Friday, April 10, 2009

Neurodiversity and gender (by Suzie)


           In the neurodiversity movement, I appreciate the idea that people think and behave differently, and these differences can benefit the individual as well as society. (Of course, some ways of being don't suit either.)  
         An interesting article in New York magazine quotes Judy Singer, who coined the term “neurodiversity” for the movement that considers autism, Asperger’s and related conditions another way of existing in the world, as opposed to a defect or illness.
"I was interested in the liberatory, activist aspects of it—to do for neurologically different people what feminism and gay rights had done for their constituencies,” Singer said.
          Identity politics often rely on the binary of the privileged vs. the oppressed, and aspects of the oppressed group may be revalued. But it can be hard to value the differences of one group without criticizing, even inadvertently, the differences of another. This site values traits of people on the autism spectrum, including less interest in “small talk.” That phrase has a pejorative connotation. But "small talk" can be good; some people do it to bond, or to pave the way for deeper conversations.
          In the post below, which I hope you read first, I talk about definitions of “neurotypical” and “non-neurotypical.” Some people on the autism spectrum use humor to express frustration with NTs here and here. These put-downs seem to conflict with an essay on neurodiversity from Thomas Armstrong, who says that "what we call disabilities exist on a continuum with normal behavior." In other words, there is no clear demarcation between typical and non-typical.
        Some people link traits of autism and Asperger's to stereotypical male behavior, such as having less interest in the social and emotional needs of others. The most notorious example is Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge, who has written on the “extreme male brain.” Here’s an Echidne posts that critiques him
        Boys and men are much more likely to be diagnosed on the autism spectrum, although people have questioned whether girls may get misdiagnosed, perhaps because they behave differently. Some people have argued that women with autism and Asperger’s have it worse than men because the women don’t meet gender expectations. Not surprisingly, some men disagree.
      If we truly want to value other ways of being in the world, we need to be careful not to reinscribe stereotypes. To truly respect neurodiversity, we need to give more than a passing reference to women who are diagnosed with mental illnesses in which women predominate, such as depression and anxiety.