“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. That saying never made anyone feel better. Yet, it is one of many things that parents, grandparents, teachers, and friends have said to those hurt by others’ words, in a desperate attempt to make the person see that everything was ok–even when it isn’t.
The truth is: words matter. Their use can cause generations of belief systems that can make or break society’s ability to protect its members.
There are many controversies surrounding the description of what used to be referred to as “special needs”. Now, sometimes referred to as neurodiversity, autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have come to be known differently, described differently, and now even treated differently, than they have in the past.
Today we will discuss what neurodiversity means, and how it relates to the autism community, autistic people, and to the world.
What does the term neurodiverse mean?
When I first heard the term “neurodivergent”, I thought immediately that it sounded impressive and much more positive than any other term I have ever heard to describe an individual with neurological differences before. It seemed very superhero-esc to me.
I could imagine a graphic, maybe on a book cover, of a child in a cape proclaiming: “I am neurodivergent, here to fight the injustice against the special needs community”. Maybe that is ridiculous, or maybe, just maybe, there is something to the idea that differences in people should be celebrated, and the words we use to describe them can help or hurt that cause.
According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary 2021 version, the definition of neurodiversity is:
“Individual differences in brain functioning regarded as normal variations within the human population.”
This definition leaves much to discuss, and is a catalyst for changes in how we talk about, think about, and refer to people who have been labeled as “different” in our society.
Let’s first talk about the words “regarded as normal” for a bit. From this perspective we see that what is classified as neurodiverse, would be compared to what is considered normal in a given society. It would suggest that any diverse brain activity would fall under “normal”.
Who’s to say though, what is normal? Does what is “common” set a presidence for normal?
Is it the human variation that needs to change, or the expectation of what defines a variation? All of these questions have led to what is being called the neurodiversity movement.
What is the neurodiversity movement?
The neurodiversity movement started as an idea that all human variations of neurological differences are natural and normal. It is the push to let society know that everyone has neurodiversity, and that what we have traditionally seen as “normal” is far from accurate. It is also a way to fight for the rights of people who are considered different.
This movement was started by people who were on the autistic spectrum, people with intellectual disability, and other conditions. It was designed by people who are considered different, for people who are considered to be different.
Truly much harm has been done to people with “neurological differences” simply by being compared to what is considered “normal”. The name neurodiversity itself, though it carries with it a positive connotation, also highlights the differences in all people.
In order to promote self-advocacy among autistic people, the idea is that they are “normal” too, and therefore should not be treated differently, while still receiving the accommodations they require to function in the current “status quo” society. It is good in theory, but has also been vastly misconstrued.
The result, some find it insulting to be considered neurodiverse, others find it empowering. Herein lies the truth: that just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, how people are treated, initially, is usually an outpouring of the beholder’s opinions. The neurodiversity movement tries to change the beholder’s mind about what is normal and acceptable.
However, with the strength of self advocacy, the voice of the “neurodivergent” rises. What they say, should be the battle cry heeded, obeyed, and provided for.
Let me explain. In order for the neurodiversity movement to make its mark, old patterns of thinking must be challenged.
People should all be treated with love, respect, and dignity, devoid of prejudice. However, that is often the opposite of what actually happens. So, what is to be done?
Are people with autism neurodivergent?
People on the spectrum of autism would indeed fall under the neurodiversity movement’s definition and creed. Since autistic individuals function in a different way of thinking and being than what was originally perceived as “normal”, they would be considered neurodiverse.
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However, the label neurodivergent is not a term that some autistic individuals identify with, or care to use. So, how do we know what term to use for which individual?
In order to figure this out, I believe, we should examine the term neurodiversity, how it is viewed by the autistic community, and to begin with, it’s effect upon mental health.
How is mental health affected by the term “neurodiversity”?
How the term neurodiversity makes a person feel, depends on the person. Some feel that the ability to be seen as “normal” destroys a stigma that has been harmful. They see the neurodiversity movement as championing their cause.
If they identify with it, it raises their confidence, and gives credence to their voice. They want to be seen just as everyone else is seen, valued, and they see their autism as something that is to be respected and included in what is “normal”, as it hasn’t been previously.
Other autistic people feel their differences are what make them who they are, and feel being on the autism spectrum is their own superpower. They choose to see their autism as an ability. Taking that away and replacing it with “normal” can be hurtful or insulting to them.
They may want to be set apart from the masses. To show that the majority do not have a monopoly on value. They wish to show that their differences make them an asset to society.
Both perspectives are valid. Each presents separate examples of thought processes in response to what society views as normal.
The study Characterization of Depression in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders by Katherine M. Magnuson, BS and John N. Constantino, MD, states: “Due in part to its chronic nature, the World Health Organization has recognized depression as the single disease imposing the largest public health burden in the United States and the third largest public health burden in the world.”
Through autism research, studies also show that people with autism spectrum disorder are far more likely to experience depression than their neurotypical peers. People who have “high functioning autism may be at less of a risk than people who are “lower functioning”. It is important to note that the terms high functioning and low functioning are also now becoming seen as outdated by the neurodivergent community.
Again, this is largely influenced by how they are received by “normal” society. The comparison to “normal” is where the hangup with the term neurodiversity begins.
The autistic spectrum is just that, a spectrum. This means that anyone who would fall under the strict definition of “neurodivergent” would be at a higher risk for depression. This is true of people who may have an intellectual disability as well.
Therefore, no matter what the label is, the words matter, and this topic is an important one. Mental health is so important, and is too often overlooked when endeavoring to change things, even for the good.
Some people on the spectrum want it known that they are proud of being different, and make it clear that their autism, autistic children, or neurological differences make them who they are, and make them feel special.
They are empowered and they are passionate about helping other people understand their neurological difference, and feel the same. Their “abnormality” is their proverbial “cape”.
They may identify as:
- an autistic person
- a person with autism
- a person on the autistic spectrum or autism spectrum
- having high functioning autism
- having aspergers
- a person with special needs
Studies show that children who suffer from depression are at an increased risk to have trouble functioning as adults. This is a serious issue.
Children on the autism spectrum are especially vulnerable. Oftentimes, children are not taught to value others and to accept differences in the same way as adults do.
To complicate matters, children who are on the autism spectrum are at a higher risk for depression overall. In addition, they may not be able to express themselves in a way that clues their caregivers into their struggles. This could delay treatment, as well as cause undue stress to the child.
That makes children who are autistic at higher risk for depression, or a misunderstanding of their value. The responsibility lies with society at large, including parents, and teachers, to show them their worth, regardless of the “label”, their “cape” is immaculate and effective.
Each and every individual can feel empowered or shamed by the label that is used to describe them. Our good intentions do not excuse the damage done, even accidently, through them.
No one should have their beauty, confidence, or self esteem taken from them for any reason, least of all a label. Education professionals, parents of autistic children, and society at large should embrace and validate each individual, as well as the term they feel they identify with the most. We need to pay attention to the people our words affect, and let them be the judge of what term describes them best.
How can we give a megaphone to autistic people, so their voices are heard?
Let’s also be clear that so much of the world changing, life affirming, beauty that has been bestowed upon our planet was brought, full force, by people who were considered “different”, and many of them were labeled as autistic people.
Autistic people are our best resource for answering the questions regarding whether the term “neurodiversity” applies to, well, autistic people. They are the only ones who can tell us what their preferences are.
If autistic people prefer the term neurodivergent, and that is what their “cape” is, great! If they consider themselves to have “high functioning autism”, or prefer the term “asperger’s”, then that is their “cape”.
They can decide, society can honor and affirm them in it. They, in turn, can confidently bring their own superpowers to the world.
I was once referred to as a “wordy person”. At the time it was said, it wasn’t meant to be a compliment. I took that description, and the pain it inflicted, and turned it into a writing and editing career. That career has brought much happiness and fulfillment to my life.
I guess what I am trying to say is, our children get to decide what words and labels mean to them. It is our job to empower them to use it all to their advantage.
As a society, we can realize that we all have diverse variations, each person can be proud of their own. In this way, we refer to each other in a way that honors those differences, validates identity, and empowers.
Is the term”neurodiversity” good or bad? That’s not up to the person doing the labeling, it is up to the person being labeled.
My children choose the “cape”. I hope this article has helped encourage you to help your children do the same! Let’s amplify their voices, validate their choices, and stand up for one another!
As I have been preaching about listening to the autistic community to guide us, I thought I would include a link on this topic to a YouTube channel called Ask an Autistic. This might shed some light on the topic in a way that is better than I can do.
Leadbitter, K., Buckle, K. L., Ellis, C., & Dekker, M. (2021). Autistic Self-Advocacy and the Neurodiversity Movement: Implications for Autism Early Intervention Research and Practice. Frontiers in psychology, 12, 635690. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.635690
Magnuson, K. M., & Constantino, J. N. (2011). Characterization of depression in children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of developmental and behavioral pediatrics : JDBP, 32(4), 332–340. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3154372/https://doi.org/10.1097/DBP.0b013e318213f56c