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NeuroDiversity: The Birth of an Idea

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Judy Singer is generally credited with the coinage of the word that became the banner for the last great social movement to emerge from the 20th century.
The word itself was just one of many ideas in this work, her 1998 Honours thesis, a pioneering sociological work that mapped out the emergence of a new category of disability that, till then, had no name. And in the process, prefigured a new paradigm within the disability rights movement of the time.
The work attempted a panoramic view of this new terrain from within a post-modern, social constructionist, feminist, disability rights perspective. Its chapters encompassed a brief history of autism, self-exploration of Singer’s life in the middle of three generations of women “somewhere on the autistic spectrum” and her research as a participant-observer on InLv, an online community of people on the spectrum. At the same time it offered a critique of what Singer perceived to be a certain tendency towards social-constructionist fundamentalism within the disability movement, which, she argued, limited the potential of the new paradigm.
This volume reproduces the original thesis with the addition of a new introduction, which gives the background to the creation of the work and offers some thoughts on the current neurodiversity movement.

84 pages, Kindle Edition

Published July 3, 2016

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Judy Singer

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Displaying 1 - 18 of 18 reviews
Profile Image for H.A. Leuschel.
Author 5 books249 followers
July 20, 2019
As a daughter of a mother with Asperger's syndrome, and the mother of a daughter with Asperger's syndrome, Judy Singer - also 'somewhere on the spectrum' - has written a persuasive and important essay about 'neurodiversity', a term she is credited to have coined and describes the emergence of a new category of disability. She aims to ´depict, demystify and promote the growing social movement of autistics' in the hope that 'we get used to the idea that our minds are a lot more strange and wonderful than we have lately given them credit for being.'
'People on the Autistic Spectrum are beginning to demonstrate that 'Neurotypical' is not the only way to be', proven by the unsuccessful approaches of general psychoanalysis that too often aims to cure and fix them rather than accept them for being differently wired and fighting for more appropriate inclusion. This, of course, requires widespread education of the whole community!
Reading her essay is one way to start educating yourself on the needs of the autistic community and its right for international advocacy!
Profile Image for Robert.
816 reviews44 followers
October 22, 2017
Singer claims to have coined the term "neurodiversity" in her undergrad thesis about autism, disability and society, which is printed here with a lengthy Introduction. It's a quick read and a worthwhile one from a historical perspective and for its blend of social commentary, autism advocacy and personal memoir.

It's interesting to note that the term "neurodiversity" now covers a much bigger range than just the categories of neurotypicals and autistic people/Aspies. It's been adopted as an umbrella to cover dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, AD(H)D, stroke survivors and more. It's become an important social movement in less than twenty years but still needs much greater recognition and acceptance by society as a whole.
Profile Image for Aurélien Thomas.
Author 9 books101 followers
April 21, 2020
Judy Singer is usually acknowledged for having coined the term 'neurodiversity', in this sociology thesis about autism and society. Part personal journey (she is the daughter and mother of women with Asperger, and is herself on the autistic spectrum) part academic (she challenges social constructivism to put forward a new model of disability) here's a punchy read which captured brilliantly the zeitgeist of our era. No cutting around the bush: here's a must read.

What is 'neurodiversity'? Well, in essence, it's the recognition that there are many forms of intelligence, different ways of thinking, and that not all human brains are the same (whether affected by a neurological disorder or not). So far, it's stating the obvious. Where her view are radical, though, is when she uses such human diversity to put forward a powerful metaphor: as biodiversity is essential to an ecosystem, so is neurodiversity to human society. Why is that radical? Because, whereas for decades we have been used to perceive people on the autistic spectrum as being disabled (a weakness), such view, on the contrary, acknowledges them as being different but useful (a strength).

That such a view came to prominence in our times is not so surprising. After all, Asperger was recognised in 1994, the decade when digital technologies also started to emerge. If before that such individuals might have been misunderstood, bullied, and ostracised somehow for being nerds and geeks, it shouldn't surprise us much that nerds and geeks are now in demand, with Asperger (for example) turning out to be an asset:

'Perhaps it is not too fanciful to suggest that we are entering an era of co-evolution with machines that opens up a new ecological niche for people 'on the spectrum', allowing them to flourish.'


Now, plainly acknowledging differences in brain functioning doesn't mean she falls into the trap of post-modernist nonsense! Disabilities are NOT just social constructs, forged by oppressive 'neurotypicals'. She owes to identity politics for bringing under the spotlights individuals who are different, yet she has no patience for social theories; and certainly no patience for whose ignoring neuroscience to serve their own political agenda (the victimhood mindset so en vogue these days among some...). She, on the contrary, perfectly makes clear that, in term of brain functioning, if 'different' doesn't mean 'less', it doesn't mean 'everybody is the same' either. As such, she sneers at psychotherapy; that she perceives (rightly or wrongly) as still seeing autism as a behavioural issue that needs to be fixed. She also values back the 'medical model'; no longer 'the bogey it once was' (doctors knowing best and fixing patronised patients through drugs and other treatments) for now being a 'partnership' with patients turned 'informed consumers'. Doctors came a long way indeed since the 1960s! She gives them that.

This book, of course, is not without its weakness. Let's nail the point: she only adresses here high functioning autism, including Asperger. Obviously, it therefore makes it easier for such individuals to be included and accepted for their differences, their brain wiring an asset. Sadly, we can't say the same of others, on the spectrum too, yet so cognitively impaired that they don't have such intellectual capabilities or level of independence. 'Neurodiversity' as inclusive and accepting is a great concept; yet one has to be careful in not letting it blind us to what still is an harrowing reality: autism can also be a seriously disabling disorder. Yes, 'normalcy' is an ideal some can (and should) have access to, but to others it still remains biologically denied.

Such caution put aside, there is no denying that 'neuro-diverse' vs 'neurotypicals' is a powerful new sociological paradigm when it comes to differences. In fact, Judy Singer only addressed Asperger, and, yet, her view was so striking that it has since been taken over by a multitude of people, experiencing from other cognitive disabilities to mental illnesses. Isn't that ground-breaking? Then there we are! Again: here's a must read.
Profile Image for Rosemarie.
Author 6 books8 followers
June 20, 2018
I especially found the author's introduction useful, placing the original thesis in context. I will be referencing this book in my own MA dissertation.
Profile Image for Adam Stephens.
4 reviews
September 1, 2022
I see this as being of historical value, but it presents a dated and problematic view of autism. Singer herself can be grating as a writer. Some of her ideas are not well formed, and I don't think she can see that. The book is also full of typos and other errors.

Most importantly and most problematically, though, Judy Singer is a high-functioning or Aspie supremacist, in that she puts tremendous weight into the fictions of harmful (and fairly useless) functioning labels and sees a sharp division between Autistic people who would have been labelled as having Aperger's and those who would not have been. It seems she would have argued that Asperger's syndrome doesn't deserve to be categorized with autism in the first place if she could, and laments its loss.

The book does give a good, brief, narrow glimpse at the state of the Autistic community at the turn of the millennium and for that alone I give this book three stars, not as a statement of quality but of potential value to the reader, if that's what they're looking for.
Profile Image for Safaira Mariah.
22 reviews1 follower
April 14, 2021
I do not have this with most books, but finding out I was at the end of it made me want more. Where to begin?

In just 70 pages I have realized a lot. I have never consciously thought about disability movements and never even about neurodiversity movements. I have never considered autistic people getting discriminated against at the workplace. Now I know in what type of bubble I have lived.

The biggest message I got out of this was the countereffect of psychotherapy. I never considered that psychotherapy might be bad for anyone, but with the labels and feelings the therapists assigned to their patients who were just autistic, it is understandable why some autists would not like it. Especially since one therapist told a woman that she might be behaving in a certain manner because of sexual parental abuse. It is insulting.

If I ever want to work as a therapist or anything alike, I will try to think more about brain structure, different needs in society (not a person to be fixed, but a person to consider and with different needs) and also a person who is actually very sensitive sometimes.

I normally do not relate with most activism, but if there is any I would get behind, it's the Neurodiverse movement!
6 reviews
August 10, 2022
This work is a bit dated --it was written in the 90s and even though the author has updated it since there are still some ideas that are outdated. For example, the idea that aspies are overrepresented or drawn to technology. The truth is that this observation has more to do with class than an innate propensity for technology. In the 90s most people didn't have Internet access or a PC. Also, back then, only the most privileged would have been able to get a diagnosis. Most people had no idea what AS was, even doctors, so they still would have been labeled as "morally defective" or "schizophrenic" as Judy Singer says herself. The part about trauma is outdated as well, we know now that a large percentage of people with ASD go on to develop complex PTSD, often from childhood trauma. Once I was diagnosed with AS, my ongoing trauma was dismissed by counselors and therapists. Doctors took the opposite view than the one in the past --an autistic child could not be traumatized. Now we know that is not the case. Hopefully we can come full circle.
33 reviews4 followers
October 16, 2019
5 stars because it is important, historic, and thought-provoking, though it is not precise, fulsome in content, or beyond question in its assumptions.

The reflective preface to the reprint provokes interesting thoughts on, among other things, autistic attacks on autistic parents. It also points toward a kind of balanced perspective where being autistic is regarded, in the end, as just being human with the subsequent capacity of being good and bad. Some get so wrapped up in the narrative of oppression that they forget oppressed people can also themselves be oppressors. Denying that either implicitly or explicitly is just another form of oppressive distortion from which we need deliverance.
Profile Image for Beth Gea.
Author 2 books35 followers
March 2, 2022
Este libro me ha proporcionado lo que más me gusta de un libro de no ficción: un montón de ideas y conceptos para seguir investigando y sobre los cuales seguirn pensando y reflexionando.

Se lee en unas cuantas horas y, a pesar de tratarse de una tesis universitaria, se lee muy bien y no está llena de palabros rimbombantes. Me gusta el estilo de Singer.

A pesar de no estar en el espectro autista, llegué a este libro a través del concepto de neurodiversidad y neurodivergencia. Y creo que, salvando las distancias, muchas de las cosas que dice son aplicables a las aacc.
Profile Image for Miguel Vences.
13 reviews
December 17, 2019
Definitely, an interesting book to introduce yourself to the autistic spectrum from a sociological perspective more than a psychological one, with thought-provoking material for its time, and also a historical introduction to the concept of Neurodiversity, coined first to describe the people on the spectrum and that now carries under its umbrella a wide variety of conditions that are getting more recognition and less stigma.
Profile Image for Carla Groom.
59 reviews2 followers
January 14, 2020
Part thesis, part autobiography, beautifully written and delightfully short. A special book with a special place in the history of our species and its ongoing battle to reconcile sameness and difference. I especially loved the author's honest account of wrestling with postmodernism, the elements of social constructivism she decided to keep and those that just were not compatible with the genetic reality of her family.
Profile Image for Kimberly.
20 reviews20 followers
December 13, 2022
I'm hesitant to give this a star rating -- Singer's original thesis serves as a historical document in the emergence of neurodiversity movements, but even with a more current introduction it's definitely dated. It tends towards overgeneralization/stereotypes and an outdated language/view of autism. But as an academic text, it has a valuable place within the subject of neurodiversity and disability studies overall.
26 reviews
November 27, 2022
The introduction made reading the book worth it, because it summed up all the important points of neurodiversity movement nowadays, while the book was just a summary of her thesis and it didn't add up much. Basically, I learned more about the methodology of her work than about neurodiversity itself.
1 review
July 30, 2021
The book is great for its time, but trigger warning- it uses the r-word and functioning labels quite often.
Profile Image for Stephen Bedard.
391 reviews6 followers
February 10, 2022
While not the final word on neurodiversity, it may be the first word. It is worth reading to begin to understand the beginnings of the neurodiversity movement.
Profile Image for harveyreads.
11 reviews
March 10, 2022
love hearing about autism history so much. a bit all over the place and disorganized but i think it adds to the charm. i like hearing about all of it
August 4, 2022
Although published in 2016, Judy provides a must-read historical lens into her important work and life experiences from her body of writings in the nineties that transport us back to life under the stifling medical model of disability. If you enjoy reading about innovation, you will enjoy how she chronicles a range of barrier breakthroughs for those with differences that were conquered by the rise of social innovation that ran parallel the worldwide burst of enabling tech on The Internet. Appropriately, Judy includes references and shoutouts to others in the autistic movement that highlight the impacts achieved. While you will find yourself applauding that progress, you will also realize how much work remains until the social model of disability is fully enabled in education, recreation, and the workplace. I enjoy Judy’s writing style and hope she will release a fuller autobiography of her life journey in the future.
Displaying 1 - 18 of 18 reviews

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