Cornering Slim Shady in the Round Barn: On “Pinning Down” Neurodiversity

Neurodiversity.  In contrast to the proprietor of Autism & Oughtisms [A&O] who reports first hearing the word less than a year ago, it’s been a little over a decade for me. It merited one sentence in the writeup I’ve posted describing the paltry extent of congenial thought my then wife-to-be and I turned up from a year or so of wearing out the Netscape browser and the Altavista search engine:  “We were aware, for instance, that the term neurodiversity had been coined, but this seemed a distant and isolated fact.”  To think that just these few years later it’s a word — a word — that can inspire such an impassioned rant as that turned in recently at Autism & Oughtisms is remarkable.  Not remarkable enough, however, to wait around for.  For the reasons described, we pretty much turned our backs on the autism world and got about the business of raising the kids, one diagnosed, and one we’ve recently learned has identified as autistic all along — just matter-of-factly, without angst, fear, or trepidation.  That in itself, to me, justifies the decision to turn our backs.

As you see then, I’m late to the party.  No veteran of the autism wars me.  And while a tiny, shining handful of those veterans have allied themselves with this site, we are thriving in spite of being roundly ignored by nearly all the disability bloggers who fought to bring the word neurodiversity to prominence — I have the unanswered emails to prove it.  So to find myself presiding — and not by my own design — over a site which might seem to have been directly addressed by A&O regarding this word to which Shift has hitched its SEO strategy, well, it’s amusing to me if not to others.  At the same time though, it is somewhat emblematic of the error I think A&O is making about the nature of what’s being discussed.

I’m struck by the way both in the essay itself and in the comments we exchanged on it A&O seems determined to get at the heart of neurodiversity, to expose precisely what its “top value” is, to stare it down until it reveals its irreducible, singular center — and if not, to declare it illegitimate for lacking just such a center.  It has me in mind of something I’ve written about styles of consciousness:

But yes, when you are able to comfortably entertain multiple, competing and contradictory notions of truth or reality, when you can face ambiguity without needing to do anything about it, your overall style of consciousness might be said to be polytheistic.  When you behave as if there are not all that many right, healthy, or justifiable ways to be human, when you see differences as deviations from an ideal rather than variations on multiple ideals, when you discount gray tones for black and white, when you focus on the literal rather than the metaphorical, your overall style of consciousness might be said to be monotheistic—yea, though you are still tossed around and toyed with by various lesser gods, just like the rest of us.

I know A&O would prefer that the arguments presented be grappled with, but if we step back a frame of reference or two, I think what can be seen is that much of the controversy over neurodiversity takes place against a background of prior assumptions — or all-encompassing styles of consciousness — which in turn tweak our views on the nature of the world.  When The One clashes with The Many there will of course be arguments — good and bad — to be chewed over, but in the long term the only decisions that count are the ones made by successive generations, by newcomers whether they are just coming of age or just coming to learn about autism.  As I’ve said at some length already, “… it’s more about winning the hearts and minds of those who aren’t even paying attention yet.”

In the short term, that of a generation or two, I think that battle is won or lost through example.  (The battle for gay marriage for instance isn’t being won by good arguments so much as by young people looking with fresh eyes upon increasingly available examples of out, loving gay couples — young people who care not a whit about being seen “to take this holier-than-thou line” or about whether they’ve achieved sufficient objectivity to choose “the correct voice.”)  And in the long term, who knows, it may well — as Andrew Lehman suggests — have to do with socioeconomic shifts in the sorts of parents who are able to get together, the sorts of offspring they engender, and the kinds of examples to which those succeeding generations in turn respond.  Either way, while I can bear witness to the drama of A&O feeling caught between the two — and it doesn’t look like fun — the arguments to me are simply the byproducts of the friction produced by two styles of consciousness at odds with one another.

This friction is also prominently on display right now as Central Authorities the world over struggle to come to terms with the distributed nature of social software and peer-to-peer networks.  Time and again, from the record companies to governments to private security contractors, the nature of what they’ve suddenly been forced to focus on eludes them.  Where, A&O, is the heart of the bittorrent community, or of the Tor network?  What pray tell is the “top value” of Twitter?  Serve up the head of LulzSec on a platter, “pin down” the idea behind Anonymous, and you’ll be welcome in any police barracks in any country you please.  Good luck.  As those last two groups have been reminding us lately, “You cannot arrest an idea.”  There is no Real Slim Shady, there is no secret cabal of lizard-people running the planet, and there is no true beating heart of neurodiversity to be placed on the table and examined under a magnifying glass.

You’re shadowboxing, from where I stand, A&O, while complaining about the lack of solid targets, and the carpal tunnel pain “caused” by their absence.

As that physician in the old joke advises the patient who complains, “Doc, it hurts when I move my arm like this” …

Don’t do that.

I do love a passionate, articulate rant, probably more so than the next guy, and I could hardly ignore a post which came days after your first appearance here, and which seemed to be missing only the phrase, “We’re lookin’ at you, Shift Journal” (not likely true, but self-dramatization seems to be the order of the day).  I salute your willingness to struggle with ideas, and I hope you’ll allow me to repost work of yours in the future.  But I’m not here to win your heart or mind, or free you from whatever circular dilemma you feel yourself to be in.  So by all means, “hop off the bandwagon and openly state your belief.”  No one’s drowning you out; your thoughts are not even in the minority overall.  No one is claiming that acceptance will “eradicate the objective problems faced by many autistic people.”  No one owes you a “a clear non-self-contradictory definition of neurodiversity.”

And easy as this is to say with my relatively comfortable life and family, no one, as Steve Silberman recently made poignantly clear, is owed a life without suffering.

There’s more to be said here about the coerciveness inherent in the notion of a cure, and the false equivalency that’s set up whenever one proposes that the alternatives can be equitably “balanced.”  Rather than try to outdo Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, I’ll close with three of her posts on this theme:

Autism, Disability, and the Obligation to Get Well, Part One

Autism, Disability, and the Obligation to Get Well, Part Two

Neurodiversity, Self-Determination, and the Magic Pill

[image:  Charles Dana Gibson]

related:  Response to A&O’s reply re: “Cornering Slim Shady in the Round Barn” and the definition of Neurodiversity

related:  Reply to “Cornering Slim Shady in the Round Barn” re the definition of Neurodiversity

related:  Acceptance of Diversity within Neurodiversity (?)

related: Emergence

on 08/12/11 in featured, Language | 2 Comments | Read More

Comments (2)


  1. My apologies to A&O, as the following comment was trapped in the spam filter for nearly 48 hours. (Comments with links are rare but often held back; I should’ve been more attentive.) And, apology accepted — not actually necessary in the first place. — ed.

    Hi Mark,

    I will give you this much; you express yourself and your case beautifully. But you will no doubt not be surprised to hear that I do not concur with much of the sentiment of your post. Perhaps it is because of my academic training; I spent nine years training then more years teaching, in both philosophy and law. So it is very much in my nature to seek answers, or at the least, to identify the correct questions in the search for answers. I only seek because those answers matter; if neurodiversity did not matter, I wouldn’t bother.

    I will reply in a post of proper length later, but there is one point at least which I feel I really must address (and can easily address) within this comment. It was not Shift Journal or you which lead to me writing my post; contrary to what you believe. It was in fact, two posts from two other bloggers, which directly inspired my further consideration of what neurodiversity means. You can find them (and you’ll note their dates directly precede my own post), here: One by Kim at Countering: And one by MJ at Autism Jabberwocky:

    I must apologise if you thought (which you seem to) that I was somehow spitting in your or Shift Journal’s face right after you’d shared my post here; that truly was never the intention or motivator. You might be interested to read the two pieces I have linked to, to see the issues I was trying to make sense of.

    Much respect,


  2. Stephanie says:

    To my knowledge there has never been a single definition of what neurodiversity is or should be. Advocates each, more or less, define it in a way that fits their agendas. Furthermore, this is not unusual in such cultural changes. Look back at the movements that have shaken up our culture-civil rights, women’s rights, ect.-and you will see how the participants (and the detractors) tried to define it, and how they did not always agree.

    My definition is at odds with the one that seems to have gotten this whole thing started. My is as open and inclusive as I can possibly make it-and when people have told me ways to make it more, I have done so. “Neuro” and “diversity” combines to imply (which is provable) that we are all neurologically diverse. None of us have exactly the same brain, nervous system, and mental processes as the next guy (or gal). This diversity is valid and should be valued much the way any other type of diversity is valid and should be valued. Neurodiversity includes people with autism, people with psych disorders, people with neurological disorders; it also includes “normal” people, who don’t come nearly as standardized as our society would like to think.

    I’m something of a purist in this regard. I do not look outward to what other’s find acceptable to forge my definition. I look at the words themselves-What do they mean?-and forge my definition from them. Many people cannot tolerate such a process, because it’s too encompassing. But if we narrow it down, if we exclude, if we cut people out-well, then, it’s not really “diversity” is it?

    I agree that these posts were worth responding to-and I might choose to do so myself in the near future. But I find it more important to know what you believe, what you can commit to, and associate along those lines, advocate along those lines, act along those lines. There may come a day when I have to divorce myself from the word “neurodiversity” as I have divorced myself from the word “feminism,” because the word has been hijacked and controlled by people who are too narrow, too ready to cut others out. It’s possible, but in the meantime I’m going to keep trying to break the word open and show as many people as I can that such an ideal really can fit everyone inside of it.

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