Reply to “Cornering Slim Shady in the Round Barn” re the definition of Neurodiversity


Image by natalia & gabriel via Flickr

I wrote a post a week ago about the problems with defining “Neurodiversity.” The questions I posed in that piece remain un-answered (and perhaps that is because there are no answers; I will discuss that and its consequences later in this post). I was given to think that I could expect some answers from the particularly articulate and thoughtful Mark Stairwalt, from Shift Journal, which directly and proudly links itself to neurodiversity.

What I got instead, was repetition of the central problem I pointed out in the first place; but this time the problems I’d identified were presented as something to be proud of; that the lack of definition and answers about the neurodiversity movement and neurodiversity itself, is a strength rather than a weakness.

I – perhaps not surprisingly – think this is neither enlightened nor helpful. I regularly encounter these types of arguments with my students, and have had to explain why it is so important to attempt definitions, and why the claim that there is no definition is itself a definition. This might not be obvious, and the importance of it might not be obvious either. So, for the sake of clarity – and with the aim of trying to elicit some answers to my original and serious questions – I shall endeavour to explain.

To say that something – such as neurodiversity – lacks a fixed definition is itself a claim. A disputable, and disputed, claim. It is not a “meta-claim”, by which I mean, a claim that absorbs or explains every other attempt to define neurodiversity. It does not sit above other definitions or attempts at definitions, it sits along-side them. It can be wrong; the question remains: Is it?

It’s like me claiming a bike is a vehicle, and you claim it isn’t, and a third person claims the definitions of bike and vehicles are ever-changing and unfixed (concluding that there is no one definition for “bike” or “vehicle”). The person who makes that last statement is not outside of the contest for definitional clarity, they are part of the contest, just as much asserting their view-point and rightness as the other two.

The search for definitions and clarity is not a fool’s game, made up of people who do not understand the flux of the world and the fuzzy edges of certainty. There are some people who are over-fixated with certainty, to the point that they sacrifice accuracy by ignoring the fuzzy edges and flux. But there are also people at the other extreme (and Mark would seem to be one, and proudly so), who sees truth and reality as always changing, always referential, and never absolute. Both extremes make error. They are doing what I have referred to before as either ignoring or fixating on the penumbra, which is just a fancy word for the fuzzy edges of words, categories and “truths:” If you ignore the edges you make the error of over-simplifying matters to the point of overall inaccuracy. But if you focus too intently on the edges, you make the error of thinking there is no centre. Relevant to our purposes, that would be like saying there is no core definition or purpose of neurodiversity (or the neurodiversity movement) just because there is some disagreement around the edges about its precise application or wording.

For example, we can identify a car when it has four wheels, and is newly off the construction line, but at what point does it stop being a car? When it has no wheels and is rusted by the side of the road? When it has all its parts but it is squashed into a scrap heap cube? And we know a car is a vehicle, but is a bike, is a skateboard? When people say these confusions mean we can’t define “car” or “vehicle” they are over-focusing on the penumbra and ignoring the truth and relevance of the central instances.

(If you’re interested in reading further my thoughts about such issues, I direct you to two previous posts: “Language and Autism: The impact of penumbra and generalized instances, on debates about the existence of, and functioning levels within, ASD” and “Law, Science, Burdens of Proof and Contextual Truth.”)

This is not pretty word play and pointless philosophical musings. This has consequences. Especially for the neurodiversity movement, and indeed any movement or terminology linked to an effort to change behaviour, attitudes and beliefs. If a term becomes attached to a rights movement – like neurodiversity is – then the term can (and has) quickly become short-hand for a particular (more complicated) viewpoint and ideas. As that happens – and if they term is not defined well – it can in turn be easily misrepresented and attacked. That’s called a strawman argument, and it can be particularly effective and powerful in this context:

If a term is redefined by people who want to stop a movement for what ever reasons (they perhaps want to stop the accomplishment of a particular aim of the movement which counters their own aims), they can claim it stands for something it doesn’t, then attack the latter. Let me give you a very clear and common example directly in point. The neurodiversity movement is often linked to efforts to extend acceptance and accommodation of autistic people. But others want autism to be fought and wiped out, not embraced. So it suits their purposes to cast the neurodiversity movement as extreme; as accepting of all mental abnormalities no matter how devastating to the affected individual, and as anti any treatment to lessen the impact of autism itself. If the neurodiversity movement is indeed in favour of these views (and it is not at all clear that they are, as I discussed in my original post), then the attack is valid. But if this is a distortion of the movement and its aims, then the attack is a dangerous and misleading strawman which undercuts the other aims of the movement in the process.

If neurodiversity remains undefined in the face of such challenges, then it cannot fight them off, and its aims and achievements are in danger. So my questions are only pretty and pointless philosophical musings if you don’t care about the real world consequences of changes in actions, attitudes and beliefs. It is precisely because of reality that these philosophical musings matter.

It seems to me that there is a way forward from the mess. The start, is to separate out the definition of the word neurodiversity from the Neurodiversity movement (capital N). The second, is to declare if there is a central, or many, neurodiversity movements. The next would be to be very clear about the aims and beliefs of any particular Neurodiversity movement. Since there are such extremes within what a movement could be aiming for – from general awareness, to full on acceptance, to extensive accommodation, denial of treatment or criminality of treatment – it appears to me that it would be best to be extremely clear about what you’re trying to achieve and why, instead of simply adopting the term “neurodiversity” (which is the general conclusion of my original post). However, it is clear that there are some people and organisations which claim to be the neurodiversity movement, despite the fact that they are in contention with others who claim the same. It is a mess. An unhelpful one. And thereby my call for clarity and pointing out the specific confusions in order to aid the road towards that clarity.

So, while I do genuinely appreciate Mark’s valiant (and beautifully expressed) effort to answer my questions – by effectively saying they didn’t need answers – I remain unconvinced. I think the answers are worth seeking, and I think they matter. If the truth is there are no definitions here – that it is ever-changing flux as he suggests – then the term “neurodiversity” loses much of its force for change (though not all of it), and remains an easy target for straw-man attacks aiming to undercut even its most widely-acceptable and agreeable aims.

If the aims and beliefs of neurodiversity matter, then defining neurodiversity (and Neurodiversity) also matters.

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8 Responses to Reply to “Cornering Slim Shady in the Round Barn” re the definition of Neurodiversity

  1. Sharon says:

    I really appreciate how much thought you put into these posts. This topic kind of reminds me of the post modern/post post modern debate. I find myself once again agreeing with you, although I can appreciate Mark’s point of view. And as an aside adore his writing.
    Thankyou for such a thought provoking start to the weekend.

  2. Thank you for the kind words, A&O, and the thorough, thoughtful, and gracious reply. It’s a pleasure disagreeing with you. 🙂

    My view is that neurodiversity is polycentered. This is not the same as saying it lacks definition. The point I want to get across is that an insistence on a monocentric definition will inevitably distort and disappear much of what actually makes up the whole. From a standpoint of strategy, I do understand the value of message discipline, of having a message and sticking to it come hell or high water. I would like to have seen this concern of yours more apparent in the essay to which I was responding; re-reading it just now, I don’t find it anywhere.

    The world you’re seeking seems to be one where God is in his Heaven and all’s right with the world. To the extent I’m proud, it’s in imagining that I’ve exchanged that worldview (which is certainly the one I was raised to have) for one more polytheistic, one which does not conflate The One with The Good, and which sees legitimacy in The Many. There’s a D. H. Lawrence quote I recently ran across that sums it up at a personal level: “The human being is a most curious creature. He thinks he has got one soul, and he has got dozens.” Many gods, many souls, many perspectives, many definitions. Yes, cats and dogs living together, and more besides.

    So I think this is the level at which we are odds. It’s not at the level of neurodiversity, and does it or does it not have or need a definition. It’s at the level of worldview, on the battlefield of The One vs. The Many. Notions about polytheistic psychology have been around for about half a century, neurodiversity as a concept for maybe fifteen years, and much like Billy the Kid and Oscar the Wilde in the mind of one James Luther Dickinson, they “have rented a duplex inside my head.” As Dickinson was proud of his tenants, so I am proud of mine.

    I am taken by your emphasis on penumbras, but I would suggest, again, that the model might be not of single, discrete centers with large, deceptively overlapping penumbrae, but of swarms of associated centers, constantly in motion in three dimensions, at times eclipsing one another, at times merging and splitting, and at times breaking off individually or in groups to form or join other swarms, each yes with their own large penumbrae, and all unfolding over timespans as short as moments and as long as eons. Definitions then need be playful, provisional, and bestowed with a light touch, or they become restrictive, manipulative, and false — or to put it another way, such definitions come to serve the worldview of those who deploy them rather than those they describe.

    You may claim that in your response this is exactly what you are trying to prevent, however you are offering no choice but to accept the terms of a monocentric worldview before neurodiversity can even begin to be protected. How is this different from a mob-style protection racket? “Nice little movement you got here. Be a shame if something were to happen to it …” 😀

    Consider the examples I offered of other distributed systems which do not lend themselves to easy definition as players on the world stage: the bittorrent protocol, the Tor network, LulzSec, and Anonymous. It’s not an accident that they’re all creatures of the internet, as the internet itself is a creation of the autistic cognitive style. The creator of bittorrent for that matter is a diagnosed autistic. Like begets like, and the reason you’re moved to pull your hair out over neurodiversity’s definition is the same reason Authorities condemn cutting off internet and phone service during protests in Cairo while turning around and deigning it necessary and allowable in the San Francisco Bay area.

    It’s not neurodiversity’s self-contradiction that’s at issue here, any more than the internet is at fault for playing host to moving swarms of shifting valences — though governments the world over are using this as an excuse for much anti-democratic policy they’d never otherwise be able to implement. What’s at issue is their inability, along with the rest of the monocentric world to come to terms with the presence of distributed networks which are beyond their control, and whose accurate definition calls into question the prevailing worldview.

    If as they say Jesus was the Word made flesh and history’s most successful Jew, the Internet is autism made wired, weak central coherence set up on routers and switches, set loose in the world for everyone to hop on and take a ride — and thus perhaps already, the most successful neurological disorder in history (even manic depression has never spawned its own infrastructure). So you see it does come back to the theology that sets our worldviews. The monocentric take gained ascendance by my count in 395 A.D., when the edict came down that Christianity was to be the official state-religion of Rome. “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath …” was (according to Swinburne) the dying cry of the polycentrists. And yet here we are again in this twenty-first century, bringing color back, and riling up the authorities much as Jesus is said to have done back in the day.

    So perhaps in your eyes I’ve now moved from proud to grandiose. 😀 I do think there are big issues in play here, bigger than my individual pride, and larger than autism and neurodiversity per se.


    And, just some business here, as I am unable to contact you otherwise. I would like to mirror this entire conversation over at Shift. May I repost your above reply there, as I intend to do with this comment?

    • Yes to your request re sharing the entire conversation Mark, and I’ll email you so you have my email for any future use.

      I did comment on your Slim Shady post at Shift the day it was published, but the comment still sits unapproved. I’ll reproduce it here for you:

      “Autism and Oughtisms
      Your comment is awaiting moderation.
      August 12, 2011 at 4:55 am

      Hi Mark,

      I will give you this much; you express yourself and your case beautifully. But you will no doubt not be surprised to hear that I do not concur with much of the sentiment of your post. Perhaps it is because of my academic training; I spent nine years training then more years teaching, in both philosophy and law. So it is very much in my nature to seek answers, or at the least, to identify the correct questions in the search for answers. I only seek because those answers matter; if neurodiversity did not matter, I wouldn’t bother.

      I will reply in a post of proper length later, but there is one point at least which I feel I really must address (and can easily address) within this comment. It was not Shift Journal or you which lead to me writing my post; contrary to what you believe. It was in fact, two posts from two other bloggers, which directly inspired my further consideration of what neurodiversity means. You can find them (and you’ll note their dates directly precede my own post), here: One by Kim at Countering: And one by MJ at Autism Jabberwocky:

      I must apologise if you thought (which you seem to) that I was somehow spitting in your or Shift Journal’s face right after you’d shared my post here; that truly was never the intention or motivator. You might be interested to read the two pieces I have linked to, to see the issues I was trying to make sense of.

      Much respect,


      I find myself frankly unable to meaningfully repond to your comparatives of your views and mine, to religion (mono and polytheism, though I am of course familiar with the difference). As a dedicated and passionate atheist, religious rhetoric is largely lost on me here; I fail to see or appreciate its relevance. Perhaps you could restate your point without reference to religion, so I can get a better grasp of your complaint?

      I also cannot respond to your internet examples, because I am not familiar with them. I am not internet-savvy to say the very least. If you could provide an example that is not internet related, again I might be in a better position to meaningfully respond. Yet you say the internet examples are the most relevant. But we’re talking about a view-point about the human being, a rights movement, etc; perhaps if you could give a different example which clearly parellels neurodiversity in this way I could find a way to better appreciate your point? Otherwise find a way to explain it simpliciter?

      What I have done is argued the importance for definition directly about neurodiversity, trying to always bring it back specifically to neurodiversity. Using examples and issues from within the actual debate as much as possible, and using (what I hoped were) very simple and well-understood examples to clarify my points where needed; using more complex or intricate examples to explain a debate, tends to muddy rather than clear the waters.

      Until I can better understand your examples from the internet, and your comparisons to gods, I fear the dialogue is at a stand-still. Perhaps you could clarify it, or maybe someone else who has read your replies could kindly explain it better to me, as I would like to re-engage if possible.

    • Nidreya says:

      fantastic post, although I have to offer the view that your description of swarms of associated centers, constantly in motion in three dimensions, at times eclipsing one another, at times merging and splitting, and at times breaking off individually or in groups to form or join other swarms, each yes with their own large penumbrae, and all unfolding over timespans as short as moments and as long as eons. whilst most excellent, would apply to absolutely everything that exists as well.

      The dance eternal. The dance of predator and prey, the Dance of energy which is the dance of fuel witches the dance of food.

      God controls the food. The job of the human race is to create a new mode of communication which is invisible to the general population. This is how the ‘god’ position is usurped and one group of humans wrests control of the food supply from other humans.

      Autistics, anonymous and the internet are taking the food supply back from the corporations and the banks and there is nothing they can do to stop it.

  3. My apologies for the waylaid comment; it’s now posted. And yes, I made too many assumptions about shared references to be very effective above. I’m grateful for the opportunity to clarify, though real life intrudes and it may be the end of the week before I can respond.

  4. Pingback: Response to A&O’s reply re: “Cornering Slim Shady in the Round Barn” and the definition of Neurodiversity | Neurodiversity

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