I’ve been reading a number of blogs that have been critical of the neurodiversity movement. Generally, they’ve characterized neurodiversity as saying “we don’t want a cure; we don’t want research; we just want to be left alone in our differentness.” I suspect that only a small minority of neurodiversity activists take this position. I certainly don’t. In my book Neurodiversity: Discovering the Extraordinary Gifts of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Other Brain Differences, I celebrate neurodiversity, but I also suggest that in order for diverse brains to survive, they need two things: help in adapting to the world around them, and tools to change the surrounding environment to meet the needs of their unique brains.
So I’m very interventionist when it comes to neurodiversity. There is a lot that we could and should do to help diverse brains thrive. For people with autism, that means help with social skills, communication, and problem-solving (adapting), and assistance in creating niches through sensory modification and interest-development among other things. I’m fine with research into the genetic causes of autism. We need to know more about this disorder/difference, and if there are things we can do to better the lives of people with autism, that’s great! Where I might start getting kind of nervous, however, is when people begin talking about genetic counseling for autism and other neurodiverse conditions (I suspect we’re still a long way from this).
It’s when we give people choices about whether or not to allow autism to exist, that I think we’re in dangerous territory. Because if most people choose to abort a fetus that seems like it may be autistic, just as they’re doing for Down syndrome (around 93%), then we’re starting to make choices about what we want humanity to look like. And, overall, I think we’re better off having a diversity of brains, than a non-diversity of brains. What if we decided to do away with roses? Or Italian culture? Or people with flat noses? Why should it be any different with brains? I believe we should do all that we can to help a brain fulfill its potential in life, but it seems to me risky to dictate in advance whether a brain that isn’t “normal” should even see the light of day.
What would a world of “normal” brains look like? Would they all be, as Temple Grandin has humorously suggested, accountants? Would they all live in tract homes and golf on the weekend? I don’t know what kind of dystopia or utopia would come into being with a world full of normal people, but I suggest it would be less interesting, with fewer surprises, fewer extremes of emotion, fewer innovations, and fewer instances of rule-breaking. By honoring and celebrating neurodiversity, we maximize the possibilities, and while it’s true that some of those possibilities will suck, many more will enhance life, promote joy, and instigate the kind of unpredictable changes that we really need to have around if we’re going to keep evolving as a species on this cockeyed planet.