263775817748944.  

[10] Roberson Q., Quigley N. R., Vickers K. and Bruck I. (2021) ‘Reconceptualizing Leadership From a Neurodiverse Perspective’, Group and Organization Management, 46(2), pp. 147-460. doi-org.ezproxy.sussex.ac.uk/10.1177/105960112098729.

 [LW1]Hmmm, I wonder a bit about this, isn't tourism the commercialisation of nature for 'meaningful' experiences?  Also, the way this is set up is a bit problematic.  Capitalism is something that affects all our relationships with nature but it is not the only way we experience nature. 

 [TF2]Isn’t there a difference between meaningful ‘experience’ as per tourism and ‘social relationship’ as per what I’m describing here?

 

 

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