Identity and Neurodiversity

I’d like to discuss, briefly, to what extent neurodiverse conditions affect conceptions of identity. For those of you familiar with the “Neurodiversity” movement, you’ll be aware of the debate that self-advocacy has stirred in the world of mental well-being. The movement takes its origin from the development of an online community through which some autists began advocating on behalf of themselves for recognition of their conditions as natural variations or ways of being, rather than deficits or impairments. The definition of neurodiversity has come to encompass many more conditions now due to advocacy on part of people who have come to see their “illness” as part of themselves, rather than something externally created. Naturally, this has changed the way they conceive of their condition as “illness”. Is it illness, natural variation, or part of their individuality? Or perhaps all three?

This questions can be traced to the social disability model. A conception of disability which seeks to adjust the community to the differences of an individual, rather than adjusting an individual to whatever perceptions of “normal” might be within the community. The argument behind such a conception of individual differences as part of one’s identity makes experiencing neurodiverse conditions more like an alternative lifestyle rather than the medically defined illness or difference without redeeming quality. Of these conditions, those which neurodiversity has come to encompass, there are doubtless a number of strengths to which we can attribute some of the unique skills within neurodiversity. This question becomes more complex within the context of identity though.

This is because conceptions of identities are complex. We have a number of identities that manifest themselves in different environments or as composite forms of background experience. So, do neurodiverse conditions like autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and bipolar really comprise a part of a person’s identity?

In the way that we might argue that minute biological differences comprise a part of us, are they necessarily included in an identity? After all, identity itself is a social construction, one over which the author of an identity maintains a limited amount of control. To the part of our identity over which we have no control, such as how we are perceived by others, there is little choice but to embrace difference as a strength.

In many ways, personal experience seems to be indicative of the way in which one formulates an identity. If the self we become is, at least in part, created by the unique aspects of ourselves manifested within neurodiverse conditions, then it is almost definitely important enough to advocate acceptance for the differences over which one has no control. This is because every one of us has a right to be an individual and pursue their own conception of what makes life worth living. Our identities make life worth living because they are an indispensable ingredient in the human experience; they are the flavor of our lives and the product of our social interactions. I don’t think it is a question whether or not neurodiversity is a part of us, rather I think it is a bold statement. Of course, for now I have conveniently ignored the other problems with “neurodiversity”; it is not without its value as a conceptual tool, however.

If you are interested in learning more about neurodiversity and the idea of individual neurological difference as valuable, I recommend two interesting books:

  • The Power of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain by Dr. Thomas Armstrong
  • “Unmaking of Psychiatry; Saving Normal: An Insider’s Revolt Against Out-of-Control Psychiatric Diagnosis by Allen Frances


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