Special Education

Neurodiversity

By Christina A. Samuels — June 12, 2008 1 min read

The good, and bad, thing about being an inveterate web surfer is that you never know where you’re going to end up. Take yesterday, for example: I started off at blog run by a young feminist, because it was mentioned in a newspaper article I was reading. It led me to another blog that had a post honoring the memory of disability-rights advocate Harriet McBryde Johnson.

Johnson, who died earlier this month, was a fierce advocate for people with disabilities, and was also scornful of what she felt were “pity-based tactics” of those who would raise money for research into disabilities -- Jerry Lewis was a particular object of her ire.

Which made me start thinking about my own writing, and if I allow people with disabilities enough space in my articles to express their own thoughts, rather than allowing others to speak for them. Part of the difficulty is that I’m writing about children, and adults normally speak for children. But are my own prejudices permitting me to allow people with disabilities to have their own say?

This was a perfect time, therefore, for me to come across this recent ABC News story about a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome who would like people to stop treating him as if he has a disability, and start recognizing autism as an acceptable neurological difference that does not need to be “cured.”

(The ABC feature comes right on the heels of a lengthy article in New York magazine on the same topic.)

What would that mean for educators, I wonder? “Anti-cure doesn’t mean anti-progress,” said one of the leaders of this movement, Ari Ne’eman. And a mother quoted in the story says that some of the treatments her son has undergone are a waste of time, and she’d like to see better services for him.

But Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, cautions against “romanticizing” and “trivializing” mental disorders. Children with autism are not merely shy loners, he says.

I think we can all get behind the idea of treating a child as something more than a bundle of defects that must be fixed. Is the idea of neurodiversity and groups like the Autistic Self Advocacy Network moving too far in a direction that leads away from appropriate treatment?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.