What is the Neurodiversity Paradigm? Exploring Kuhn’s Theory of Paradigms Through Autism Advocacy Pt 2: How Autism Shifted to the Neurodiversity Paradigm

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For the full series, click here.

  1. Series Introduction
  2. Paradigm Shifts
  3. What Shifted With Autism? The Paradigm Shift from Medical Paradigm to the Neurodiversity Paradigm
  4. Brief Advert
  5. The New Paradigm: The Neurodiversity Paradigm
  6. Autism as Part of the Neurodiversity Paradigm
  7. References/ Further Reading for Series

Series Introduction

Society has experienced a significant shift in its attitude towards Autism from Autism as a medical disorder to Autism as a part of the Neurodiversity Paradigm. Such attitudes have seen the abandonment of adverts that argue that Autism ‘kidnaps’ children to celebrities embracing their identity. However, the media has paid little attention to what is meant by a ‘paradigm’. It is often used incorrectly and explained as merely a set of assumptions. In reality, paradigm refers to a particular philosophical understanding of how science works that was developed by Thomas Kuhn.

This series will explain the shift in understanding Autism through Kuhn’s theory of paradigms. Part one explored the old medical paradigm and how Autism fitted into it. Part two (this part) will explore how paradigm shifts occur and how Autism shifted to the Neurodiversity Paradigm. Part three will explore how the Neurodiversity Paradigm has changed the understanding of Autism. Finally, part four will explore how well Kuhn’s theory can accommodate the changing attitudes toward Autism.

Paradigm Shifts

As discussed previously, there are times when a current paradigm (a set of assumptions used by scientists) breaks down and scientists have to go through revolutionary science in order to discover a new set of assumptions. These assumptions change how science views current evidence and creates new avenues for scientific inquiry. Changing from one set of assumptions to another is known as a paradigm shift. A common illustration of a paradigm shift is using the Rabbit-Duck Illusion seen below:

The picture above is created by a set of drawn lines. These lines do not change when undergoing a paradigm shift. This is representative of scientific data. However, the image that is created can change. At first, you may see a bunny rabbit with the nose on the left and the ears on the right. You view this with one set of assumptions. However, if you shift your perspective and the meaning of the lines, you could also see a duck with a beak on the right and a nose on the left. Depending on the assumptions you make about the drawing changes what meaning the unmoving lines have.

In a similar way, a paradigm shift changes the meaning of the data scientists collect. The data is unchanging. However, it takes on a different meaning when you change the assumptions that are being applied to it. This is the paradigm shift.  

What Shifted With Autism? The Paradigm Shift from Medical Paradigm to the Neurodiversity Paradigm

One example of something undergoing a paradigm shift is Autism. It moved from the medical paradigm to the Neurodiversity Paradigm. There are three foundational aspects to this paradigm shift: the development of the social model of disability, the principle of neurodiversity and the appreciation of lived experience.   

A shift in perspective began in the 1960s as part of the wider disability movement through the social model. The social model argued that a disabled individuals’ distress is not the result of something inherently wrong with them but instead the result of society being built in a way to restrict disabled people.

To understand this shift, imagine a wheelchair user who is distressed because there are only stairs in a building.  Under the medical paradigm, the person in the wheelchair varies from what is considered the ‘healthy’ standard of being able to walk. They are thus considered ‘abnormal’ or ‘disordered’. The medical paradigm argues that it is the person who is the problem in the scenario because they are ‘disordered’. Not being able to access stairs is one example of the life of the disabled person being a ‘tragedy’. Consequently, the medical paradigm holds that it is the person who needs to be fixed and returned to a normal state of being able to walk.  

In contrast, the social model challenges the idea that the problem is inherent in the wheelchair user but rather the restricted way society has been designed. Society is bias towards the dominant types of body in society and actively restricts those who don’t fit the ‘normal’. The suffering is not inherent in the wheelchair user as they would not experience distress if there were lifts and ramps. They would be able to navigate the space like any other person. As such, the onus should be on society to change by putting in lifts rather than the person being treated.

Another shift in perspective was the rejection of there being only one, objective way to be healthy. As previously stated, the medical paradigm held that there was only one objective way to be healthy. This was challenged by the principle of Neurodiversity. Neurodiversity was coined by Judy Singer and refers to a fact – there is normal variation between individuals’ brains. They come in all shapes and sizes. Neurodiversity is often compared to biodiversity. When we observe nature, there are all matters of difference that can occur. Some animals have fur while others do not. It does not make sense to say that fur is better than scales. It is just different. In the same way, it makes no sense to say one type of brain is better than another. Everyone just has different brains.

Finally, there was the acknowledgment of lived experience. Previously, disability had been defined by those who were not disabled studying those who were. These individuals saw disabled people as a ‘burden’ and thus projected this onto how they assumed it was to be disabled. It was thus concluded that disability was filled with a life of suffering. However, disabled people began to challenge this narrative by arguing that their life was not filled with suffering, but society inflicted it on disabled people. Without society, disabled people had a valuable, enjoyable life worth living.

From this point, lived experience became a vital part of disability advocacy and, consequently, an important part of Autism advocacy to fight stigma. It has been acknowledged that disability can give the person unique knowledge about the world that others may not have access to.

Brief Advert

Buy your Kuhn-inspired Neurodiversity Pride mug here:

The New Paradigm: The Neurodiversity Paradigm

In the end, the work of the Autistic community and revolutionary science led to a new paradigm. Nick Walker (she/her) was one of the first to call the paradigmatic shift the Neurodiversity Paradigm and describe its assumptions.  There are three key aspects to the Neurodiversity Paradigm that Walker identifies;

  1. Accepting that neurodiversity is a natural and variable form of neurodiversity.
  2. Acknowledging that any insistence that there is a singular way to be ‘healthy’ is a socially constructed fiction which is no more valid than the insistence that there is a single correct race or gender.
  3. The social dynamics around neurodiversity resemble that of race and gender. In the same way that men can be privileged and other genders oppressed, there are dominant neurotypes and there are neurodivergent neurotypes that are oppressed.

The first criterion refers to Judy Singer’s Neurodiversity and that it should be held as desirable. The second involves the rejection of the medical paradigm discussed in the previous article. The third criterion introduces a new idea – the concept of oppression.

To see the point that Walker is attempting to get at, we can have a look at gender. Historically, gender was viewed as objective in multiple ways. For example, you were either a man or a woman. Depending on which of these you were, you had a set of societal roles. It was seen as obvious that women and anyone who diverged from their gender role was inferior and (at some points) viewed as disordered.

However, as time as progressed, this has been viewed as not true in many ways. For example, women have challenged these norms by arguing that women should not be limited to a set of behaviours within society. Non-binary people have challenged that there are only two genders possible. It is acknowledged that the sentiments above were a set of norms that have been used to oppress those and privilege the dominant gender – men. They were nothing more than fictional constructs aimed at achieving this. In reality, these fluctuations in gender were part of a diversity of gender.

This also occurs with different brain types or ‘neurotypes’ – a group of individuals who share the same brain variation. Historically, it has been held that there is objectively one correct neurotype. Anyone who varied from this was purposefully limited by society under the guise that they were disordered.

In reality, this way of approaching things was a societal fiction that was solely aimed at keeping neurotypicals (those who conformed with these societal norms) in power. The medical paradigm’s sole purpose was to oppress neurodivergents – those who did not conform to society’s understanding of a normal brain. Neurodivergents are now pushing back on these societal norms that have been used to limit them. 

It should be noted that a common misconception about the Neurodiversity Paradigm is that it only refers to Autistic people. While Autism is our current focus, this is not the only group that can be part of the Neurodiversity Paradigm. Others can include ADHD, Dyslexia and Schizophrenia to name a few.

Autism as Part of the Neurodiversity Paradigm

Under the Neurodiversity Paradigm, Autism undergoes a drastic paradigm shift. Instead of being a disorder, Autism is viewed as a ‘way of being’. Autism isn’t about a set of deficits that a person has but instead a different way of perceiving the world. It has a set of characteristics rather than a set of symptoms. Despite this, society has oppressed Autistic people as they do not have the dominant neurotype of society. This has led to Autistic people being a ‘neurominority’ – a group of people with the same neurotype who have been oppressed by society. Conveying Autism as a disorder is the primary method that was used to oppress Autistic people. In reality, Autism is a valuable part of neurodiversity.

References/ Further Reading for Series

Aberley, Paul. 1987. “The Concept of Oppression and the Development of a Social Theory of Disability.” Disability, Handicap and Society 2 (1): 5–19.

Bagatell, Nancy. 2010. “From Cure to Community: Transforming Notions of Autism.” Ethos 38 (1): 33–55.

Chapman, Robert. 2017. “Autism Isn’t Just A Medical Diagnosis — It’s A Political Identity.” Medium (blog). January 7, 2017. https://medium.com/@robchapman_90047/autism-isnt-just-a-medical-diagnosis-it-s-a-political-identity-4e877b3e4513.

———. 2019. “Neurodiversity Theory and Its Discontents: Autism, Schizophrenia and the Social Model of Disability.” In The Bloomsbury Companion to Philosophy of Psychiatry, edited by Serife Tekin and Robyn Bluhm. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/bham/detail.action?docID=5589477.

Conine, Daniel E., Sarah C. Campau, and Abigail K. Petronelli. 2022. “LGBTQ+ Conversion Therapy and Applied Behavior Analysis: A Call to Action.” Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 55 (1): 6–18. https://doi.org/10.1002/jaba.876.

Dein, Kalpana, and Marc Woodbury-Smith. 2010. “Asperger Syndrome and Criminal Behaviour.” Advances in Psychiatric Treatment 16 (1): 37–43. https://doi.org/10.1192/apt.bp.107.005082.

http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Autistic-Self-Advocacy-Network/46477486501. 2011. “Get Involved – Autistic Self Advocacy Network.” Https://Autisticadvocacy.Org/ (blog). May 26, 2011. https://autisticadvocacy.org/get-involved/.

Kapp, Steven K., ed. 2020. Autistic Community and the Neurodiversity Movement: Stories from the Frontline. Singapore: Springer Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-8437-0.

Kay, Schriner, and Richard Scotch. 2001. “Disability and Institutional Change: A Human Variation Perspective on Overcoming Oppression.” Journal of Disability Policy Studies 12 (2).

Milton, Damian. 2018. “The Double Empathy Problem.” National Autistic Society. 2018. https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/professional-practice/double-empathy.

Mukhopadhyay, Tito Rajarshi. 2010. “Five Poems.” Disability Studies Quarterly 30 (1). https://doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v30i1.1192.

NIH. n.d. “Autism Spectrum Disorder.” National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Accessed May 17, 2023. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/autism-spectrum-disorders-asd.

Owren, Thomas, and Trude Stenhammer. 2013. “Neurodiversity: Accepting Autistic Difference: Thomas Owren and Trude Stenhammer Explain Why a More Accepting Attitude towards ‘Autistic’ Needs and Behaviour May Contribute to Better Services.” Learning Disability Practice 16 (4): 32–37. https://doi.org/10.7748/ldp2013.

Pellicano, Elizabeth, and Jacquiline den Houting. 2022. “Annual Research Review: Shifting from ‘Normal Science’ to Neurodiversity in Autism Science.” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 63 (4): 381–96. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcpp.13534.

shitborderlinesdo. n.d. “Shit Borderlines Do.” Tumblr. Tumblr (blog). Accessed April 28, 2023. https://shitborderlinesdo.tumblr.com/post/121319446214/psa-from-the-actual-coiner-of-neurodivergent.

Silberman, Steve. 2015. NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. Penguin.

silentmiaow, dir. 2007. In My Language. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnylM1hI2jc.

Sinclair, Jim. 2012. “Don’t Mourn for Us.” Autonomy 1 (1).

Singer, Judy. 2017. Neurodiversity: The Birth of an Idea. Judy Singer.

The Last Leg, dir. 2023. “There’s Not Enough Talk On How Weird Neurotypicals Are” Fern Brady Discusses Autism | The Last Leg. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HaqsScc32nQ.

The Living Philosophy, dir. 2021a. Thomas Kuhn — Paradigms, Incommensurability and Kuhn Loss. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uW5jCyJ2-YE.

———, dir. 2021b. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – Thomas Kuhn. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C99X-Ye-GB0.

Then & Now, dir. 2020. Thomas Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L70T4pQv7P8.

“Thomas S. Kuhn | American Philosopher and Historian | Britannica.” n.d. Britanica. Accessed May 17, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-S-Kuhn.

Walker, Nick. 2013. “THROW AWAY THE MASTER’S TOOLS: LIBERATING OURSELVES FROM THE PATHOLOGY PARADIGM • NEUROQUEER.” 2013. https://neuroqueer.com/throw-away-the-masters-tools/.

———. 2014. “NEURODIVERSITY: SOME BASIC TERMS & DEFINITIONS • NEUROQUEER.” 2014. https://neuroqueer.com/neurodiversity-terms-and-definitions/.

———. 2016. “AUTISM & THE PATHOLOGY PARADIGM • NEUROQUEER.” 2016. https://neuroqueer.com/autism-and-the-pathology-paradigm/.

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