Expanding Diversity to Include Neurodiversity

By Angela Lea Nemecek

It has become axiomatic at our university that diversity is good and important. Race, culture, gender, religion, nationality, sexuality, physical disability, and other features of being human vary in vast and important ways. Most of us acknowledge that our UVa community is stronger and more vibrant because of the presence of this diversity, which we celebrate with multicultural student events, Pride Week, Disability Acceptance Week, and many more. The Diversity Dialogues, which I attended on Grounds last November, provided a forum for us to think about why diversity matters and how we—as faculty, staff, and students—can commit more fully to it.

Diversity isn’t only important at UVa. Research suggests it makes for better workplaces overall. It makes us think better, work harder, and be more creative.  Although recent events like the UVa hate speech chalkings and the persistence of the “Not Gay” chant reveal that we have a long way to go before we could say we’re all truly “walking the walk” of diversity and inclusion, the inherent goodness of diversity isn’t something most people on Grounds question in polite conversation. We’re talking the talk. But what about neurodiversity?

For those unfamiliar with the term neurodiversity, let’s start by defining it. It’s a wide-ranging term that includes many kinds of being different: from autism to ADD/ADHD, bipolar to atypical sensory processing, neurodiversity is a term meant to acknowledge that human minds, like human bodies, come in a variety of forms. From a neurodiversity standpoint, all of these ways of thinking, feeling, and processing serve a purpose; none is inherently superior or inferior. There might be differences, but there are no “disorders.” Neurodiversity says that we can drop the disease language and talk neutrally about human minds in all their diversity.

So are we “neurodiverse” at UVa? Do we accept that there are many kinds of minds, and that all of them add something of value to our community? In the last year, I’ve had conversations with at least a dozen Wahoos who fit under the very spacious umbrella of neurodiversity—students, faculty, staff, and alums. Some have been diagnosed with clinical or seasonal depression, some experience bipolar, some identify as autistic. I’ve asked them about their experiences—what it’s like to be them at UVa. A theme has emerged often, voiced best by one of them: “There is no space for me to be at UVa.”

From the Light it Up Blue campaign, which many autistic people feel marginalize them every April, to the language of illness and pathology that some students with mental health issues feel is woven through the discourse surrounding mental health on Grounds, neurodiversity is not a way of thinking about minds that has taken root at our university. Autism Speaks is looking for a cure for autism, not seeking to understand the lived experiences of autistic people and whether they want a cure. (Spoiler alert: they mostly don’t.) Some grassroots mental health organizations provide space for self-advocacy that empowers neurodiverse people, but if you seek psychological help you often find yourself squarely back inside the language of pathology.

I would argue there are some understandable reasons people are cautious about a neurodiversity perspective. Every way of thinking and processing the world can’t really be ok, can it? I mean, some people are spurred to do terrible things by thoughts and feelings; some people struggle their entire lives with what they would, themselves, term mental “illness.” We can’t unquestioningly celebrate brains; we have to acknowledge that sometimes brains cause problems. In fact, a story of a brain causing problems was told quite articulately by the last blogger on this site.

But can we acknowledge that sometimes brains cause problems—and make space to hear about those problems—without always resorting to a disease model? I think so. What neurodiversity offers us is not a rubber stamp of unquestioning acceptance on everything human beings ever think, feel, and do, but a general belief that minds are complicated and people’s experiences are different and we should be open to listening. Neurodiversity puts the person with the differences at the center of the conversation about those differences, rather than building an apparatus of “treatment” or “help” around them without their consent. Disability activists’ famous refrain “nothing about us without us” surely reverberates in the neurodiversity perspective.

So what does it mean on a practical level to implement a neurodiversity approach at UVa? First, seek out the perspectives and voices of the groups you’re talking about instead of making them mere objects of knowledge or aid. Remember that autism isn’t just a “disorder” affecting children whom you hold fundraisers for; you work and go to class with autistic people.

Second, when you find out someone is neurodiverse, pay attention to how they want their neurodiversity to be talked about. Should you call them a person with autism, or an autistic person? Should you say they have bipolar disorder, or drop the “disorder?” Should you say they have depression or have been diagnosed with it? Just as with gender pronouns, if you don’t know how someone would like to be referred to, ask.

And finally, pay attention to how you deploy diagnostic labels. It isn’t cool to say that guy in your office who seems to lack social skills is “probably kind of autistic” any more than it would be ok to use the R word. If you’re feeling scattered today, you’re not “having an ADD day.” These ways of speaking are no different than racial slurs. When you use them, you dismiss the lived experiences of neurodiverse people and reduce them to stereotypes and metaphors.

Remember: People are human. You will sometimes mess up, use the wrong words, or say insensitive things. No one expects you to be perfect; they expect you to try. UVa can do better when it comes to neurodiversity, and it starts with you.

Angela Nemecek is Program Manager of OpenGrounds at the University of Virginia and runs this blog on behalf of the Disability Advocacy and Action Committee. She received her Ph.D. in English Literature from UVa in 2012 and is currently working on her Master of Social Work at VCU.

2 thoughts on “Expanding Diversity to Include Neurodiversity”

  1. Great article. This is the first time I have heard the term neurodiversity. I hope to hear it used more, in place of other terms. A subtle shift occurs in the mind when we focus on what is possible rather than what is not. Perhaps this is one way that culture changes. I wonder who we might also shift our collective thinking by finding a replacement for the word ‘disability’, too.

  2. Thank you for your work on neurodiversity. I have two graduate degrees from the University and currently am a resident at chaplain at the Medical Center. I was diagnosed while in the Curry School with a learning disability. I continue to try to help people embrace learning disabilities and the impact it has in the classroom and in the hospital rooms.

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