Thanks to the success of Steve Silberman’s ‘Neurotribes,’ therapists and service providers have become aware of neurodiversity. On one hand, this is wonderful. A concept Autistic self-advocates have been celebrating for years has hit the mainstream. It seems that therapists and service providers are finally listening to autistic people speak. On the other hand, there seem to be many misunderstandings about what neurodiversity, and by extension allyship, entails. Therapy can only be enriched by neurodiversity, if therapists will let it.
A common misconception about neurodiversity is that we are pushing the idea that autism is not a disability. It’s true that in general, neurodiversity advocates believe that autism is not a ‘disorder.’ You’d be hard pressed to find advocates who don’t consider autism a disability, though. We know, through our lived experience, that autism is a disability. The world we live in was not built for us. Or at least if it had been built for us, it would involve a lot more trampolines.
The distinction people are making is between the medical model and social model of disability. The medical model of disability, for those who may be unfamiliar, puts an emphasis on a disability being something ‘wrong’ with a person. In that model, disability is something to be corrected. Disability itself is seen as a source of reduced quality of life. The social model of disability, on the other hand, focuses on negative attitudes and physical barriers imposed by society, rather than perceived “flaws” in the individual. Neurodiversity rejects the medical model. It does not reject the concept of disability or deny that impairments exist. The primary difference is how disability and impairments are considered and addressed.
Rather than treating autism as something that needs to be corrected, advocates want it to be seen as something to be accommodated, and that disability is largely situational. If someone is in a wheelchair, you can either focus on curing the reason they’re in the wheelchair and let them wait at the bottom of the stairs until you’re done, or you can build a ramp. Neurodiversity advocates want ramps for our brains. What exactly that looks like is still a work in progress, but I encourage professionals to embrace it. Work with us so we can live our best lives.
I encourage you to consider what the goal of therapy is. Is your therapy designed around compliance and getting an individual to desist from harmless differences like nonviolent stimming or not making eye contact? That’s in opposition to neurodiversity’s goal of making a wider range of behaviors acceptable. This is one of the many reasons neurodiversity advocates oppose applied behavior analysis, or ABA. Being more “normal” shouldn’t be a goal. This is true for a number of issues, not only disability. If a little boy likes wearing dresses and other children are jerks about it, that’s not his cross to bear. The problem is the bullies, not the little boy wearing a dress. People who object to someone fiddling with a toy or not responding immediately with an expected response should be more tolerant of difference. Unfortunately, there is no therapy to make non-disabled people approach people who are different with an open mind.
It’s pretty easy to tell if someone finds a therapy helpful or not, regardless of whether they are verbal. How is the person’s mood? Do they find therapy sessions distressing? If it’s the latter, maybe that kind of therapy isn’t the best fit. Being unable to speak and being unable to communicate at all are not the same thing. Listen to your clients, especially the ones who do not speak. They’re the ones who need you to listen the most.
So what kind of therapy is compatible with neurodiversity? The answer is surprisingly simple. Is your therapy designed to improve communication, reduce anxiety and/or redirect harmful behaviors? That’s not in opposition to the neurodiversity paradigm at all. Neurodiversity does not mean that we want a hall pass to smash windows or bite our fingers until we bleed. It doesn’t mean that we are ignoring the reality of our lives. It doesn’t mean that those of us who are verbal and/or who need fewer supports aren’t thinking about our nonverbal peers. It means understanding, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., that a riot is the language of the unheard. Listen to us. Please.