Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Neurodiversity vs. Cognitive Liberty

Casey Rae-Hunter is guest blogging this month.

Part of the great debate that has come to characterize current assignments within the autism spectrum has centered on the concept of neurodiverity, which is, to my understanding, an umbrella term that connotes a desire to respect the neurological integrity of individuals. However, it has come to mean more to some with Asperger's Syndrome — particularly those adult "aspies" whose self-definition and place in the world may be hard won, to say the least.

It is somewhat difficult to have a cogent argument about neurodiversity at this stage in history, due to the relative newness of the Asperger's diagnosis. The sociological impact of having an entire generation of adults coming to grips with the existence of an autistic spectrum (and their place within it) can not be overstated. These are early days for aspie advocacy, so it's to be expected that some within this community, having suffered a broad array of indignities, would want to assert themselves through what they see as favorable self-categorization. To others, however, it may be interpreted as elitism.

Many adults with Asperger's (such as myself) did not have the benefit of social or scholastic acceptance of their differences. My own burdens were lightened considerably by my eventual AS diagnosis, but I'm sure for some this is not the case. Keep in mind that Asperger's is an autistic spectrum disorder — if you've met one aspie. . . you've met one aspie. I've heard some real horror stories of tragic childhoods, miserable school experiences and failed relationships, so I understand why some folks with AS may feel a certain degree of embitterment towards the neurotypical world. And it's definitely easy to retreat into a fantasy where you're the "superior" and everyone else just doesn't "get it."

Perhaps an analogy can be drawn to the feminist movement of the early 1960s. Having endured years of societal repression — if not outright abuse — at the hands of a patriarchal status quo, was it any wonder that some self-identifying feminists pushed the envelope of diplomatic conversation with larger society? My opinion is that some in the AS community are having their "I am Aspie, hear me roar" moment.

Well intentioned as such advocacy may be, it seems unfair to champion "neurodiversity" when there are people with, ahem, "lower functioning" autism who struggle greatly with their neurological lot. Families of autistic individuals may actually prefer a "cure" to this condition, as it's preferable to a lifetime of social stigma, behavioral outbursts and isolation. From that perspective, "fixing autism" looks pretty compassionate.

For those on the Asperger's side of the spectrum, the idea that aspies should be "cured" — likely through medical, societal or familial coercion — is as offensive as it gets. As we piece together the historic record of autism, it's clear that a shocking number of the most influential minds of the last several centuries may indeed have had Asperger's Syndrome: Nikola Tesla, Albert Einsten, Andy Warhol, Mozart. . . the speculative list goes on and on. If you'd suffered a lifetime of mistreatment by peers and ostracizing in romance or the workplace, wouldn't you want to self-identify with such titans of mentation? And who's to say that the increase in diagnosed Asperger's isn't just due to better clinical testing? Perhaps it's an evolutionary advantage — wouldn't our digital era favor adaptive traits that reward certain kinds of functioning? Ever wonder why there's so many aspie kids in Silicon Valley? Born to code, indeed.

On the other hand, this could all be a scientific canard.

It's probably better and more helpful to examine the meaning of cognitive liberty — which is to say, the right to psychological self-determination, based on robust informational resources and stratified by some level of societal tolerance. Before you say, "hey, that sounds like neurodiversity," consider my handy Principles of Cognitive Liberty:

1. Cognitive liberty is the basic right of an individual to pursue beneficial psychological trajectories. If the individual is unable to make these choices themselves, than it is the right of their closest family members to make them, provided they are not coerced by the medical establishment or prevailing social strata.

2. Cognitive liberty recognizes that information and education are key to making informed choices. In the absence of such information, cognitive libertarians will advocate for the fullest range of data in when considering treatment options or lifestyle planning.

3. Cognitive liberty recognizes the range of psychological profiles in both the neurotypical world and otherwise. Until and unless an individual's psychology can be determined as infringing on another individual's cognitive liberty, they are free to pursue or not pursue strategies for conventional adaptation or any other panacea — actual or postulatory.

What do you think about neurodiversity vs. cognitive liberty? How practical is either?

Casey Rae-Hunter is a writer, editor, musician, producer and self-proclaimed "lover of fine food and drink." He is the Communications Director of the Future of Music Coalition — a Washington, DC think tank that identifies, examines, interprets and translates issues at the intersection of music, law, technology and policy. He is also the founder and CEO of the Contrarian Media Group, which publishes The Contrarian and Autistic in the District — the latter a blog about Asperger's Syndrome.

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