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The Neurodiversity Movement in the Context of Autism

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Within the 1940s disabled individuals were identified as 'abnormal'. Medical sociologist Talcott Parsons identified individuals whom did not fit in with the 'norm' of society as 'sick' or 'disabled', and therefore viewed them as 'deviant[s]', and as a threat to the maintenance of a 'healthy' society” (Mallet & Cole, 2014). This established the medical model of disability. The medical model establishes disablement as a physiological “flaw of the individual” (Singer, 2017). This medical label prevents the individual from being accepted within the 'norm' of society. The medical model suggests that the disabled individual requires 'fixing' in order to be 'normal'. However the social model of disability “turned the medical model on its head” and identifies disability as “the consequence of social barriers” (Mallet & Cole, 2014). This social model allows Disability Studies to question the medical model approach to disability, and rejects “any model of disability that locates disability within the person (Mallet & Cole, 2014). The neurodiversity movement allows autistic individuals to be identified as “having a “hardwired” neurological difference, not a personality flaw that was their own fault, nor a psychological problem” (Singer, 2017). Therefore aligning with the social model approach to understanding disability. This essay will explore a neurodiverse perspective whilst looking at Autism. This essay will highlight key themes such as the language surrounding autism and disability, the affects of labelling, the use of the autistic spectrum and neurodiversity within education.

Animal Scientist and Autism Rights Activist Temple Grandin (2014) shares her experience of having autism within her book “The Autistic Brain”. Grandin explains that the diagnosis of autism was “at the mercy of a medical system that's full of lock-label thinkers” (Grandin & Panek, 2014). The expression 'lock-label thinking' is used within this text to establish that medical professionals and some people in society develop an obsession with identifying what the 'problem' is, in order to give it a name. Causing those individuals with the 'problem' to become identified by their label instead of themselves as humans. Grandin writes that the label may help some people “understand who I am in a general sense” [by explaining his behaviour as being] “because I'm autistic” (Grandin & Panek, 2014). However neurodiversity is a movement constructed from the social model, that identifies everybody on the planet as having a different brain, therefore “autistic or not, we're all individuals” (Grandin & Panek, 2014). Neurodiverisity allows “many autistic self-advocates [to] reject that their autism in itself is a disorder. They claim that, apart from differences such as race, gender and sexual orientation, people are also born with different minds” (Owen & Stenhammer, 2013). Neurodiversity shows that every individual has a set of “strengths, talents, abilities and intelligences” (Armstrong, 2010), yet, by identifying someone with a label, such as branding someone as 'a person with autism' it stigmatizes the “positive dimensions of people with negative labels” (Armstrong, 2010). This suggests that the neurodiverse do not fit in to society, due to the “limitations of labels” (Grandin & Panek, 2014).

It may be argued that the medical model labels individuals to appear as if they have an understanding of the disability. A study by Steven Kapp and his co-workers (2013) demonstrates that a lack of understanding may cause negative labelling. The study demonstrated that people who have associations with an autistic person have a better understanding of autism and neurodiversity, than those who do not encounter any interaction with an autistic person. Therefore the “people who were aware of neurodiversity endorsed more positive emotions about autism than participants who were not aware of neurodiversity” (Kapp, 2013). This suggests that individuals within society, who do not have the understanding, disable and seclude autistic people. Due to a lack understanding about autism it creates a negative label and enforces a stigma around an autistic individual, therefore society is disabling them due to the lack of understanding. The autistic spectrum was a development in the late 1970s by a medical professional Lorna Wing. Wing's theory was that “autism could be understood in terms of a “spectrum'” (Thomas & Boellstorff, 2017). The autistic spectrum was used as a definitive identification of understanding autism and highlights the diversity within autism itself. This is to promote neurodiverisity by recognising that all brains are different, and using the autistic spectrum “to reduce diagnosis-associated stigma” (Thomas & Boellstorff, 2017). However, it is argued that the “autistic spectrum has fuzzy boundaries” (Singer, 2017) and the use of the autistic spectrum “frames autism in terms of a “deficit model” (Thomas & Boellstorff, 2017) by grouping neurodiverse people into 'high-functioning' and 'low-functioning' autism, “in the understanding that 'high functioning' is to be closer to a 'normal' or 'neurotypical' person in ability, and 'low functioning' less so” (Thomas & Boellstorff, 2017). This function therefore rejects the idea of neurodiversity by continuing to group autistic people within categories within the autistic spectrum as well as “instigate a new dichotomy between “neurodiverse” and “neurotypical”” (Thomas & Boellstorff, 2017), The use of the autistic spectrum may clarify that “the medical model of disability is [still] the dominant model in autism studies” (Woods, 2017).

Autism is often referred to as a 'condition', 'disorder' or a 'disease'. Yet, Neurodiversity “represent[s] a new addition to the familiar political categories of class, gender, race [and] augments the social model of disability [through Neurological Difference]” (Singer, 2017). The negative language used towards autism has created a stigma. Yet, some autistic individuals “choose to see themselves rather in terms of difference, and reject the idea that they ‘suffer from’ their condition” (Murray, 2012). Amanda Baggs produced a video on YouTube named ‘In My Language’, within this video Baggs is “interacting with the world around her” (Armstrong, 2010). Baggs is doing this by producing different sounds using materials around her, and her own voice, as well as manipulating objects such as slinkies, pans, water and door handles to create different sounds. Three minutes into the video, Amanda Baggs writes ‘A Translation’, she continues to express that the language used within this video was “about being in a constant conversation with every aspect of my environment” (Baggs, 2007). Because this language is not acknowledged or understood by others within society, society then judge the “existence, awareness, and personhood” (Baggs, 2007) of Amanda Baggs, excusing her behaviour as being in a “world of her own” (Baggs, 2007). Baggs continues to state that “the failure to learn your language is seen as a deficit but failure to learn my language is seen as so natural” (Baggs, 2007), demonstrating an ignorance towards further understanding autism and neurodiversity. But, instead of ignorance 'neurotypical' people may need to use a neurodiversity perspective and “work to communicate with someone whose native language isn't the same as yours” (Sinclair, 1993). Armstrong states that videos such as Amanda Baggs' are “an important part of the autism rights movement” (Armstrong,2010) as so many of the Autistic community want to be valued as “different, not disabled” (Armstrong, 2010). The use of language shapes the assumptions and expectations of individuals and therefore has an “impact upon the extent to which people are valued” (Mallett & Slater, 2014). Some Autistic self-advocated remove the negative language of being a deficiency that needs fixing or repairing but “consider themselves as a neurological minority, and regard autism as a difference to be respected” (Owen & Stenhammer, 2013). This is done by taking ownership of the individuals disability. For example referring to an individual as a 'person with autism' indicates that the individual has a problem that needs to be removed. But by the “people-first language” (Owen & Stenhammer, 2013) and owning the label and referring to oneself as an autistic person the autism is part of the individual and should be respected. By taking this ownership of language the “social model [gives] disabled people language to shift disability from a medicalised 'problem' residing within an individual, to a 'problem' of social inequality” (Mallett & Slater, 2014). However Singer states that the word disability itself “has too much stigma attached despite the efforts of the disability rights movement to reclaim it” (Singer, 2017). The word disability has too much of an association with normalcy, and normal being defined as 'able', therefore being 'disabled' continues to imply abnormality.

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The use of language and neurodiversity is also associated within the education system, when considering those labelled with 'learning difficulties' and 'Special Educational Needs.' “The most commonly stated goal of special education programs is meeting the needs of exceptional children whose needs cannot be adequately met in regular programs” (Christoplos & Renz, 2004), The use of special educational needs within schools demonstrates neurodiversity by acknowledging that children have different needs, and it is the responsibility of society to provide support allowing those needs to be met in order for all children to receive an education. Grandin and Panek suggest that the label 'autistic' may have an impact on the individuals studies within education. Further explaining that without labels “autism might have gone undiagnosed, untreated and just plain ignored” (Grandin & Panek, 2014). The label may provide positive support within education. Being labelled with a learning difficulty may not identify that individual as disabled, yet it identifies that a “learning difficulty relates to individuality...[and] each person learns things at a different speed” (Ford, 1996). The use of this program demonstrates neurodiversity.

On the other hand the problem with this approach is that educational facilities segregate autistic children by labelling them as 'SEN' therefore “he or she may become the victims of bullying” (Christoplos & Renz, 2004) due to being labelled as different. Within education an autistic child being labelled as SEN generally have support with learning and sensory needs. But, “Autistic people don't all have the same sensory problems” (Grandin & Panek, 2014). Within education the solution to 'fix' the child's needs in order to participate in class, is to provide all autistic children with weighted vests and shaded glasses. The reason this is sometimes unsuccessful is because “if you have twenty people with autism, shaded glasses or weighted vests will help maybe three or four” (Grandin & Panek, 2014). By labelling the child with special educational needs this creates an unnecessary stigma as the program is “undesirable for many of the children we are dedicated to serve” (Christoplos & Renz, 2004). This suggests that education needs to view autism from a neurodiversity perspective and develop an understanding of autism and neurodiversity, in order to differentiate the classroom setting to suit all children's requirements to learn. The “improvement in the quality of people’s lives will come more quickly, not with high-level medical science, but rather with improved education or with increased public spending on disability programs”(Murray, 2002).

Due to an absence of training, some children who have a statement receive their education at special schools. These schools have the facilities to provide an education for children with special educational needs. One of the problems with removing a child from their local mainstream school to attend a special school is that it may corrupt their social development. As a child it is important to make friends, and this is usually done by connecting with people within their environment. Yet, the “segregated education often means that children with learning difficulties who do not attend their local schools so not develop those friendships” (Ford, 1996). This is due “children who deviate widely from the norm” (Christoplos & Renz, 2004) being secluded due to societies lack of understanding and the eagerness to “push for the things your expectations tell you are normal” (Sinclair, 1993).

Neurodiversity attempts to remove the idea of normalcy though the social model, questioning the norm itself. Grandin asks “what would a totally normal brain even be like?....the differences are what makes us unique”(Grandin & Panek, 2014). The 'norm' is based on the average, and was created and refined by society. “Disability was once regarded very differently from the way it is now” (Davis, 2006). The social model of disability highlights society discriminating again individuals whom are identified as different from the man-made 'ideal' of the 'normal person'. This causes “non-autistic people [to] see autism as a great tragedy” (Sinclair, 1993). Therefore people begin to grieve “over the loss of the normal child parents had hoped and expected to have” (Sinclair, 1993).

By taking a neurodiversity approach, society can adapt to accommodate all citizens within society. An example of this is by allowing individuals with neurological differences to share those differences within society. Society provides ramps for wheelchair users and Braille to support the blind. Yet, areas of society are still reliant on the medical model of disability when looking at autism, and the need for a diagnosis. Instead of diagnosing an individual as a deviant that needs fixing' in order to 'fit in', neurodiversity supports the need of autistic people, recognising and celebrating that they have a uniqueness, just like all other people in society.

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