The Colonisation of Neurodiversity And How To Break Free: Part 1

by AJ Singh

The Neurodiversity movement is stalling.

It’s gone from a recognition of the beauty in difference to an extractive mindset and unhelpful labels, based on lies. It has been colonised. There has to be a better way. In this two-part article, I’m going to look at the problems the movement is facing, and point to a possible way forward.

First, a little bit of history. The term Neurodiversity was coined by Judy Singer, Australian sociologist, in the 1990s. Singer says: “...every human has a unique nervous system with a unique combination of abilities and needs.”

A few years later, Neurodiversity Activist, Kassiane Asasumasu, coined the term Neurodivergent to be more inclusive and to recognise all forms of mindbodies (your brain and body are one system that includes the mind!) that diverge from the social and medical constructs of “normal” under an umbrella term. 

What happened next often happens with social justice movements: the discussion on Neurodivergence and Neurodiversity was co-opted to fit within the frameworks of colonialism and capitalism. On social media and elsewhere, it’s no longer about infinite variability. Instead, Neurodivergent only exists in opposition to the colonial construct of Neurotypical, and the oppression of Neurodivergent people has been placed firmly on the shoulders of individuals who we have decided are ‘neurotypical’. They are the problem. 

This is the oldest coloniser trick in the book: reducing a systemic, centuries old, intersectionally layered oppression to a false binary at the individual level. Man and Woman. Straight and Gay. White and Black. Neurotypical and Neurodivergent. All binaries with an implied ‘normal and other’, constructed to serve the oppressive and extractive systems of white supremacy, colonialism and capitalism. 

The Colonisation Of Neurodiversity

This has led to signs that the Neurodiversity movement is stalling, including: 

  • Lack of representation of the Global Majority: Black, Brown and Indigenous voices are hugely missing from the mainstream ‘thought leadership’ discussions on Neurodiversity, perspectives and activism still largely centres on white experiences.

  • Co-option by white supremacists and misogynists: White Autistics claiming to be ‘High Functioning’ (ableist term) or to ‘have Aspergers’ (ableist, and Hans Asperger was a member of the Nazi party who experimented on Disabled children) feeling superior to high support needs Autistics, gatekeeping employment opportunities and blaming bigoted and violent behaviour on their Autism. Alina Gene speaks eloquently on the white-supremacist co-opting of Neurodivergence in her TikTok videos on intersectionality.

  • Commercialisation: ‘Hire Neurodivergent people, we are really smart and talented and useful’ - This narrative not only upholds the idea that you are only worthy as a human because you can be useful to capitalists, it also reinforces Aspie (white) supremacy - what about those who don’t fit the mould of ‘professionalism’ you’ve made? Why do people who are ‘other’ have to be exceptional or have a specific skill to exploit to get the same opportunities as mediocre ‘normal’ people?

  • Dilution: by ill-qualified, opportunistic people who consider it trendy to slap ‘Neurodiverse’ or ‘Neuro-inclusive’ on training & consulting and are spreading harmful misinformation.

This is not the cycle-breaking, social justice work we want it to be; this is the colonisation of Neurodiversity.

And while the term Neurodivergent was created to be inclusive, it no longer serves that purpose. 

Instead, with the rise in Neurotypical versus Neurodivergent discourse, it has morphed into yet another version of the coloniser binaries we are trying to extract ourselves from. We are othering ourselves and the supposed ‘neurotypicals’, we are just doing it in community. And we haven’t (collectively) noticed that we are being encouraged to keep doing this by those who have a vested interest in the status quo remaining. 

Finding Your People Can Mask Lack Of Progress

I get it. It feels good to find your people. Particularly when you have been raised in a reality that teaches you that how you think, feel and perceive the world is wrong. Finding others who ‘get’ you is everything. And it is, it’s so important. We need our people, our community. I have taken so much comfort in it and I continue to draw strength and joy from my community of Neurodivergent-identifying friends. I also appreciate that for some people, finding our people can lead to seeking diagnosis and much needed support. My Autism diagnosis was absolutely life changing because it helped me make sense of myself and the way I have been treated and responded to my entire life. 

The problem is when that’s where it ends, with how we feel about ourselves with our identity-affirming language. Because the power-wielding, status-quo-keeping folks want us to stay in our self-soothing bubble. To be happy and satisfied by this construct inside a construct. We will make small, fractional wins, every so often, and be satisfied. And everything will largely stay the same. This is the white supremacist culture of individualism playing out within Neurodiversity and doing what it was designed to do - stop collective progress. 

In Part 2, I’ll look at how we free ourselves from these harmful cycles.

AJ Singh is Decolonising Mindbody Health Lead at Mission Equality.

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