Celebrating neurodiversity: An autistic view

On reading a recent article in the Spectator where the idea of neurodiversity was labelled as “dangerous”, it really hit a nerve amongst some of our staff and volunteers. On reading it, we felt deeply offended, as neurodiversity is something we celebrate as an autistic-led service.

Leeds Autism AIM is a free service co-led by and run for autistic adults, offering advocacy, information and signposting, peer support and mentoring. It is part of Advonet, an advocacy charity in Leeds offering free, independent and confidential advocacy to help make people’s voices be heard.

Both Leeds Autism AIM and Advonet are neurodiverse. We have staff members and volunteers who are neurologically typical i.e. not autistic, dyslexic, dyspraxic or diagnosed with ADHD, Tourette’s Syndrome or OCD. We also have staff members and volunteers who are neurodivergent – people who are autistic, dyslexic, dyspraxic and are diagnosed as having ADHD.

Each of us, myself included, are able to do a good job for the organisation and the people we support, many of whom are neurodivergent themselves. In having a mix of neurologically typical and neurodivergent staff, we are in a good position to provide advocacy support to all clients, drawing on our personal experience.

Thinking differently

In his piece and via his Autism’s Gadfly blog, Mitchell talks about autism as if it is a deficit. I and many of my colleagues in the AIM team and throughout Advonet don’t see it that way. Whilst autism isn’t a superpower, it’s more of a difference than a shortcoming.

My way of thinking and doing things is often quite useful when producing pieces of work and planning my tasks for the days, weeks and month ahead. I can be quite straightforward when communicating with other people, autistic and non-autistic. My autistic brain has its flaws, but so do non-autistic brains.

Autism is sometimes described by bloggers such as Judy Endow as an “operating system”. If non-autistic and/or neurologically typical people’s minds are Windows, then Autism is something like Linux and Dyslexia is iOS.

Please don’t cure us

In the autistic and wider neurodiversity movement, there is a lot of resistance to the idea of “curing” us. Instead of trying to “fix” us, services are better off fixing everything around us to accommodate autistic people’s needs, from setting up quiet spaces in shopping centres to using pastel-coloured paper to print forms on.

If someone doesn’t speak English and needs someone to translate for them, best practice is to find a translator who speaks their language. Using this logic, rather than changing autistic people, altering everything around us makes more sense and is the fairer thing to do.

This way of thinking is in line with the Social Model of Disability, something that Advonet and Leeds Autism AIM follow strongly. What Mitchell wrote about followed the Medical Model, something that states that the disability is the problem, not what’s around them.

Quality of life for neurodivergent people would be far better if the world around us were to cater to our needs. Quieter, less over-stimulating environments, clearer information and speaking to neurodivergent people to ask us what we want would all be a great help, not going for a quick fix and trying to make us like everyone else.

A few words

To end this piece, here is a quote on neurodiversity from Gill Loomes, our Peer Development Worker:

“The Politics of Neurodiversity is not about arguing for the value of neurodivergence within the physical and social boundaries of the Status Quo.

“It is the work of presenting a radical challenge to these boundaries.

“Not begging for room at the table, but a full-on, elbows-out battle to shift the furniture and make room.

“A bold, human assertion of a claim for space.”

Gillian Loomes
24th January 2018