3 Thinkers Who Championed Neurodiversity and Changed How We Think About Autism

Until 1975, many children with disabilities were not allowed in public schools. And, if they were, their classes were separate or substandard.

This past year, 2015, marked the 40th anniversary of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, both of which were passed to address this inequality.

Much has changed: Inclusive classrooms are becoming more popular; accommodations and supports are more readily available; and specialists are becoming more numerous and accessible. Yet work remains to be done. Despite these crucial legislative steps, we continue to learn that people with special needs are often just as disadvantaged by social attitudes as they are by any physical or mental challenges they face.

Even when supports are available, outdated and harmful attitudes about the abilities of people with autism spectrum disorder have sometimes impeded the efficacy of such resources.

But things are changing. Thanks to the emergence of first-person accounts by individuals who have taken their disabilities in stride and focused on their own strengths, there are new sources of inspiration for students and educators alike. As a result, additional opportunities for people with disabilities have emerged.

Here are three thinkers whose writings have helped transform the public’s view of autism spectrum disorder — and provided much-needed catalysts for the social acceptance of legislative changes.

Dr. Temple Grandin

An internationally recognized animal expert and inventor (as well as a bestselling author), Grandin became a well-known autism advocate with the publication of her 1986 book, Emergence: Labeled Autistic, about her own diagnosis at age 3. She has since tirelessly worked to change the ways in which society treats and views people on the autism spectrum.

In the book, Grandin describes her difficulties in school as a highly intelligent student who was unable to control her emotions or relate well to others. She also writes of her experiences in a specialized program for other children with autism. Over time (and largely through self-teaching), she developed techniques, insights, and even devices that enable her to live a fulfilling life and make major contributions both in the fields of animal science and autism.

Grandin has written — and proven by her own example — that individuals with autism spectrum disorder have “differently abled brains,” but not, in fact, any deficiency.

Working with the strengths of autistic children and adults — instead of focusing on deficits — is something that Grandin has helped to popularize in her advocacy. Her own talents, her affinity for and deep understanding of animals (both of which were supported by her mother and a high school science teacher), led her to discover her niche designing facilities for livestock.

Dr. Thomas Armstrong

In his book Neurodiversity: Discovering the Extraordinary Gifts of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Other Brain Differences, Armstrong became one of the first to popularize the idea that differences in people’s brains don’t automatically relegate them to a future in an institution or in the home.

His entire framing of autism and other “disabilities” draws on the term “neurodiversity,” coined by autism advocate Judy Singer to echo the positive connotations of “cultural diversity” and “biodiversity.” In his text, Armstrong calls neurodiversity “just the right word … to account for recent evidence ... that suggests that amid the damage and dysfunction appearing in the brains of people with mental health labels, there are bright shining spots of promise and possibility.”

To this end, Armstrong notes the ways in which special education can be radically changed for the better if it abandons its “disability discourse.” Instead, he argues, special-ed programs should implement diversity outreach efforts like those used to address differences in sexual orientation, gender, and race. He hopes that this sort of effort will educate people about “differences, not disabilities.”

Armstrong has also pointed out that we need not view neurodiversity as a term of political correctness; instead, by seeing adults on the spectrum successfully navigate life on their own terms, we can observe it as a neurologically accurate concept.

Steve Silberman

Steve Silberman’s article “The Geek Syndrome” explores ways in which the culture of tech companies opened up new social, professional, and even romantic possibilities for people with autism. He writes:

In the geek warrens of engineering and R&D, social graces are beside the point. You can be as off-the-wall as you want to be, but if your code is bulletproof, no one's going to point out that you've been wearing the same shirt for two weeks. Autistic people have a hard time multitasking — particularly when one of the channels is face-to-face communication. Replacing the hubbub of the traditional office with a screen and an email address inserts a controllable interface between a programmer and the chaos of everyday life.

The article posits that the children of autistic parents are genetically predisposed to autism, too, a fact that might explain why Silicon Valley has such a large number of autism diagnoses.

Temple Grandin has similarly noted the apparent preponderence of people with autism spectrum disorder in tech: “Steve Jobs was probably mildly on the autistic spectrum. Basically, you’ve probably known people who were geeky and socially awkward but very smart. When does geeks and nerds become autism? That's a gray area. Half the people in Silicon Valley probably have autism.”

Writing this article led Silberman to pen one of the first histories of autism, the Samuel Johnson Prize–winning NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. Among its many interesting points, the book presents strong evidence that autistic people have always been part of the human community. In other words, they didn’t suddenly appear as a result of vaccinations, bad parenting, or psychiatric or psychological intervention.

Yet old attitudes still prevail.

Silberman tells a story of a Silicon Valley mother — only two decades ago — whose child was diagnosed with autism. The doctor said, “There is very little difference between your daughter and an animal. We have no idea what she will be able to do in the future.”

Silberman notes that the girl, now a woman of 25, is “bright, engaging, and affectionate,” that she developed many relationships in school both with peers and teachers, and that her musical talents include being able to sing with perfect pitch. In other words: She developed into a successful and talented adult with a fulfilling life — one made possible rather than impeded by her autism.

The Takeaway

Finding room for people who are in any way different from the mainstream has often been a challenge — but one with great rewards. These rewards extend not just to people with disabilities themselves, but also from their neurotypical peers, who benefit from the perspectives, experiences, and innovations that inclusiveness fosters.

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