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The Mass Media

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February 26, 2024
An inside look at Bobby B. Beacon’s insides. Illustrated by Bianca Oppedisano/ Mass Media Staff.
Bobby's Inside Story
February 26, 2024

Everything you don’t know about neurodiversity

Neurodivergence, according to Forbes Health, was first defined in the 1990s by Judy Singer, a sociologist who was autistic herself. [1] She wanted a term to describe her experiences with autism: the good, the bad, and everything in between. Neurodivergent brains work differently than neurotypical brains, but these differences aren’t worse or bettersimply different. For example, many neurodivergent people may have fidgets or tics that don’t cause them any distress, but they just aren’t “typical” or “normal” for their age. Neurodivergence is not a diagnosis, but a label people with learning or developmental differences can choose for themselves. Generally, conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, Down syndrome and other learning disabilities are included in the umbrella, but not everyone with these conditions self-describe themselves as neurodivergent. In the end, it’s a personal choice, and can be a more effective way to discuss aspects of disorders that, in reality, aren’t debilitating.

Nowadays, self-diagnosis is far more common than it was fifty or even twenty years ago. That’s because, up until relatively recently, neurodivergent people were the subject of discrimination, eugenics and worse. The inventor of the Asperger’s syndrome diagnosis, a now outdated term to describe autistic people with lower support needs, was a Nazi who took part in genocidal killings of autistic children deemed too low-functioning to be “cured,” according to Time magazine. [2] This mindset persists, with efforts from some in the medical field to “fix” neurodivergent people or to find causes for neurodivergence and prevent it. 

This fraught history is what pushed autism advocates toward the neurodivergence label: We are not broken, only different. Unfortunately, strict diagnosis and categorization is almost universally required for accommodations. Even UMass Boston, which prides itself on being accepting and open, requires a diagnosis alongside plenty of other menial paperwork to receive simple accommodations. According to the Ross Center website, “Eligibility is based on information gathered during [an] initial meeting, past educational experiences and accommodations, and disability documentation. The documentation must be current, provide a clear diagnosis by the appropriate medical professional, and specify the functional limitations in an academic setting related to the disability.” [3] For students who have trouble with, for example, sitting down and paying attention to paperwork for prolonged periods of time, this is hellish. Even the language on the Ross Center website is clinical and dense—not accessible to anyone with dyslexia or trouble reading.  

Psychologists or therapists who are registered to diagnose learning disabilities are hard to come by. Not only are they expensive, but their schedules and locations can be just as restrictive. For many neurodivergent people, self-diagnosis is their only option. Despite how commonplace knowledge of neurodiversity is now compared to the 20th century, misinformation still abounds.  

Diagnostic criteria, the basis upon which a neurodivergent person’s access to accommodations and care, are inherently biased against neurodivergent people. Texts like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, colloquially known as the DSM, instruct mental health professionals on how to diagnose a wide variety of conditions. These manuals are always written from the perspective of the therapist, however, and never from the perspective of the person living with the condition. Diagnostic criteria focus on how an autistic person inconveniences someone else by being too loud, or how someone with ADHD keeps interrupting them, and never on how neurodivergent people experience these conditions personally. 

Discussions of neurodivergence often overlook that, while being neurodivergent does not make a person worse or inherently broken, these conditions are disabilities. Regardless of whether it’s due to the circumstances surrounding the neurodivergent person or whether it’s an innate part of the disorder, neurodivergence makes it harder to function in a world designed for neurotypicals. With the rise of pop psychology on platforms such as TikTok, this aspect often gets overlooked. Having ADHD is not cute and trendy—it’s debilitating.

For neurodivergent people with or without diagnoses, the psychiatric field is oppressive. Oftentimes, we have to play games with healthcare professionals to convince them that we are “worthy” of accommodations or medication; on the other hand, many have medication and therapy forced on them in order to “fix” them. The less palatable symptoms of ASD and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder such as anger issues, vocal tics and yelling, and even conditions that are often comorbid with neurodivergence like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, depression and schizophrenia—all these conditions don’t receive the treatment from healthcare professionals that they should. Mentally ill and neurodivergent people can be detained against their will, have their rights stripped from them, and forced to be under the care of someone who might not have their best interest in mind, whether that be a state-appointed guardian or a nurse. Like it or not, many of these people will turn to self-medication, only to be unjustly punished by this exact system for being drug addicts.  

Being neurodivergent doesn’t make people unable to communicate for themselves, even if they’re nonverbal or need a caretaker. For decades, neurodivergent people have been trying to advocate for themselves beyond people’s fascination with pop psychology. The solution is simple: We need more neurodivergent people in psychiatry, writing about and advocating for neurodiversity. In short, we need more Judy Singers.

 

SOURCES: 

[1] Gregory, E. (2023, Sept. 18). What Does It Mean To Be Neurodivergent?. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/health/mind/what-is-neurodivergent/%C2%A0

[2] Sheffer, E. (2018, April 26). Asperger’s Syndrome, the Nazi Regime and the Dangerous Power of Labeling People. Time. https://time.com/5255779/asperger-syndrome-nazi-germany-history/ 

[3] UMass Boston. Eligibility for Services and Documentation Guidelines. Ross Center for Disability Services. https://www.umb.edu/academics/seas/disability-services/documentation/ 

About the Contributor
Elijah Horwath, Opinions Editor