Editor’s note: We acknowledge that there are many people who prefer to use person-first language when discussing identities related to disability and respect individuals’ right to self-determination in how they are referred to. For an understanding of why many activists use identity-first language, please see this primer by Cara Liebowitz.
Since 2008, April 2nd has been designated as World Autism Awareness Day. Advocacy efforts for the Autistic community has always been fraught with controversy. From the historically very problematic organization Autism Speaks of years past, to the slightly less problematic but still pretty bad organization Autism Speaks of today, there has always been a conflict between those who seek to rid the world of autism and, well, people who actually have it.
So this Autism Awareness Day, let’s think not only of Autism, but of Autistic activists.
Do you or someone you know wear glasses regularly? Someone who really can’t see at all without them? Someone who can’t drive without them? Would you say they have a Disability? Generally speaking, no. Why not? Most people wear glasses because of a literal physical impairment. And if that’s not what it takes to have a disability, then what does?
To answer that, let’s borrow a definition from the social perspective:
Disability: A society’s lack of accommodation for a difference or impairment.
Is that what you think of when you think of a disability? We normally talk about disability as something individual rather than something societal. But the difference between being “legally blind” and being “blind” is just that—which has been accommodated for by our society.
On the flip side of Disability is accessibility—if the world is designed to be accessible to you, then differences in ability don’t matter. Autistic and other Disabled activists have long advocated for understanding disability in this way that frames accessibility as a social responsibility rather than an individual burden.
One such Autistic activist is Kassiane Sibley, who coined the term ‘Neurodivergence.’ Sibley developed the term to talk about difference in cognition, like Autism, in a destigmatized way. The Neurodivergence movement simply posits that people’s brains work in different ways.
Neurodivergent, sometimes abbreviated as ND, means having a brain that functions in ways that diverge significantly from the dominant societal standards of “normal.”
Some types of cognition are considered ‘Neurotypical’ and don’t have any issues with accessibility or stigma. Others are ‘Neurodivergent.’ These may or may not have issues with accessibility, but generally operate outside of what is considered Neurotypical.
There are a multitude of ways you could be Neurodivergent. Aside from Autism, you could have AD(H)D, synesthesia, dyslexia, epilepsy, PTSD, BPD, and the list goes on. But beyond adding another term to the social justice glossary, it is important to remember why this term was necessary.
Autistic people have been pathologized since before there was even a term to categorize them. Throughout the years, many organizations that claim to advocate for Autistic people have really just tried to get rid of Autistic people and money has poured into research for a ‘cure.’ But Autistic people don’t need fixing.
A term like Neurodivergence allows us to talk about people with differences in cognition without further stigmatizing them. We need to recognize that we need to improve the ways that we talk about Disability and Neurodivergence as students and as activists. This Autism Awareness Day, let’s recognize the work that Autistic activists have been doing for years to gain recognition as whole people and empower their community to advocate for themselves.