An Open Letter to The Spectator in Riposte to the Article Against Neurodiversity14 min read

This article is written in col­lab­o­ra­tion with fellow Aspergian writer, Humble Aspie. His response can be viewed by clicking here.

I have recently and sadly been made aware of a group of online trolls, some autistic and some not, who oppose the con­cept of neu­ro­di­ver­sity. I found them when they decided to single me out on Twitter.

Essentially, they spend their time and efforts trolling Twitter, making fun of autistic peo­ple’s looks, talking about the “cold hard truth” without ever saying what this truth is, and accusing autis­tics of not being “severe” enough to rep­re­sent autism. They rep­re­sent neu­rotyp­ical Stockholm Syndrome, essen­tially apol­o­gizing for existing. They have likened my autism to “stage 1 cancer,” where others are at more advanced stages.

Classy group with com­pelling argu­ments…

Below, I will post the article itself and respond in-line with my own com­ments.

I’m an American man affected by the dis­ability autism. As a child, I went to spe­cial edu­ca­tion schools for eight years and I do a self-stimulatory behav­iour during the day which pre­vents me from get­ting much done. I’ve never had a girl­friend. I have bad motor coor­di­na­tion prob­lems which greatly impair my ability to hand­write and do other tasks. I also have social skills prob­lems, and I some­times say and do inap­pro­priate things that cause offence. I was fired from more than 20 jobs for making exces­sive mis­takes and for behav­ioural prob­lems before I retired at the age of 51.

Here, the majority of neu­ro­di­ver­sity advo­cates would sug­gest that employers be made more aware of what it means to be autistic so that they stop pushing autistic people into pro­fes­sional roles which are designed to accom­mo­date the neu­rotyp­ical brain. 

As a neu­ro­di­ver­sity advo­cate, I empathize with Mitchell’s strug­gles. Autistic people like Mitchell could work if tasks were normed to suit their neu­rocog­ni­tive pro­file.  The exi­gent stress of trying to do jobs for people who are neu­rotyp­ical, par­tic­u­larly those which require rapid task-switching in a social atmos­phere, causes the autistic person to lose momentum and opti­mism.  Autistics can be invalu­able assets to employers, and extremely ded­i­cated workers, if posi­tions are suited to their neu­rology.

We do not deny or down­play the strug­gles of autistic indi­vid­uals. There is no doubt that he has suf­fered tremen­dously in his life. Neurodiversity pro­po­nents would say that this suf­fering was largely the fault of an intol­erant society which would punish his autistic behav­iors.

The girl­friend thing is not an autistic issue, but a per­son­ality issue. Perhaps if he’d stop making sexist remarks and would stop talking, exces­sively, about smearing feces, he’d had better luck with women.

Others with autism spec­trum dis­order have it worse than I do. People on the more severe end some­times can’t speak. They soil them­selves, wreak havoc and break things. I have known them to chew up fur­ni­ture and self-mutilate. They need life­long care.

Given this, could any rea­son­able person think autism is not an afflic­tion? Could any caring person try to pre­vent suf­ferers seeking a cure? Common sense dic­tates the answer should be no. The reality is that iden­tity pol­i­tics has become so deranged that there is a group of people (both here and in the UK) who seek to pre­vent autistic people get­ting help, on the non­sen­sical grounds that it’s insulting to sug­gest they need it.

Autism is a broad spec­trum.  There are indi­vid­uals who are not autistic who also engage in behav­iors that are coun­ter­pro­duc­tive to living a rewarding life, and inter­ven­tions are tai­lored to the needs of the indi­vidual; how­ever, autistic people are gen­er­ally given a stan­dard­ized form of treat­ment which is not helpful to them and which just shames their autism without regard for the dis­tress that causes.  Much of these behav­iors are due to a poor under­standing of what it means to be autistic and how to manage and sup­port those who have autism.  Addressing this is the pur­pose of the ND move­ment. 

Often, self-harming and other neg­a­tive expres­sions of emo­tion dys­reg­u­la­tion are a reflec­tion of emo­tional crisis and not having the proper tools to be able to com­mu­ni­cate.  Neurodiversity pro­po­nents do not sug­gest that these people do not need assis­tance.  They advo­cate, instead, that autistic people be con­sulted as to what type of sup­ports are most appro­priate for autis­tics.  For example, many autistic people have the ability to talk, but find it extremely dis­tressing and dif­fi­cult.  Instead of being offered an AAC device or other com­mu­nica­tive assis­tance mea­sures, they are forced into trau­matic ther­a­pies that force them to speak.  Their autonomy is vio­lated so that they are made to engage in inter­ven­tions which cause trauma.

The move­ment is called the ‘neuro-diversity move­ment’ and its tenets state that autism is not a dis­ease or dis­order of the brain, but is rather an alter­na­tive form of brain wiring. Advocates of ‘neu­ro­di­ver­sity’ believe that to be autistic is just to be dif­ferent — like being black as opposed to being white, being a woman rather than a man, or being gay instead of het­ero­sexual. Ergo the term ‘neu­ro­di­ver­sity’. The move­ment opposes a cure for autism because why would you need to cure some­thing that’s just another valid way of being human?

Autism is a naturally-occurring dif­fer­ence in the way the brain is wired, and autistic people have con­tributed to many of the greatest inno­va­tions of modern and his­toric achieve­ment.  Without autis­tics, we wouldn’t have the com­puters and soft­ware to even engage in this exchange.  It means a diver­gence in the way the inter­con­nec­tivity of the brain is dis­trib­uted and the way cer­tain parts of the brain develop.  Often, this means that people have tremen­dous tal­ents and skills but have deficits which are co-occurring.  Working with autistic people to show­case and mobi­lize their strengths as opposed to focusing solely on their weak­nesses has con­sis­tently demon­strated more pos­i­tive out­comes for autis­tics.  The neu­ro­di­ver­sity move­ment seeks to influ­ence the way autism is approached.  Instead of forcing autis­tics to be more “normal,” or to appear more “neu­rotyp­ical,” we ask that treat­ments work with the nat­ural wiring of the autistic indi­vidual and not against it.

Some pro­po­nents of the neu­ro­di­ver­sity move­ment do not believe that autism is a dis­ability at all. Others acknowl­edge that autism is a dis­ability, but dif­fer­en­tiate between the med­ical model of dis­ability and the social model of dis­ability. The med­ical model of dis­ability states that people are dis­abled because they have an intrinsic med­ical con­di­tion. The social model of dis­ability states that people are dis­abled because society does not accom­mo­date them well enough. For example, there may be a lack of wheel­chair ramps, or notices not in braille.

Many par­ents of autistic per­sons and some autistic per­sons them­selves (myself included) have expressed a desire for a cure for autism. This causes out­rage among neu­ro­di­ver­sity pro­po­nents. They equate a cure for autism with eugenics and geno­cide. Research has shown autism has a large genetic com­po­nent and those who endorse neu­ro­di­ver­sity cite selec­tive ter­mi­na­tions of Down’s syn­drome preg­nan­cies. They insist that the pur­pose of genetic research in autism is to develop a pre­natal test to abort autistic fetuses. The only cure we need, they say, is an end to dis­crim­i­na­tion, which would solve, or at least greatly mit­i­gate, the chal­lenges and poor out­comes accom­pa­nying autism.

Many of those in the neu­ro­di­ver­sity gang claim to be autistic and to speak for others on the spec­trum. They use what a friend of mine called ‘the royal we’. They state ‘we’ don’t want to be cured — as if we all feel the same way. But in fact they are very dif­ferent from the majority of autis­tics. Many on the spec­trum can’t speak or use a com­puter. They can’t argue against ‘neu­ro­di­ver­sity’ because they can’t artic­u­late their posi­tion. They’re too dis­abled, you might say. In the wider group of autistic people, there’s a 4:1 ratio of autistic males to females, yet the majority of neu­ro­di­ver­sity pro­po­nents are women. Many of them have no overt dis­ability what­so­ever. Some of them are lawyers who have grad­u­ated from the best law schools in the United States. Others are col­lege pro­fes­sors. Many of them never went through spe­cial edu­ca­tion, as I did. A good number of them are mar­ried and have chil­dren. No wonder they don’t feel they need treat­ment.

I feel I am as immersed in neu­ro­di­ver­sity advo­cacy as a person can be, or very close to it, and I have never heard from any autistic person that there is no need for treat­ment or sup­ports, or at least accom­mo­da­tions, for autis­tics. None of us believe that we rep­re­sent all autis­tics or that we have homo­ge­neous needs. In fact, we are dia­met­ri­cally opposed to the school of thought which would seek to pro­vide the same inter­ven­tions and the same accom­mo­da­tions for all of us.

And it is true that many of us have no overt dis­ability at all. This does not mean we don’t have dis­abil­i­ties or extreme obsta­cles which aren’t overt. We just choose to not see our­selves as innately dis­eased or defec­tive. If someone does want to be cured, that is per­haps a pipe dream as tan­gible as wishing to grow three feet in stature. I don’t believe there are neu­ro­di­ver­sity advo­cates out there who would fault someone for wanting to be dif­ferent from who they are.

If Mitchell believes he would be hap­pier if he were cured, I feel for him in that regard. He is focusing on some­thing that will never happen, which is some­thing both of us know. That is not a rewarding out­look.

They don’t seem to think they need common cour­tesy either. In their cru­sade against treat­ments and dis­crim­i­na­tion, these indi­vid­uals are fre­quently less than cor­dial to those who dis­agree with them. They often equate their oppo­nents to Nazis. Parents of autistic chil­dren who search for a cure are accused of not loving their kids. The move­ment argues that autis­tics, such as myself, who desire a cure were taught to be self-haters by their par­ents and society. They protest at fundraising walks con­ducted by Autism Speaks, (a charity they loathe) and reg­u­larly harass its sup­porters. They have com­pared Autism Speaks to the Ku Klux Klan.

Yes, we loathe Autism Speaks with good reason. Here’s a PSA they ran:

I am autism.
I’m vis­ible in your chil­dren, but if I can help it, I am invis­ible to you until it’s too late.
I know where you live.
And guess what? I live there too.
I hover around all of you.
I know no color bar­rier, no reli­gion, no morality, no cur­rency.
I speak your lan­guage flu­ently.
And with every voice I take away, I acquire yet another lan­guage.
I work very quickly.
I work faster than pedi­atric aids, cancer, and dia­betes com­bined
And if you’re hap­pily mar­ried, I will make sure that your mar­riage fails.
Your money will fall into my hands, and I will bank­rupt you for my own self-gain.
I don’t sleep, so I make sure you don’t either.
I will make it vir­tu­ally impos­sible for your family to easily attend a temple, birthday party, or public park without a struggle, without embar­rass­ment, without pain.
You have no cure for me.
Your sci­en­tists don’t have the resources, and I relish their des­per­a­tion. Your neigh­bors are hap­pier to pre­tend that I don’t exist—of course, until it’s their child.
I am autism. I have no interest in right or wrong. I derive great plea­sure out of your lone­li­ness.
I will fight to take away your hope. I will plot to rob you of your chil­dren and your dreams. I will make sure that every day you wake up you will cry, won­dering who will take care of my child after I die?
And the truth is, I am still win­ning, and you are scared. And you should be.
I am autism. You ignored me. That was a mis­take.
And to autism I say:
I am a father, a mother, a grand­parent, a brother, a sister.
We will spend every waking hour trying to weaken you.
We don’t need sleep because we will not rest until you do.
Family can be much stronger than autism ever antic­i­pated, and we will not be intim­i­dated by you, nor will the love and strength of my com­mu­nity.
I am a parent riding toward you, and you can push me off this horse time and time again, but I will get up, climb back on, and ride on with the mes­sage.
Autism, you forget who we are. You forget who you are dealing with. You forget the spirit of mothers, and daugh­ters, and fathers and sons.
We are Qatar. We are the United Kingdom. We are the United States. We are China. We are Argentina. We are Russia. We are the Eurpoean Union. We are the United Nations.
We are coming together in all cli­mates. We call on all faiths. We search with tech­nology and voodoo and prayer and herbs and genetic studies and a growing aware­ness you never antic­i­pated.
We have had chal­lenges, but we are the best when over­coming them. We speak the only lan­guage that mat­ters: love for our chil­dren.
Our capacity to love is greater than your capacity to over­whelm.
Autism is naïve. You are alone. We are a com­mu­nity of war­riors. We have a voice.
You think because some of our chil­dren cannot speak, we cannot hear them? That is autism’s weak­ness.
You think that because my child lives behind a wall, I am afraid to knock it down with my bare hands?
You have not prop­erly been intro­duced to this com­mu­nity of par­ents and grand­par­ents, of sib­lings and friends and school­teachers and ther­a­pists and pedi­a­tri­cians and sci­en­tists.
Autism, if you are not scared, you should be.
When you came for my child, you forgot: you came for me.
Autism, are you lis­tening?

-Autism Speaks “I am autism” PSA, 2009

Yes, this qual­i­fies them to be com­pared to hate groups. There is no other innate trait in the world that can be painted with such per­ni­cious pro­pa­ganda without vehe­ment oppo­si­tion. I’m a mother, and you can be damn sure that I will not be cour­teous to anyone who speaks about my child with this kind of rhetoric. I have lots of things to say about Autism Speaks and others who want to por­tray autism in this light, and none of them are polite. No apolo­gies. I’m grateful for others who realize how colos­sally messed up it is to refer to human beings this way.

Less than ten years ago, the neu­ro­di­ver­sity move­ment was con­sid­ered to be nothing more than a cult whose ideas were on the absolute fringes. This has changed. In a rel­a­tively short time, they have made tremen­dous strides. In the United States a law was passed by Congress to help autistic people and their fam­i­lies. It was called the Combating Autism Act. Neuro-diversity pro­po­nents were out­raged at the notion of being ‘com­bated’, so they took to Twitter en masse, and started the hashtag #Don’tCombatMe. Many of them wrote to their Congresspersons and Senators. As a result, the US gov­ern­ment changed the name of the law to the less offen­sive Autism CARES (Autism Collaboration, Accountability, Resources, Education and Support) Act. The US gov­ern­ment also cre­ated a body called the IACC (Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee), which now advises the fed­eral gov­ern­ment on autism policy. It includes mem­bers of the gen­eral public with an interest in autism. The law requires that two autistic indi­vid­uals serve on this body, and to date, seven pro-neurodiversity, anti-cure autis­tics have been appointed. Zero anti-neurodiversity pro-cure autis­tics have been chosen to serve on this board, although two were nom­i­nated but turned down.

HOT DAMN! YES! I love my tribe. Look at all they’ve accom­plished.

Perhaps the neu­ro­di­ver­sity movement’s water­shed moment came about three years ago when jour­nalist Steve Silberman pub­lished Neurotribes, a book about the his­tory of autism written from a neu­ro­di­ver­sity per­spec­tive. Shortly before pub­li­ca­tion, Silberman wrote a scathing op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times crit­i­cising Autism Speaks for doing research on genetics and a cure for autism, rather than a vague thing he called ‘quality of life research’. He also cited the long-standing com­plaint the neu­ro­di­ver­sity move­ment has lodged against the organ­i­sa­tion that they have no actual autistic per­sons on their board of direc­tors.

Shortly after­wards, Autism Speaks, which had never before responded to neu­ro­di­ver­sity pro­po­nents, pub­lished a response on its web­site, citing all the good work it has done. Next, it changed its mis­sion state­ment, no longer using the words ‘cure’ or ‘pre­vent’. It appointed two autistic indi­vid­uals to its board of direc­tors who oppose a cure for autism. Despite being autistic, both of these new direc­tors have been able to write books, get mar­ried and obtain doc­toral degrees.

And this is why we love Steve Silberman. He’s an hon­orary member of the Tribe. Our greatest ally, in my opinion. But Autism Speaks has not improved in prac­tice, only on paper. We still demand better.

The obvious problem with the increasing dom­i­nance of the neu­ro­di­ver­sity move­ment is that those more severely impacted by autism are often not in a posi­tion to lobby. The par­ents of severely autistic chil­dren may long for a cure but they don’t have the time to cru­sade. Caring for a hand­i­capped indi­vidual is pro­foundly time-consuming.

It con­cerns me greatly that the neuro-diversity move­ment now wields such influ­ence. I worry that it will pre­vent the sci­en­tific research that might help me and others more severely afflicted. I hope there will be a back­lash against this move­ment and that people will see sense before it is too late.

The thing is, his­tor­i­cally and cur­rently, dis­abled people have not been treated like autonomous human beings. There is a tremen­dous need for the neu­ro­di­ver­sity move­ment, for people like Mitchell and for people like me and for those with strug­gles more exi­gent than ours. We under­stand being dehu­man­ized, mis­un­der­stood, infan­talized, iso­lated, mis­treated, and mis­man­aged. We might not have strug­gles as pro­nounced as some others, but col­lec­tively, we give voice to and sup­port neu­ro­di­verse people and all of their mar­gin­al­ized inter­sec­tional iden­ti­ties through all of their hard­ships.

And no, we do not expect people like Mitchell to con­form to any school of thought; how­ever, when he and his band of maybe-autistics and neu­rotyp­ical torch-bearers descend on our advo­cacy efforts with troll posts, reducing autism to “smearing shit on walls” (their most frequently-quoted canard in a list of unflat­tering plat­i­tudes), then they will con­tinue to be at the receiving end of our oppo­si­tion.

The days of apol­o­gizing for existing are over. This is not a move­ment any­more. It’s a rev­o­lu­tion.

Stalk us

8 Comments


  1. Compelling post. Thank you! So many good points. I’m sorry you’ve come into con­tact with people who seem deter­mined to make life even more dif­fi­cult for a pop­u­la­tion that already strug­gles to live in a world that does not yet under­stand or accom­mo­date their dif­fer­ences. Neurodiversity is such a pos­i­tive per­spec­tive. Why exac­er­bate the depres­sion sur­rounding how autism makes life dif­fi­cult and focus on get­ting “rid” of it in the future when there are people here and now who need sup­port and love and under­standing to live a full life? If I had been diag­nosed as a child and sur­rounded by par­ents focused on “fixing” me my entire life, I would prob­ably have been clin­i­cally depressed from a young age, per­haps giving up on myself and inter­nal­izing the view that I am just a freak of nature that doesn’t deserve to be here. How tragic. How is it a bad thing to try actu­ally lis­tening and accom­mo­dating rather than con­demning and trying to coerce or bribe behav­ioral changes just to make the neu­rotyp­i­cals around them more com­fort­able in public? Even those who don’t com­mu­ni­cate “nor­mally” or are non­verbal have so much to say if we can stop for a second and listen.

    1. ND a pos­i­tive perp­spec­tive? Anything Panglossian and Panglossian is, by def­i­n­i­tion, ‘pos­i­tive’ enough, for sure. Stockholm Syndrome gen­er­ally is. The point, how­ever, is what is objec­tively true; not what feels good to so many of the pale lib­eral intel­lec­tuals from the big metrop­o­lises (such as the ‘scholars’ or rather ‘intel­lec­tuals’) of the ND reli­gion.

  2. I would like to know why people are encour­aged to seek a diag­nosis if autism is simply a nat­u­rally occur­ring brain dif­fer­ence & if there is no need for autism to be in the DSM‑V? Is neu­rotyp­ical a trendy word for quirky?

    1. Hi Strawman!
      Most Autistic neu­ro­di­ver­sity advo­cates would still call Autism a dis­ability in the sense of Autistic people needing ser­vices that society gen­er­ally is reluc­tant to pro­vide and can only be cajoled into if said person has a diag­nosis. While we dis­like the pathol­o­gizing that usu­ally comes with it, get­ting the sup­port we need usu­ally takes prece­dence.
      I hope that helps you!

  3. I cannot speak for anyone else, Kitty: I can cer­tainly speak for myself. But here is why I sought a diag­nosis.

    I sought a diag­nosis because I spent 50 years trying not to be “dif­ferent” — and failing. 50 years of wanting to fit in with the neu­rotyp­ical world around me. (Neurotypical is not a “trendy word for quirky” — it just means “not autistic”. But nobody should ever be defined in terms of what they are not, so the word “neu­rotyp­ical” was coined.) 50 years of observing the social norms and behav­iours that neu­rotyp­ical people expect and trying to deliver them … but remaining “dif­ferent” none the less. And 50 years of neu­rotyipcal people just assuming that i was CHOOSING to be “dif­ferent” … and telling me that if I didn’t fit in then I had only myself to blame because of the choices I was making.

    “You need to be more aware of the effect you have on other people” said one of my bosses, who prided him­self of being a “people person”. Whenever some­body com­plained of the effect I had on them, that was MY problem. And yet, I wasn’t allowed to com­plain of the effect that other people had on me because … guess what? THAT was my problem, too.

    “Make dif­ferent choices … behave more nor­mally … and then you’ll do just fine” was the con­stant mes­sage.

    Well, after half a cen­tury of effort, I was tired of this con­stant refrain. Tired of the fact that the neu­rotyp­ical world would only accept me if I was just like them, and yet no matter how hard I tried to con­form, tried to be like them, tried to do exactly what they were telling me I must do … I couldn’t. I was still dif­ferent. I was still seen by them to be dif­ferent. And I was still treated by them as if this dif­fer­ence was down to the choices I was making.

    I’d had enough.

    And the diag­nosis I obtained con­firms what I knew all along — that I AM dif­ferent from the neu­rotyp­ical par­a­digm, and that this is NOT my fault. It is NOT down to the choices I make. And it is NOT some­thing I can change, no matter how hard I try.

    In short, it val­i­dates me as a person. As an indi­vidual As a human being.

    After half a cen­tury of being inval­i­dated by the neorp­typ­ical majority, that really mat­ters to me.

  4. To someone who is con­sid­ering “curing” thier neu­ro­di­verisity, I say:“Let THEM do that and you will be just like everyone else!”

  5. “Those most severely impacted by autism” … ?

    What on earth is meant by THAT???

    I am autistic. An aspie. I am intel­li­gent and artic­u­late. I had a career as a lawyer, and now I am entering upon a second career as a teacher.

    From a neu­rotyp­ical point of view, I may appear suc­cessful. They may think that I am not “severely impacted by autism”.

    But … guess what?? My life has been a 50-year struggle against judg­ment, con­dem­na­tion and deri­sion by neu­rotyp­ical bul­lies at school and in the work­place. People who thought I ought to be “just like them”, and noticed that I wasn’t. People who devalued and inval­i­dated my humanity because of those dif­fer­ences.

    Not severely impacted? Don’t make me laugh.

    People at work didn’t like me because I was “dif­ferent” … so they com­plained to my boss, who lec­tured me on my need to “be more aware of the effect I had on other people” and gave me poor per­for­mance appraisals which pre­vented me from pro­gressing in my career. Yet when other people behaved in a way that made me pro­foundly uncom­fort­able … guess what? They didn’t need to “be more aware of the effect they had” on me. Oh no. I needed to learn to accept the dif­fer­ences between me and other people. And to accept that, because THEY were per­ceived to be “normal”, they were enti­tled to behave towards me in this way, no matter how hurtful and dis­tressing I found it. Nobody else found it hurtful and dis­tressing, after all … so “obvi­ously” I was the problem, not them.

    Don’t com­pare the apparent suc­cess I have had in my life with the apparent lack of suc­cess of some others who share my con­di­tion and tell me that, there­fore, they are “more severely impacted by autism” than me. Rather … com­pare the lim­ited suc­cess I have had despite all my tal­ents and abil­i­ties with the suc­cess which some­body with my tal­ents and abil­i­ties OUGHT to have had were it not for the prej­u­dices of neu­rotyp­ical society at large. THAT is the mea­sure of the severity of impact of my autism … and, though I say it myself, it is HUGE.

    Don’t get me wrong … I feel immensely priv­i­leged to have the tal­ents and abil­i­ties that I have. I earned a place, on merit, at the world’s finest uni­ver­sity, after all. But thirty years on … after thirty years of being branded an inad­e­quate failure because, despite those tal­ents and abil­i­ties, and the finest uni­ver­sity edu­ca­tion in the world, I am unable to “get on in the world” due to the way the world per­ceives and judges me … I simply cannot accept that I have not been “severely impacted by autism”.

    And THAT, my friends, is why we need the neu­ro­di­ver­sity move­ment.

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