Human Rights And Neurodiversity

Today was supposed to be about equality, as part of a series on Exploring The Social Model, but in light of recent readings and discussions, it seems that a necessary prerequisite to a discussion of equality is a discussion of human rights, and the unique mixture of human rights and autism which necessitate neurodiversity as a philosophy and movement.

Human rights have been variously defined, and include rights many take for granted, such as:

• communication
• self-determination
• food, shelter, and necessary medical care
• dignity
• freedom from torture
• existence
• etc.

Current human-rights violations against autistics happen because of a fundamental belief that an autistic

• is not a proper, fully functional human
• and therefore
• has no right to exist as an autist.

There would be no JRC if no one thought of autistic children as unmanageable and needing to be saved from themselves—or everyone else as needing to be saved from them.  Autistic people would not be regularly murdered if societal attitudes and ableism did not reinforce a crazed guardian’s thought that their autism made them an unbearable burden, robbed the autist of the possibility of a happy or meaningful life, or stripped them of some essential human property.

Dis/ability theory and rights rest on the assumption that human rights, experiences, and qualities are not restricted to the enabled, but apply equally to everyone.  Thus, talk of accessibility is grounded in the belief that human rights and everyday experiences are not privileges to be denied to those with dis/abilities, and that the dis/abled do not deserve to be marginalized.  Talk of self-determination is based on the assumption that every human has thoughts and preferences and desires, that every human can communicate these, and that those who do so in atypical ways still deserve a voice over how their lives are run.

The thought and discussion concerning virtually every other dis/ability takes these ideas for granted.

These are all expressions of a concept of equality—both as a goal and as a starting state.  As a goal, equality can be roughly translated as political, economic, and social competitiveness, while equality as a starting state means that a dis/abled person has a right to their mind and body as is—that difference is not the same as deficit, that people with abnormal or less-functional bodies and brains do not need to earn human rights by physically altering their natural state and can be happy, adaptive, and successful with their natural and particular set of impairments. From start to finish, a dis/abled person is equal.

The two ideas intersect, reinforce, and naturally lead to each other, and are absolutely essential to any discussion of autism.  It changes the question from how can we make someone nonautistic—resting on the assumption that an autistic life is not worth having—to how can we make autistic life better, autistic communication easier, etc., for an autistic person?  How can we enable an autistic person to successfully compete politically, economically,, and socially as an autistic? This is an important distinction, and without it human rights abuses of autistics will continue, as there will be no reason to conclude that autistics posses certain unalienable human rights as autistics.

Before life can be made better for autistic people, before autistic people can contribute and belong to society as autists, before autistics can be sure of basic human rights and self determination, before the world will be a more accessible place for those with autism spectrum conditions, the belief that autistic people have a right to be autistic must be made mainstream.  A page from the book of the rest of the dis/ability community needs to be taken.

It needs to be loudly, clearly, and repeatedly said by a community united:  autism is natural variation, autists are fully functional humans, and anything short of equality, be it a desire to cure, a deficit-based model of autism rather than a model based on neurological variations and a unique profile of strengths, weaknesses, and preferences, or out-and-out physical human rights violations, is unacceptable.  Neurodiversity, as a philosophy and as a checkered self-advocacy movement, is devoted to making this truth inescapable, and in so doing improve the lives of autists everywhere.

on 08/16/10 in featured, Society | 6 Comments | Read More

Comments (6)


  1. Autistic Disorder and Aspergers Disorder are mental disorder diagnoses set out in the DSM. In the case of Autistic Disorder the condition restricts severely most of those who suffer from it with the vast majority also having cognitive deficits or intellectual disabilities. The exact causes of autism disorder and Aspergers are not known but the prevalent view today is that they result from the interaction of genetic and environmental factors.

    The United Nations has long recognized the right of children to be cured of disabling conditions, disorders and diseases and the right and responsibility of parents in most cases to seek treatment and cure for their children`s disorders.

    My son has actual Autistic Disorder. He is severely challenged by that disorder but he is my son. He is not an autist and his life is not improved by the conceit that you call Neurodiversity.

  2. Gwen McKay says:

    Good article Julia. Human rights are indeed the foundation for everything else.

    Harold — you may want to take a look at what the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities actually says:

    Note what Article 3(h) says about the right of children with disabilities to preserve their identities.

  3. Julia Bascom says:

    Harold, do actually read the article Gwen links to (thanks Gwen!). It’s important not to out-and-out attempt to mislead people by misrepresenting what a legal document actually says.

    I know what autism is. You don’t have to educate me. I work in a classroom with severely dis/abled children; I have AS myself, and head injuries from headbanging to prove it.

    You should realize that as “autist” was used by Asperger to identify autistic people according to a strict set of behavioral characteristics. But wait, you’ve had this conversation before at The New Republic…

    Which seems to indicate that you are here to troll, not to engage in productive conversation or look at, let alone internalize, any viewpoint other than your own, in which your son apparently lacks human rights as laid out by the UN.

    But I’ll try. Give me convincing reasons as to why the following are incorrect, and I’ll reconsider.

    How can human rights possibly harm your son? How does improving his access to communication, for example, hurt him? Do you understand what is meant by human rights?

    Autistics are not special. There is no reason why, out of the thousands of dis/abilities INCLUDING INTELLECTUAL AND OTHER DEVELOPMENTAL DIS/ABILITIES, this is the one to which human rights do not apply.

    That is the “conceit” of neurodiversity. Autistics are not special cases, no matter how impaired. They deserve treatment which applies general philosophies of human rights, as understood by virtually EVERY OTHER DIS/ABLED GROUP, to autistics. How can this possibly NOT help your son?

    Or is the problem that you see your son as consisting only of weaknesses?

    Very well. But answer the question: is he any less deserving of the human rights this article as well as the UN describe?

  4. Well said, Julia. All of it.

  5. Julia and Rachel Human rights do in fact apply and I did not say anything to the contrary.

    The right to seek treatment for a mental disorder is one of those rights. Autistic Disorder, PDD-NOS and Aspergers are mental disorders defined in the DSM. Those with severe Autistic Disorder like my son have a right to seek treatment through their legal representatives, mostly parents but in some cases, other legal guardians, for their disorders. Those, including Neurodiversity ideologues, who oppose treating or curing autism disorders, not in themselver, but in other people’s children, are opposing the human rights of those children.

  6. Julia Bascom says:

    1. You have clearly not read the linked documents, or anything I have written with any sort of comprehension, because you are misrepresenting and twisting the concept of “human rights”. Since autism is not indicative of biological disease (unless it is “syndromal autism” and, admittedly, this and “those with severe autistic disorder” do experience some overlap), there is no cure, absolutely no cure is being denied to these children or adults by some sort of “ideologue”. To say so is deliberate slander and misrepresentation.

    2. You are also deliberately (and I say this based on years of watching people have this same discussion with you over and over again) misrepresenting neurodiversity, which, while opposed to eugenics and ableism and therefore words like “treatment” and “cure”, is not opposed in the least for effective help to improve quality of life and access to human rights for those with ASD. See the post done here on “accessibility”, as a one SMALL sample out of many of evidence for this.

    3. Given your deliberate and complete and total distortion of writings and people here (“ideologues”), as well as of legal documents such as the UN conventions, it seems productive discussion with you is impossible. I am done.

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