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Reclaiming Neurofuturism: Ontological perspectives of neurodiversity

For time immemorial the nature of human consciousness has been discussed and debated. I have spoken at length about neuronormativity and neuroqueer theory, positioning the Self as a moving target that grows and changes dependent on it’s cultural and environmental context, socially constructed by those we interact with. I refer to this as the Chaotic Self, a Self that is constantly changing and of no fixed value. The issue with this is that it contradicts one of the fundamental ways that those outside of neurodiversity paradigm based communities understand minds that differ from normative values.

The pathology paradigm posits an essentialist worldview, that you are born either normal, or abnormal, and that if you were not born abnormal, then it is due to the development of a pathological occurrence. According to this view their are no routes to atypicality outside of the circumstances of ones birth or illness.

This has itself given birth to medical models of neurodiversity which are themselves of a realist nature. Medical models view truth as objective and fixed, awaiting our discovery. There is no space for subjective experience and opinion in the medical world. Despite this, there is currently no meaningful, objective relationship between our physical brain and our experience of the world. The medical model deals in objective facts such as the DSM 5 diagnostic criteria for autism and ADHD, these diagnostic criteria are far more open to interpretation than we are led to believe.

They issue with diagnostic and medical models is that they suggest neurodivergence is a fixed and immutable fact. One is either neurotypical or neurodivergent, with no recourse for movement across the metaphorical boundaries. The truth, as ever, is far more complicated. The foundation of neuroqueer theory, for example, is that one can queer your neurology, with neurotypicality being a performance rather than a natural kind.

According to neuroqueer theory, it is possible for a person who performs neurotypicality to alter their mind in a way that they become neurodivergent. Under medical models this is disregarded as inducing pathology of the mind. The realism of medical models suggests that if one does not fit into contained and objective criteria then one is not neurodivergent.

From a relativistic perspective this is patently absurd. Every human mind is different. Relativism underpins the neurodiversity paradigm in the same way that realism does the pathology paradigm. neurodiversity models recognise that no two human brains are the same, and while some groups may have shared culture and experiences, we have our own subjective truths that are influenced by the cultural context of our existence and our interaction with others.

Therefore, neurodivergence is not unique to that which can be measured by diagnostic criteria, but instead a disengagement from normative values and performance. To become neurodivergent is to be liberated from the cult of normality. We escape the status quo by escaping the normatively constructed Self.

This raises the question of how one builds community and culture from the idiosyncrasies of individual humans. I would argue that in neurodivergent communities we form connection based on phenomenological introspection. Through our exploration of individual experiences we find the places where our lives cross and recross. We find the shared paths we have taken while acknowledging the paths we walk separately.

This is why understanding intersectionality is so very important, it allows us to recognise that we have just as many individual experiences as we do shared ones. It allows us to address the subjective nature of how we experience and embody the Self.

In my opinion, to embrace the neurodiversity movement is to let go of the notion of objective truth. To embrace the diversity of human cognition and embodiment is to liberate oneself from the standardised measurement of consciousness. It is to recognise that where shared experience creates identity-based communities such as that of the Autistic community, our subjectivity and solipsistic nature is what creates the diversity of the human population.

Thus, neuroqueering is an essential practice to the survival of the human species. A diverse species is a healthy species, and where we have too much homogeneity it is necessary to queer ourselves and create heterogeneity.

Power dynamics and mental health: Neurofuturist discourse of mental health

When we consider power dynamics, we often consider our external environment and how power flows through the various parts of society, and where privilege is afforded by that power. While discussion of intersectionality and power dynamics is important when considering where discourse comes from and how it affects groups of people, we often don’t think about how such discourse injures our relationship with the Self.

Mental health has long been the remit of medicine. Distressing or unusual behaviour has been positioned as a pathology requiring treatment for decades, despite this approach not improving outcomes for those it affects in that entire time. We use a lot of troubling language when talking about psychological distress; disorder, condition, ailment, mental illness, psychopathology. Each of these words conjure up images of a medical emergency. They tell us that a problem is situated with us and that we need to be fixed.

We then also have to consider the militaristic language that surrounds medicine. “Chronic illness warrior” and “lost their battle to cancer” immediately spring to mind. The effect that these co-occurring discourse (see what I did there?) have on our sense of Self is to enter us into a fight with our own experiences. Experience helps shape the Self meaning that the popular discourse around mental health is placing us into a war with our Self. It is no longer okay to be us.

The irony here is that constant fighting with our own sense of identity causes further psychological distress. Perhaps the reason that outcomes in psychiatry have not improved for over half a century is because their methods and discourse are actually escalating our distress.

Instead of asking “what’s wrong with me?” We need to shift discourse over to “what happened to me?”. It’s vital that psychological distress be placed in the context of one’s environment and experiences of the complex power dynamics within them. There is a word for systems that require us to fight ourselves into a more socially acceptable place; oppressive.

Current systems within mental health treatment are weapons of the oppressive cult of normal.

As we look to the future, we need to consider how we will emancipate ourselves from normativity of all kinds and what we will accept as freedom. Society has spent a long time pathologising those identities and experiences that do not serve its own goals, and the time has come to stand tall and proclaim aloud; who I am has value, I will not be placed at odds with myself.

Autism and ADHD: The myth of co-occurring conditions

It’s a very poorly kept secret that many people who are given a diagnosis of autism also meet the criteria for a diagnosis of ADHD. One could be forgiven for assuming this means that people who meet the criteria for both (often termed AuDHD) have two co-occurring conditions. Unfortunately, nothing in life is simple, and the actual answer to this situation is far more complex.

Co-occurring disorders refer to two separate conditions that are occurring at the same time. For example, one might be both asthmatic and diabetic simultaneously. I have chosen this particular example because I want to explore the disconnect between physical health and psychiatric diagnoses.

Diagnosis is a two part system. Step one is research. Clusters of symptoms are matched up to biological signs (known as biomarkers). Where a meaningful relationship can be found between symptoms and biomarkers, you have a disorder. In psychiatry, however, it does not go this smoothly. We can identify clusters of symptoms, usually behaviour or thoughts and feelings that have been deemed troublesome or pathological by those with the privilege of not being oppressed. The problem comes when we try to find a meaningful link with biomarkers.

Despite decades of research, we are not any closer to finding a quantifiable difference in the human body. The research that does exist has been largely inconclusive.

So here’s where autism and ADHD come in. Many of us meet the criteria for both diagnoses. This is because diagnostic manuals specify lists of traits, and if you meet enough of them, you get diagnosed. The problem is that much like pseudoscientific personality tests, humans don’t fit neatly into categories. The criteria for many diagnoses overlap and mic together.

The point I’m trying to make is that AuDHD’ers do not have two conditions simultaneously. In fact, according to the neurodivesity paradigm, there is nothing medically quantifiable. Humans have individual sets of traits that are diverse and interlinked. Remember the saying “if you’ve met one Autistic person, you’ve met one Autistic person”?

That’s because autism doesn’t actually exist. It’s not a physical abnormality, it has no presence. Autistic people exist, and being Autistic is an identity based on shared culture and language. So, what is far more likely is that Autistic and ADHD people are more likely to share particular clusters of traits. You don’t have two conditions, your particular flavour of diversity just happens to tick the right boxes for both.

One could argue that this means a separate diagnosis should be created for people who meet both criteria or that classification should be changed to have them listed as part of a shared spectrum. The problem is that current diagnostic models are unreliable and prone to mistakes. We often find our diagnosis changing from doctor to doctor.

This isn’t necessarily because doctors are bad at their job. It’s because we are trying to pathologise human experience and identity. You can’t measure psychiatric conditions with a blood test, doctors know this, and they’ve been trying to do it for many years. This means that not just diagnosis, but the criteria themselves are at the whim of individuals. Experts and professionals bring their own individual biases to the table, and each one will interpret traits differently.

This is why it’s important that we move towards a demedicalised approach to neurodiversity. We need to stop assigning people fixed identities through diagnosis and instead explore the very real fact that everything about us, including our neurology, changes with time.

People should be allowed to explore their identity and try on whatever labels they feel are right for them.

If this has intrigued you I highly recommend the Neuroqueer series that I co-author with Katie Munday and the interview I recently has with Dr. Nick Walker for my podcast.

Why is getting diagnosed with autism so difficult?

The Autistic community has written at length about why getting a diagnosis is so hard, especially with regards to those at particular intersections of experience. I myself have spoken about how our diagnostic understanding of autism is based on the Autistic person in distress. Current models used to diagnose simply do not work.

There is a wider issue to consider, though, than race, gender identity, or trauma. We have to consider the individuality of Autistic people.

Humans are never just one thing. We don’t just experience being Autistic. Every single one of us lives at the intersection of multitudes of experiences. Currently, diagnosis of autism is based on a collective understanding of a shared group of observable behaviour. This diagnostic conceptualisation was socially constructed (ironically) by people who rarely share in Autistic culture. This has resulted in very restrictive criteria that boxes out a lot of people.

Due to the intersectional nature of humanity, these criteria will never capture all Autistic people. Allow me to give an example:

I am Autistic, ADHD, and Schizophrenic. This does not mean that I have Autistic, ADHD, and Schizophrenic traits. None of these traits cancel each other out either. A more accurate description would be that I am AuDPhrenic. My experience arises from the interactions of my neurological systems. I don’t have separate parts of my brain for all three diagnoses. I have a human brain, and my observable behaviour has then be put into three categories.

This is why the medicalisation of neurodivergence has been an issue in perpetuity. We try and categorise human experiences despite its propensity to defy expectations. There is no such thing as an objectively neurodivergent brain. Some of us are just wired in a way that stops us from assimilating into normative society. Any categorisation is an abstract concept that is entirely constructed by humanity.

We can see the irony of diagnosis in neuroqueer theory. Anyone can queer their embodiment. It is not restricted to the Neurodivergent. Neurotypical people could, in theory, neuroqueer to the point that their observable behaviour is not neurotypical anymore.

So what does all this mean for diagnosis?

It means that we need to move away from one-size-fits-all approached to diagnosis. We need to move away from diagnosis altogether. In a post-normal society, we need to allow people to use the words that best describe their own sense of identity. As I talk about in A Treatise on Chaos, identity is a knowing target. The nature of the Chaotic Self is that we grow and change, and our identity is constantly shifting and changing.

We need to allow people to use the words that best describe their identity. Locking a person’s identity behind a diagnosis and then requiring them to receive that diagnosis is a paradox and a betrayal of the neurodiversity movement itself.

What purpose does the concept of mental “illness” serve?

As a Schizophrenic person, I see many talk about me as being mentally “ill” and in need of medicine. I do take medication, but for me, medication usage is similar to what one might see within ADHD communities. Medicine is a tool, not a treatment. It allows me to function in environments that are not designed to be accessible to me or my needs. It allows me to live my life without the constant experience of distress, one that I experience without medication because the world is not designed for me.

All suffering is valid, and all neurodivergence can result in suffering. Not because we are ill, but because the world is a traumatic place to live. Neurodivergent people have to face the oppression of all that is different on a daily basis.

“Illness” as a concept within psychological wellbeing a distress is a convenience. It allows professionals to tell us our suffering is unavoidable. If we die by suicide, then we are collateral damage. Victims of a pathology ravaging human kind. If we are “ill” then professionals and leaders do not have to acknowledge their role in a system, causing us distress.

This is what we are actually experiencing. Distress. When we can move forward from pathology models and start to consider that what is happening is a very human experience, we can start to point the blame where it belongs. A world that is violent and terrifying for a huge portion of the population. It is not on us to recover from a mysterious, unquantifiable entity of illness. The world needs to change.

We need to recognise that distress is a human experience, and no two humans have the same experience. Just because my distress looks like the loss of our shared reality does not mean that I am ill. Just because I take medicine that eases my distress does not mean I have a disorder. We don’t assume ADHD’ers to be ill for taking medication. Why do we do it to other forms of medication-assisted neurodivergence?

This ties us up in ideas around med-shaming and toxic positivity. One of the reasons people feel shamed of their meds is because, to them, it feels like an admission of guilt. They weren’t strong enough to survive without becoming ill. It’s not fair to let people feel that way. It’s also unfair to go the other direction and tell people to manage their distress without tools such as medicine. It’s possible to be neurodivergent (and not ill) and still need medication for day to day life.

Neurodivergence is aggressively neutral. It has positives and negatives, and it also has experiences that are not able to be compartmentalised. Truthfully, neurodivergent experience is human experience. The fact that we have to section off different experiences and diagnose them as “illness” or “disorder” fundamentally undermines the neurodiversity paradigm.

Mental “illness” is a deeply flawed concept, and until we fix this, we will not be able to reduce human distress.

Shifting the paradigm on world autism day

April 2nd.

It’s a day that so many of us dread. For as long as “world autism day” has existed, it is a day where (much like every other day) adherents of the pathology paradigm do their best to drown out the voices of those that proudly display their Autistic selves.

Why are we so loud about our experiences as Autistic people? It’s not because we’re trying to take away access to support services for Autistic children, as a certain type of parent will have you believe. It’s because we want to make sure that Autistic people receive support that is not only accessible, but of good quality.

But is this far enough?

Truthfully, no.

Yes, in the current world, we need access to that support. We live in a world that disables us with it’s oppressive nature. The higher your support needs, the more our world seeks to dehumanise you. Should we not be aiming higher than supporting people in a world that treats us like a phenomenon to be studied and experimented on?

Imagine, for a moment, a world where everyone is treated equally. Imagine a world where no one has privilege over another, and no group is marginalised. Imagine a world where being Autistic is no longer a medical issue that requires diagnosis.

This is the world we should be aiming for.

Sadly, societal neuronormativity makes such a world feel impossible. Even the most neurologically queer of us have been raised and indoctrinated into a type of groupthink that makes the act of queering oneself away from said normativity feel like an extreme sport

For some of us, being true to ourselves means putting our life at risk.

In order to move beyond our current society , we must do more than queer the self. We must dismantle the system in which we live and rebuild it. For the new system to work, terms like “neurotypical” and “neurodivergent” must become irrelevant. We need a societal divergence towards a new normal, one in which normal no longer exists.

For this to work, we need to move away from discussion around “disorders” and “conditions” and towards a world in which identity and culture take centre stage. A world where no one needs supporting because society works for everyone, rather than a select few.

This world autism day, we must step forward with a renewed fervour for not just the destruction of ableism, but the belief that a better world is possible. Let April 2nd 2022 be the day that we choose the neurodiversity paradigm.

Perhaps, this time next year, we can wake up to a society that’s just a little bit more accepting than the one we’re in today.

One day, trauma won’t be the collective experience of our autistic culture.

Neurostandardisation: considering the oppression of neurodivergent individuals

For quite some time now, the neurodiversity movement has spoken about the harmfulness of behavioural techniques. These techniques are used to prevent the outward indications of the Autistic neurotype. They are generally aimed at children, and almost always lead to significant harm being done.

The use of such techniques belongs to a wider issue with the way that society views neurodivergence.

What seems most obvious to me, is that the existence of words such as “neurotypical” already imply that there is a typical standard that we diverge from. Words like “typical” and “standard” can be considered the descendants of the pathology paradigm, and the ableism that came from that worldview.

Under the pathology paradigm, anything that sits outside of the box of “typical”, is broken and in need of fixing. In the case of autism, this has led to research into deficits, resulting in the direct oppression of Autistic people through the use of harmful cure culture.

This cure culture attempts to standardise the mind, hence “neurostandardisation”. It is an attempt to bring the neurodivergent individual into line with a neurocognitive standard of existence. It’s not always medical and behavioural interventions either, often it is the societal culture that forces neurotypical people to camouflage their neruodivergent traits.

The question then remains as to why society forces neurostandardisation onto people.

I am firmly of the opinion that society at large has three reasons for clinging on to the pathology paradigm, and using it to oppress and “standardise” others.

1. Those with privilege in this society are afraid that by giving others more, they will have less.

2. Keeping minority groups in an oppressed state, requiring them to “fit in” means that the privileged do not have to consider the failings of their own culture and society.

3. Those who thrive in the dominant culture are unwilling to put the effort into learning how to live equitably with minority cultures and groups.

When you consider the origins of bigotry, I start to feel like the pathology paradigm has played a huge role. Mel Baggs wrote of how most (if not all) forms of bigotry are rooted in ableism. Nick Walker writes extensively of the privilege of neurotypical autism professionals in her book Neuroqueer Heresies. One might consider that having privileged member of a dominant culture in a position of authority over a minority is a blatant conflict of interest.

Neurostandardisation can then be recognised as the forced assimilation of neurodivergent people into the dominant culture, while keeping them in a position of disadvantage. It is a tool of oppression that takes many forms, but is ultimately the goal of the pathology paradigm. A paradigm that seeks to invalidate the existence anything outside of it’s limited, reductive, and quite frankly incorrect view that such a thing as “normal” exists.

This is why the existence of advocacy is so important. Where oppression exists, we need voices that can shout loudly, and expunge the false beliefs of the current sociocultural paradigms.

Until those beliefs have been dismantled, neurodivergent people will always be lower on the ladder.

Why requiring Autistic people to be diagnosed is a betrayal of the Neurodiversity movement

It has long been accepted that diagnosis is a privilege that many are not afforded. What is not discussed is how diagnosis itself feeds into the pathology paradigm that has surrounded Autistic people since Autism was first conceptualised.

Requiring that a person be diagnosed Autistic is in and of itself a pathologisation of that neurocognitive-style.

One no longer expects a homosexual to be diagnosed with a disorder or condition, and yet we strive to be diagnosed as Autistic. While I recognise the privilege that having a diagnosis has given me, and I admit that my diagnostic paperwork saying “condition” instead of “disorder” filled me with joy; it has taken me some time to realise that my need to be diagnosed was in fact a perpetuation of medical models and pathologisation.

Being Autistic is an identity based on a specific neurology. It is not inherently good or bad. There is nothing to be fixed or cured, so why force people to acquire a diagnosis?

If a person largely identifies with the core experiences of being Autistic, then why should we deny them the right to identify as who they are? Should we not have accepted by now, in the 21st century, that neurodiversity is a natural phenomenon, and not a collection ailments requiring intervention.

Of course, a move away from diagnostic approaches would undermine what I would refer to as “the autism industrial complex” which largely consists of behavioural therapies and quack biomedical solutions, sold as the only way to separate your neurotypical child from the autism that has infected them.

Indeed, when one considers all the harm that the pathology paradigm has done, it seems to me that a world where being Autistic requires a medical diagnosis is not one designed in any way to accommodate Autistic people.

Should the neurodiversity movement wish to achieve its aims of acceptance and equitable treatment for all neurotypes, then we must strive to move away from all medicalisation of the natural diversity of minds. Until this is done, the neurodiversity movement can not succeed.

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