Lately, I’ve seen the neurodiversity movement presented in terms of unilateral accommodationism by detractors of the “Neurodiversity Lobby”.
Here are a few examples anonymously cribbed from Twitter.
Do you believe autistic people should cultivate ourselves, or should society just accommodate us with no effort on our parts?
Neurorealism means that autistic people should cultivate ourselves as far as is reasonable, and other people in society should accommodate ourselves as far as is reasonable. This is bilateral accommodation, and it is generally rejected by the Neurodiversity lobbyists.
The Neurodiversity lobby advocates unilateral accommodationism.
I’m not hanging out in every pocket of the greater neurodiversity universe, but around the watercoolers I lurk, accommodation is usually couched not in unilateral terms, but in terms of bridging the double empathy gap and moving from the framing of accommodation to the framing of inclusion and acceptance.
Accommodation encourages the harmful ableist tropes of people being “special” and “getting away with” extra “privileges” and “advantages”. Accommodation is fertile ground for zero-sum thinking, grievance culture, and the politics of resentment. The terrain of accommodation is hostile and fraught. The topography is designed for attrition. Navigating it consumes spoons while fueling internalized ableism, anxiety, depression, and burn out. We must change the framing to survive. We must change the default.
A big part of our susceptibility to issues like anxiety has to do with how we were slowly socialized, either implicitly or explicitly, to believe that an autistic lifestyle is something that is defective and therefore needs fixing. A recent Independent article sums up the strong link between lack of autism acceptance and the development of mental health disorders in autistic people: Research shows that lack of acceptance externally from others and internally from the self significantly predicts depression and anxiety in young adults with autism.
Social model families are real families preparing our kids for a real world where neurodivergent people have shortened lifespans, higher unemployment, and higher likelihoods of ending up under state control or being killed by law enforcement. We have to prove our disabilities and “disorders” and identities over and over to get any wiggle room to be different and learn differently in our resentful compliance cultures. We must submit ourselves to patient-hood and bear the language of deficit and disorder as identity.
That wiggle room to learn differently isn’t so wiggly, because what you earn upon clearing the many hurdles of accommodation is segregation and access to a disability industrial complex that pathologizes your identity and seeks to suppress your differences through behaviorism.
My experience with special education and ABA demonstrates how the dichotomy of interventions that are designed to optimize the quality of life for individuals on the spectrum can also adversely impact their mental health, and also their self-acceptance of an autistic identity. This is why so many autistic self-advocates are concerned about behavioral modification programs: because of the long-term effects they can have on autistic people’s mental health. This is why we need to preach autism acceptance, and center self advocates in developing appropriate supports for autistic people. That means we need to take autistic people’s insights, feelings, and desires into account, instead of dismissing them.
We have a medical community that’s found a sickness for every single human difference. DSM keeps growing every single year with new ways to be defective, with new ways to be lessened.
Disability industrial complex is all about what people can’t do. We spend most of our time trying to fix what they can’t do. When all we do is fix people the message we give to them is that they are broken.
We have created a system that has you submit yourself, or your child, to patient hood to access the right to learn differently. The right to learn differently should be a universal human right that’s not mediated by a diagnosis.
Source: The Gift: LD/ADHD Reframed
Accommodation gets you more deficit model and more medical model, but rarely compassion. Compassion and acceptance are practical and effective magic. They remedy a lot of problems and contribute to psychological safety. Acceptance matters. Accommodationism, unilateral or the usual, doesn’t get you much of it.
We’re not preparing our kids for unilateral accommodationism or universal acceptance; we’re preparing them for a journey against odds and equipping them with a social model identity, the tools of self-advocacy, and the support of their neurosiblings and cousins so that they can help improve our systems for themselves and those who come next.
So far, I find the unilateral accommodationism line too reductionist. It smashes nuance out of the neurodiversity movement I know and discounts a whole lot of people who are doing the quiet, back-and-forth, iterative work in our schools, workplaces, and institutions of opening minds to social model perspectives. “Unilateral accommodationism” suggests neurodivergent and disabled people have the power and that there is anything resembling a good faith effort to meet us even halfway. It smacks of resentment.
“At its core, intersectionality is about nuance and context.” Likewise with neurodiversity. My neurodiversity is about nuance and context. It’s about the “foregrounding of complexity as the baseline”. It’s about challenging the “violence of the norm” and the “grounding narrative of exclusion” that is neurotypicality.
Neurodiversity is a movement that celebrates difference while remaining deeply nuanced on questions of (medical) facilitation and the necessity of rethinking the concept of accommodation against narratives of cure. The added emphasis on neurology has been necessary in order to challenge existing norms that form the base-line of existence: the “neuro” in neurodiversity has opened up the conversation about the category of neurotypicality and the largely unspoken criteria that support and reinforce the definition of what it means to be human, to be intelligent, to be of value to society. This has been especially necessary for those folks who continue to be excluded from education, social and economic life, who are regarded as less than human, whose modes of relation continue to be deeply misunderstood, and who are cast as burdens to society.
Nonetheless, I think it’s fair to say that this enhanced perceptual field is an aspect of much autistic experience and something neurotypicals could learn a lot from, not only with regard to perception itself, but also as concerns the complexity of experience.
Neurotypicality is a grounding narrative of exclusion. The neurotypical is the category to which our education systems aspire. It is the category to which our ideas of the nuclear family aspire. And, it is the category on which the concept of the citizen (and by extension participation in the nation-state and the wider global economy) is based.
In the context of education, which is the one I am most knowledgeable about, the mechanisms for upholding the neurotypical standard are everywhere in force. Every classroom that penalizes students for distributed modes of attention organizes learning according to a neurotypical norm. Every classroom that sees the moving body as the distracted body is organized according to a neurotypical norm. Every classroom that teaches predominantly for one mode of perception is organizing its learning according to a norm. Every classroom that knows in advance what knowledge looks and sounds like is working to a norm.
Having “special needs” classrooms upholds neurotypicality, for instance, as the dominant model of existence. Drugging our children because of their attention deficit is upholding a neurotypical norm. Sending our black and indigenous children to juvenile detention centers in disproportionate numbers is upholding a neurotypical norm which takes, as neurotypicality always does, whiteness as the standard.
To engage with neurodiversity is to speak up about the extraordinary silence around neurotypicality and to acknowledge that we do not question ourselves enough as regards what kinds of bodies are welcomed and supported in education, and in social life more broadly. It is still far too rare that we discuss neurotypicality as that which frames our ways of knowing, of presenting ourselves, of being bodies in the world.
The violence of the norm that is imposed without ever having to be spoken as such is debilitating. Not only does it normalize education, siphoning out difference of all kinds, but it also forces all bodies who want to be recognized as “knowledgeable” (and thus human) to be organized within an incredibly unimaginative matrix.
Neurotypicality as mode of knowledge policing builds on what it considers “direct” communication.
What is needed are not more categories but more sensitivity to difference and a more acute attunement to qualities of experience.
Intersectionality is a structural theory about processes and systems that make our identities mean something in different contexts.
Intersectionality’s raison dêtre is to reveal the systems that organize our society. Intersectionality’s brilliance is that its fundamental contribution to how we view the world seems so common-sense once you have heard it: by focusing on the parts of the system that are most complex and where the people living it are the most vulnerable we understand the system best. Mark Lilla and others who critique this view of the body politic, reducing it to the caricature of “identity politics”, refuse to engage intersectionality’s most powerful empirical truth: we all have intersectional identities and all of them matter, if not all in the same way.