The Right to Be Different: Neurodiversity and Cultural Change

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“Step inside a thriving elemental ecosystem of richly nuanced textures, rhythms, patterns, and observations… an alternative reality, a parallel universe that is profoundly enabling.” These are the words of Dr. Dawn-Joy Leong, one of a growing number of “neurodivergent” artists and activists across the globe who invite the public to explore a simple truth known to many: there are countless ways to feel, know, and experience the world, and there is no such thing as “normal.”

Leong, who identifies as autistic, was one of the curators of Neurodiverse-City, a series of installations and exhibitions at the 2017 Big Anxiety Festival in Sydney, Australia, which featured the works of neurodiverse artists. The event emphasized differences in sensation and perception, and the importance of embracing diversity. Her installation An Olfactory Map of Sydney featured a series of humorous, yet provocative video monologues documenting her navigating Sydney’s public transport with her hyper-sensitivity to scent. She brings the audience along on her journey: “rancid perfume. Stinky babies. Sweaty clothes. Garlic hair. Human bodies putrefying and I think my own is beginning to smell.”

While Leong’s full sensory experience can’t be fully replicated for a “neurotypical” audience, this guided tour suggests the nuance of her subjective reality, which can be both an ecstatic pleasure and a source of anxiety.

Leong’s second installation, Clement Space, invited audience members to retreat into safe, nurturing physical enclaves away from overwhelming city crowds. This installation was inspired by Leong’s assistance dog, Lucy, who warns of sensory triggers in her environment and provides tactile grounding and comfort. Lucy, too, seeks out a cocoon of safety—a greyhound-sized one—wherever she is in the world. Clement Space highlights the importance of silence and retreat for those with sensory sensitivity or anxiety, while also making the festival more accessible to these individuals.

Image credit: Dawn-Joy Leong

Leong describes her immersion in the temporary universe of Neurodiverse-City as one example of a “neuro-cosmopolitan culture of resonant, empathic vibrancy,” which compels people to imagine what else could be possible if more of these spaces existed.

Neurodiversity activism distinguishes those who are neurotypical (who have a “normal” experience of the world) and those who are neurodivergent (who differ in some way in their neurological processing). Just as there are many types of neurodivergence, there are many visions of neurodiversity movements.

The Mad Pride movement, which has erupted across the Global North, is inspired by LGBTQI+ activism. At Mad Pride parades, attendees dress up in vibrant, mismatched, and whimsical attire to draw attention to and celebrate their eccentricities. These events are primarily organized by people with schizophrenia, bipolar, and other mental health diagnoses, but they welcome anyone who finds resonance with the movement. Like Leong, these advocates argue that, although their lives are marked by certain challenges, their so-called “illness” affords them a number of gifts and privileges that ultimately enhance their human experience.

There is a strong focus within Mad Pride communities on artistic strengths and on the community’s contributions to humankind’s cultural heritage. Vincent Van Gogh and Virginia Woolf are but two examples of neurodivergent individuals whose works were inspired by their cognitive differences and deep emotional lives. Van Gogh, known to experience bouts of mental illness, created some of the world’s most famous paintings; and Woolf, who struggled with depression, revolutionized modernist literature.

Another noteworthy advocacy network is The Icarus Project, made up of people who “experience the world in ways that are often diagnosed as mental illness.” This group uses the collective resources of their community to provide workshops, training, and publications for self-care and advocacy. These individuals, too, focus on the artistic talents of their communities, as do the many independent neurodivergent artists who are experimenting with zines, slam poetry, interactive art, and other mediums.

Some critics have cautioned that the neurodiversity movement, primarily led by autistics, is prone to exclude those individuals who heavily depend on medical and community services and who may find it difficult to self-advocate. For instance, Dr. Katherine Runswick-Cole, a Senior Research Fellow in Disability Studies & Psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University, observes that in their quest for social recognition (a common goal of political movements under neoliberalism), members of the movement sometimes leave behind those who cannot independently participate in society.

Dr. Andrew Solomon similarly criticizes neurodiversity movements for romanticizing the very conditions that are life-threatening and debilitating for others. Solomon observes that while events such as Mad Pride can be validating, it is important to remember that most people still experience “psychosis… as a torment.” He adds that unlike autism, which is present from birth and strongly entwined with identity, mental health diagnoses more often appear in early adulthood. As a result, many affected individuals seek to recover a sense of who they were prior to a neurodivergent life; and their desires should not be discounted.

These criticisms suggest the need for advocates to work within the mainstream health and medical industries that provide access to necessary resources, while also challenging the policies and foundations of those systems, advocating for constant transformation and improvement. The Icarus Project embraces this tension well, stating support for any and all individuals who identify with the movement, no matter the language they assume and their level of engagement with psychiatric norms and institutions. Many Mad Pride communities have also expressed support for those who seek medical treatment. These groups recognize that self-determination is key and that true emancipation cannot be delivered by anyone else.

These two organizations also recognize that mental illness can be created by colonialism, racism, and other “legacies of abuse,” a reality that makes the celebration of mental illness problematic. This awareness shapes the Icarus Project’s mission, which is to “change ourselves through changing the world around us.” Advocates work toward this mission with workshops that support people to understand the ways in which oppression has impacted their lives. Meanwhile, Mad Pride Hull in the UK promotes visibility through arts, carnivals and public events, while also utilizing these platforms to challenge structural oppression. Event organizer Ella Dorton explains, “we want to talk about how mad our world really is, about all the inequality and injustice, greed and violence, and how all this madness so often makes us unwell.”

In this era of globalization and transnational capitalism, there is a threat of the world becoming too homogenized—of people becoming too similar in their outward expression and beliefs.

Despite concerns about their approaches, neurodiversity movements have proliferated. This is because they defend the right to be different. In this era of globalization and transnational capitalism, there is a threat of the world becoming too homogenized—of people becoming too similar in their outward expression and beliefs. Those from colonized countries around the world have been actively opposing the processes of globalization for centuries. First Nations peoples in Canada, for instance, have relentlessly defended their languages, economies, and cultural beliefs from European influence.

Because neurodiversity movements resist the colonization of the human mind, they have the potential to nurture activism across a variety of social movements. Neurodiversity movements empower anyone who has been mislabeled, made invisible, or stigmatized. They also benefit neurotypical or “normal” individuals by granting those individuals permission to explore eccentricities and occupy cognitive spaces that have previously been considered “out of bounds.”

When we can “think” more freely and we begin to question the places where authority has restricted our lives, we can challenge the norms and institutions that don’t serve us. When we can “feel,” we sense the atrocities being carried out in our own names. And when we open ourselves to perceiving the world differently, we can imagine and create new forms to resolve the pressing social, environmental, and economic questions of our time.

Neurodiversity movements are not infallible. Their varied aims are deeply personal and can become politically charged. However, their ethos of acceptance affords a real opportunity for individuals to simultaneously pursue community recognition and collective emancipation.

Note on language: “Autistic” is the preferred language within the neurodiversity movement, rather than the liberal-democratic, first-person alternative, “person with autism.” The preferred language within mental health communities can vary. Some people prefer the terms “consumer,” “survivor,” or “ex-patient.” Some prefer to identify as a “person with a lived experience of mental illness” and others identify with the terms “crazy,” “gifted,” or “mad.”

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About Author

Erin Thomas is completing her Master’s thesis at the Centre for Human Rights Education at Curtin University in Perth, Australia. She has worked in health policy research for the Australian Government and has worked across the not-for-profit sector in mental health and disability advocacy. You can follow her work at https://orcid.org/0000-0002-9331-9154.

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