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Autism and Neurodiversity

By Sarah Hatcher, Ph.D.

April 2, 2024

April 2nd is World Autism Awareness Day, which kicks off World Autism Month, a dedicated time to learn about autism spectrum disorder and promote acceptance of diverse ways of thinking, behaving, and interacting with the world (1). Autism is likely a familiar word to most people, but not everyone is aware of the symptoms and characteristics of the condition. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) includes differences in social communication (how someone interacts and communicates with others), challenges with general language and communication skills, and the presence of repetitive and restrictive behaviors and interests. People with ASD also often experience sensory intolerances and may have co-occurring conditions such as intellectual disability, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), seizure disorder, anxiety / depression, and sleep or gastrointestinal problems. Each person with autism is unique, some people are highly independent and self-sufficient needing minimal additional support, while others require 24/7 care for daily needs and have limited ability to communicate (2). Autism is considered a spectrum due to the variation in the type and severity of symptoms that people experience (3).

People with autism, like people with other developmental and mental health conditions, have historically faced stigma and misunderstandings about the symptoms they exhibit. In response to stigma, the neurodiversity movement emerged in the 1990’s; and the term was initially coined by Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist who is herself on the autism spectrum. Singer imagined neurodiversity as a social justice movement, to promote equality for people she termed, “neurological minorities”, or people whose brains work in “atypical” ways. Her vision was that this term should amplify the strengths of people with any developmental or learning differences so that their differences are viewed as assets and a positive contribution to society, not as deficits or a condition in need of fixing or a cure (4).

Since its creation, the neurodiversity movement has grown and many people with ASD embrace the condition as part of their identity and celebrate how their symptoms are strengths that help them be more empathetic, creative, and productive. People with ASD embrace that identity in a variety of ways, including how they choose to be identified, often as “autistic” or “autist”, but also by self-advocating and promoting the value of thinking differently (5).

By celebrating differences as strengths, the neurodiversity movement does not ignore the challenges experienced by people with ASD or other mental health conditions. Rather, the movement seeks to educate neurotypical (non-ASD) individuals so they can better understand neurodiverse abilities, needs, and ways to support without judgment. Living in a world built for neurotypical people and with neurotypical social and occupational expectations magnifies many of the challenges and stigma people with ASD experience. The neurodiversity movement gives people a voice to ask for respect, compassion, and collaboration with the neurotypical community so that neurodiverse individuals can receive equitable resources, share their strengths, and live fulfilling lives as their authentic selves (5,6).







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