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Autism as a Natural Human Variation: Reflections on the Claims of the Neurodiversity Movement
Pier Jaarsma and Stellan Welin
Neurodiversity has remained a controversial concept over the last decade. In its broadest sense the concept of neurodiversity regards atypical neurological development as a normal human difference. The neurodiversity claim contains at least two different aspects. The first aspect is that autism, among other neurological conditions, is first and foremost a natural variation. The other aspect is about conferring rights and in particular value to the neurodiversity condition, demanding recognition and acceptance. Autism can be seen as a natural variation on par with for example homosexuality. The broad version of the neurodiversity claim, covering low-functioning as well as high-functioning autism, is problematic. Only a narrow conception of neurodiversity, referring exclusively to high-functioning autists, is reasonable. We will discuss the effects of DSM categorization and the medical model for high functioning autists. After a discussion of autism as a culture we will analyze various possible strategies for the neurodiversity movement to claim extra resources for autists as members of an underprivileged culture without being labelled disabled or as having a disorder. We will discuss their vulnerable status as a group and what obligation that confers on the majority of neurotypicals.I'm not a "neurodiversity" advocate, but I believe this research risks characterizing autistic individuals advocating for themselves as somehow "wrong" to use Civil Rights movements as models for advocacy. Why is it wrong to compare diversity with any other movement for equality? The real resistance to this idea comes from families of the more severely affected autistic children and adults. Those with severe impairments have other needs and concerns, but that doesn't mean their families can reject the calls from diversity advocates for respect.
I demand respect and acceptance for me as I am, not as others might want me to be. What's so strange about that? And I do believe autism is a naturally occurring "abnormality" that helps humanity. It is, potentially, a trait that helps the community survive. I'm not claiming that autism is desirable, but that like other things we consider "wrong" or "unhealthy" that autism has evolutionary benefits.
You might be unfamiliar with such theories, but evolutionary biologists suggest some "illnesses" and "diseases" can be beneficial in specific contexts. See the book Survival of the Sickest for some insights on this. Differences, even ones that are potentially deadly, can be beneficial to the human species.