The Historical Underpinnings of Neurodiversity: Part I

The following paragraphs were written for an editorial published by the Siberian Journal of Special Education in the early part of 2016. I asked the editor of the journal, Elena Chereneva, permission to reproduce the same in my blog. For those wanting to read the original article, the same can be found at Researchgate (


Some of the often cited precedents to Neurodiversity can be found in the figure above. In part, my intent in writing the editorial was to give a broader perspective on the history of Neurodiversity than that offered in recent accounts (e.g., Silberman’s well-publicized account in Neurotribes). In addition, I found that some accounts on Leo Kanner and his role in the Neurodiversity movement have been extremely biased and I was hoping to correct the reader’s perception as to this great man. Given the length of the editorial I will divide its content into 2 blogs. The second part will be published next week.

The original editorial was entitled: Leo Kanner, the Anti-Psychiatry Movement and Neurodiversity, and it went as follows:

There is a growing movement within the autism community that has created a chiasm between the high and low functioning individuals. The movement, called Neurodiversity, espouses the acceptance of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other mental conditions as part of the normal genetic and cognitive variability of the human race. The premise of Neurodiversity is that you are born with the “condition” and that society should create accommodations for any manifestation that generates an impediment towards social interactions, education, or work related productivity. In population studies tail ends within the bell-shaped curve of human trait distributions are associated with some types of societal benefits. This may help explain why, despite the limited number of individuals in these end zones, such traits are preserved generation after generation. According to this utilitarian point of view many computer scientists, radio aficionados and engineers fall within the spectrum. Also, included as exemplars within the spectrum are historical figures like Einstein, Tesla, and Dirac, all of whom have greatly contributed to society. Neurodiversity proponents claim that the cognitive style of ASD individuals, as in the aforementioned historical figures, adequately poises them to provide paradigmatic shifts in their chosen fields of endeavor.

Although arguable, the ideological cradle for Neurodiversity is as old as the ancient Greeks. In The Phaedrus Plato takes issue on how we define mental disorders. In this dialogue, Socrates states that in defining madness we should “carve nature at the joints” and make a distinction between what comes from a biological disorder and what is a departure from conventions of conduct with a special emphasis on “divine madness”. In Phaedrus, madness on occasion conveys an irrationality of human origination and, in other instances, the divine design that drives our passions. This way of thinking resurfaced during the Renaissance when the mad were portrayed as possessing a kind of wisdom often subjected to mysterious cosmic forces.

Roots to the Neurodiversity movement can also be seen during the era of the Romanticism, a period not coincidentally associated with liberalism and radicalism. Some historians believe that this era was a turning point in how the insane were viewed by society: “For some romantics, compassionate understanding could be elevated into something approaching respect or even envy. The insane, they believed, had found a way of getting back to a Rousseauian state of nature by liberating themselves from a repressive civilization that dictated normality” (Blanning, 2011). More recently the antipsychiatry movement of the 1960’s reinstated questions about the legitimacy of standard psychiatric theory and practice. This movement presumed that some psychiatric treatments were more damaging than helpful and that the process of diagnosis was highly subjective. They brought to public awareness the frequency of serious side effects stemming from electroconvulsive therapy, insulin shock, long-term involuntary institutionalization, and brain lobotomy while emphasizing that many of the benefits were only achieved at the cost of creating other impairments. Among the many preoccupations of the antipsychiatry movement were issues regarding freedom of coercion (i.e., the often-assumed roles of adult-child relationship between doctor and patient), the right to be different, and the nebulous relationship medical doctors had to the pharmaceutical industry.

Within the United States Thomas Szasz rose to prominence in the anti-psychiatry movement with his book “The Myth of Mental Illness” (1961) where he provided a social criticism on the diagnostic foundation of Psychiatry. Szasz claimed that mental illnesses were not real in the sense that cancer was objectively real. You can identify, biopsy, grade and immunochemically test for different types of cancer. Mental disorders, with few exceptions (e.g., neurodegenerative changes in Alzheimer’s disease), lack objective ways of appraisal. Atypical cases can seldom falsify the validity of behaviorally based diagnoses. In this regard, diagnosis in psychiatry is meant to sustain the opinion of the people that provided the original criteria. According to Szasz psychiatry deals with dogmatic assertions rather than scientific tenets. Psychiatrists from around the world joined in this criticism including Giorgio Antonucci, R.D. Laing, Franco Basaglia and Theodore Lidz.

Part II, next week, will deal primarily with the role played by Drs Kanner and Rimland within the Neurodiversity movement.

6 Respuestas a “The Historical Underpinnings of Neurodiversity: Part I

  1. “The premise of Neurodiversity is that you are born with the “condition” and that society should create accommodations for any manifestation that generates an impediment towards social interactions, education, or work related productivity.”

    Just to satisfy my curiosity, what exactly is this condition? Or what characteristics define this condition from a neurological point of view?

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    • I used the word condition from the standpoint of Neurodiversity which differentiates it from a disorder. If you are talking about a neurological disorder the term would imply a DSM5 diagnosis.

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  2. Concept of «condition» is used in some empowerment and diversity movements: against racism, gays-lesbians-transexuals rights movements, feminism advocates, refugees protection… Using this term, the primary objective is to clearly differentiate betweeen the persons and the situation they are living.

    Currently, is very common to use the expression «a person with autism» instead of «autistic person». Semantic implications is of significant importance in this case. And it is only a small success in the struggle against social discrimination.

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  3. Pingback: The Historical Underpinnings of Neurodiversity: Part II | Cortical Chauvinism·

  4. Pingback: Twilah Hiari: Neurodiversity is Dead. Now What? | Cortical Chauvinism·

  5. Pingback: Neurodiversity Fatigue: Autism as a Worn Identity | Cortical Chauvinism·

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