by Jeremy Pierce, Ph.D.
There's a relatively new movement in the communities of people who deal regularly with autism and related conditions that's assigned themselves the term "neurodiversity" as a shorthand reference to their commitment to affirming atypical neurological conditions as equally legitimate. This movement shuns the terms 'normal' and 'abnormal' and instead prefers to speak of those who are neurotypical and those who are not. The neurodiversity movement seeks to identify various traits common with autism as neither better nor worse but simply different.
This movement should be praised for its recognition that respecting people with autism requires taking into account how differently they take in information, process it, use it, and produce various responses. They rightly emphasize that an atypical neurological state need not be thought of as a disease that needs a medical cure or treatment or a disability that requires taking the person to be deficient. They recommend supporting a person for who they are rather than trying to "fix" them to conform to the standards everyone else has. Some autism advocates on the autistic spectrum insist that they wouldn't want to be made "normal" if a "cure" were ever found. They like being the way they are.
There's something obviously right about most of that. The more I read stuff from this movement, however, the more disturbed I get that there's something they're just not seeing, and the good in what I just wrote is blinding a lot of well-meaning people to a serious philosophical error lying behind much of what the neurodiversity movement produces. Consider this story by Karen Kaplan of the Los Angeles Times. She is right to point out that, just because autistic people do badly on certain standardized tests, it doesn't mean they're cognitively deficient. It may well be that the reason a certain person scores low on a certain test is because the test is relying on typical patterns of language use, and someone with autism may be using a different pattern of language use. The underlying cognitive ability being tested for may be stronger than the test shows. That's all correct. But in her rush to make this point, Kaplan completely ignores the fact that the reason someone is scoring low on the test is because of a genuine deficiency in the kind of language use that most people are much better able to engage in. That means there is a lack of ability that comes with autism, even if its manifestation will be different from person to person.
Again, Kaplan speaks of those who emphasize "training kids with autism to behave like typical kids instead of allowing them to make the most of their differently wired brains." That's especially helpful, because allowing autistic people to make the most of their differently-operating brain is certainly the right goal. But that's perfectly compatible with taking their differently-wired brain to be operating at a deficient level with respect to certain cognitive skills, even if it's also operating at a higher level with regard to other cognitive skills. Some in the neurodiversity movement are willing to recognize that differences between neurotypicals and autistic people involve autism conveying certain strengths and weaknesses. But the language of "not better or worse but just different" disallows any such recognition and smacks of crude relativism, whereby we cannot recognize any difference as being better or worse. When taken to its logical implication, we'd have to say that someone who is not intelligent enough to read is not less smart in any respect than the norm, just different. I submit that such a statement is nonsense. There's a particular cognitive ability that allows for reading that most people have, and someone who doesn't have that ability (assuming they genuinely don't) is lacking a cognitive skill. Why can't we just accept that?
Similarly, there is a seeming refusal to recognize any medical condition that can be spoken of in terms of being made worse off. In some respects this strikes me as a general problem among disability communities that stems from crudely relativistic thinking. The deaf community is largely unsupportive of cochlear implants, because it gives children the ability to hear, and they take their lack of hearing not to be a genuine disability. There's nothing wrong with not hearing, so why should they support giving deaf children the ability to hear the way most people can?
If we really took this line of reasoning seriously, we'd have to apply it to other conditions that virtually no one wants to see as perfectly normal. For example, one could argue that pedophilia is just a different way of being, and we should respect it. After all, it's caused by a brain condition, and all brain conditions are equally good. In terms of the arguments I see from the neurodiversity movement, I see no way to say the things they say while avoiding such a conclusion. There are plenty of ways to distinguish between the two cases, but I don't see how those are available given the extreme sorts of statements that I regularly see among neurodiversity advocates.
People who have serious cognitive deficiencies often have serious problems seeing their own intrinsic worth. It's important to affirm that. It's important to help them see that their very existence is not wrong in the sense that we should blame them for being the way they are. It's important to help them see that their preferences may seem weird to others but that in many cases perfectly all right for them to have them. But some voices advocating for neurodiversity want us to say that someone with autism is not messed up in any sense. The fact is that we're all messed up. We're all distorted. We're all flawed. No one is the way we ought to be. Autism is one way to have various deficiencies, one that also happens in many cases to have plenty of strengths above the level typical of most people. To say that we can never evaluate being less good at something or more good at something with such value-laden language would be to overreact to a genuine problem in how many people look at people with disabilities.
But on one level, I can't blame the neurodiversity movement (and the more general relativistic outlook among other disability communities). After all, their view follows fairly easily from a particular version of secularized naturalistic thinking. Different neurological conditions stem from natural variation, and there's no other level of explanation but natural variation. There's no God who designed human beings to have certain capabilities. There are no natural purposes according to which organisms have a nature, and certain capacities are part of what a well-functioning member of their species will be able to do. There's no notion of well-functioning if your worldview doesn't allow for higher-level explanations about purposes and design, other than perhaps simply asking whether a particular organism fits into the way most members of its species are or whether it fits the patterns members of its species typically desire for themselves. There's nothing objective about what a healthy member of that species or a well-functioning member of that species would be like. There is no way we can have a notion of the way we ought to be if there's no ground for what it would be to be the way we ought to be. But such a conclusion seems to me to be so obviously false that perhaps we should just question the metaphysical underpinning of the neurodiversity movement, rather than giving in to that metaphysical picture's logical implications.
About the author: Jeremy Pierce holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Syracuse University and is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Le Moyne College. He is the father of five children, two of whom are autistic. He blogs at Parableman, Evangel, and Prosblogion.