Neurodiversity and Cognition Representation

Discussion at Automattic about our branding guide and D&I statement has me thinking about neurodiversity representation.

From our D&I statement:

Diversity typically includes, but is not limited to, differences in race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, political and religious affiliation, socioeconomic background, cultural background, geographic location, physical disabilities and abilities, relationship status, veteran status, and age.

People want to see themselves represented when they read these lists of identities. Disability is often forgotten when talking diversity. Contributor covenants and corporate D&I statements are much better about including disability these days, but disability is still forgotten or diminished in many communities and movements.

While we’re getting better at acknowledging disability, neurodiversity is almost always forgotten. It’s not even on the radar. The biggest part of my identity–my operating system, my sizzling wires–doesn’t make these lists.

Perhaps we can acknowledge neurodiversity by adopting the “infinite variation in neurocognitive functioning” language that many neurodiversity self-advocates use. The social model applies to minds and bodies. Let’s not leave out the minds. Our varied operating systems make teams great. Acknowledging neurodiversity can be as simple as introducing the word “cognition”. Neurodiversity communities often use “wiring” and “operating system” metaphors, but “cognition” seems better for a general audience. The dictionary definition suits:

the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.

Adding “cognition” provides neurodiversity representation without pathologizing. I can see myself in that word, but I’m steeped in the language of the social model. Do you see yourself in the word cognition? Is it too clinical and scary? I prefer social model language to medical model language (identity > diagnosis, agent > patient), but cognition shows up in pretty much every definition of neurodiversity. Neurodiversity is the social model for cognition.

Neurodiversity is the diversity of human brains and minds – the infinite variation in neurocognitive functioning within our species.

The neurodiversity paradigm is a specific perspective on neurodiversity – a perspective or approach that boils down to these fundamental principles:

1.) Neurodiversity is a natural and valuable form of human diversity.

2.) The idea that there is one “normal” or “healthy” type of brain or mind, or one “right” style of neurocognitive functioning, is a culturally constructed fiction, no more valid (and no more conducive to a healthy society or to the overall well-being of humanity) than the idea that there is one “normal” or “right” ethnicity, gender, or culture.

3.) The social dynamics that manifest in regard to neurodiversity are similar to the social dynamics that manifest in regard to other forms of human diversity (e.g., diversity of ethnicity, gender, or culture). These dynamics include the dynamics of social power inequalities, and also the dynamics by which diversity, when embraced, acts as a source of creative potential.

Source: Neurodiversity: Some Basic Terms & Definitions

The word “neurodiversity” was coined in the 1990s by an Australian sociology grad student named Judy Singer after reading a book about the social model of disability, which proposes that disability is a product of the way society is organised, rather than by limitations imposed by a person’s condition. In a world without wheelchair ramps and accessible buildings, wheelchair users have very few choices about where they can go. But in a world that accommodates wheelchair users, they have many more choices. Neurodiversity extends the social model of disability into the realm of cognitive differences like autism, dyslexia, and ADHD. How can we make the world safer and more welcoming to people with these conditions so they can lead happier, healthier, and more autonomous lives? That’s the question that the neurodiversity movement asks.

Source: Steve Silberman recommends the best books on Autism

Neurodiversity: the notion that conditions like autism, dyslexia, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) should be regarded as naturally occurring cognitive variations with distinctive strengths that have contributed to the evolution of technology and culture rather than mere checklists of deficits and dysfunctions.

Source: NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity

Human cognitive diversity exists for a reason; our differences are the genius – and the conscience – of our species.

Source: A Thousand Rivers: What The Modern World Has Forgotten About Children And Learning

Through the lens of the neurodiversity paradigm, the pathology paradigm’s medicalized framing of autism and various other constellations of neurological, cognitive, and behavioral characteristics as “disorders” or “conditions” can be seen for what it is: a social construction rooted in cultural norms and social power inequalities, rather than a “scientifically objective” description of reality.

Source: Autism and the Pathology Paradigm

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