As an ambassador of the Neurodiversity movement, I recently took a brief pause to step back and take measure of the landscape of change occurring around the pursuit of neurodiversity understanding in the culture.
In the past two years, since launching my own non-profit organization dedicated to serving autistic adults, working towards opening dialogue building the neurodiversity movement, we’ve seen much change and forward momentum has been gained.
And with change, momentum, has also come misunderstanding, hurtfulness, and much needless confusion over the meaning of neurodiversity.
I’d like to invite you to come with me for a moment to experience a plateau view of the neurodiversity movement, as it begins to unfold across the landscape of our culture. Still, before we leave, I’d like to reveal something which ought not to surprise anyone, and yet it still does; neurodiversity is already here.
When I speak to groups, individuals I often say, we are in the already-and-not-yet of neurodiversity understanding. In simple terms, each of us as human beings, regardless of our bodily or cerebral functioning, is unique, different, and I’d add– of infinite value.
It’s often easy to be dismissive of this fact, saying, yes of course we’re all different, while missing the attributes; we are also united in our uniqueness, and therein is cause for celebration.
Neurodiversity, the uniqueness of all human minds, is already here. Long before humanity even possessed any language to describe autism, neurodivergent, neurotypical thought processes, we simply existed together. Or didn’t, because of course, throughout history many persons have suffered terribly, died over our different ways of thinking.
As to the “already” of neurodiversity, our reaction to acceptance of this fact is a bit odd. As a culture, we often seem very much like a small child, who sitting in a bathtub full of water, refuses to take a bath. We are all in the bathtub together, willful ignorance of the fact notwithstanding.
It is living in awareness of our own cultural immaturity where we begin the walk into the not-yet landscape of neurodiversity understanding.
In the context of my own organization, each day, we work one-on-one with autistic adults worldwide, coaching, guiding, and engaging each of them towards discovering more fulfilling lives. The majority of our work is hidden from public view, carried out quietly between guides and clients, and their families.
In no way does this point to any deficit thinking towards autistic persons. In fact, for several reasons it elevates the core of our work to operating in a “Higher Country.” We do not see autistic persons through the lens of any “deficit model” thinking, but rather as different. Challenged, and disabled living in the context of an often ableist culture, but still each fully human in personhood.
For as long as charities, churches, and individual persons pursuing the work of helping fellow humans in life have been around, so too has been our awful propensity to pose for the camera with disabled or otherwise needful human persons. The examples of this to be found in media and marketing are simply endless, and it would be useless to even offer one defining example for consideration.
The simple truth is this; when we, as individuals or organizations, pose with other human beings in need, we’re not demonstrating their need insomuch as we demonstrate our own lack of true human relational understanding.
Sadly, the road to seeing humanity in all its neurodiversity and glory is often tangled with obstacles such as confusing the pursuit of neurodiversity understanding with denial of disability. Among advocates, allies today of the neurodiversity movement, there is no such confusion.
We are crystal clear in understanding that as the world exists today, among actually autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people, we are actually disabled and in need of the grace of our fellow human persons.
In 1981, Mr. Fred Rogers welcomed a ten-year old boy named Jeff Erlanger onto his show, “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.” As a true ambassador of a “Higher Country” understanding of humanity, Mr. Rogers was without equal.
Unique to this particular broadcast was Jeff in his motorized wheelchair. During the broadcast, the two of them spoke of Jeff’s challenges, recognizing feelings of sadness, and they even sang, “It’s You I Like” together.
Was this simply clever showmanship, a ratings grabbing effort by PBS? No, this was a moment birthed from the heart of Fred Rogers, a fully realized human person– who for a moment in time pulled back the curtains and showed the watching world a glimpse of the Higher Country.
Just as human beings are neurologically different, many persons, autistic and otherwise are challenged physically, intellectually. Mr. Rogers was intent on recognizing young Jeff Erlanger in his physical disability while recognizing his full humanity, his place in the human tribe.
Each day, meeting with autistic adults in the context of our service to them is not done through the lens of seeing them as broken, less-than-full human persons.
When we engage them, we do so with full knowledge of the often-difficult social terrain they must daily traverse and their challenges in navigating, but engage from the core of understanding them as nothing less than fully human, deserving dignity, respect, and opportunities for fulfillment.
When my fellow guides and I go about the work of equipping for life the persons we serve, we do it not from a place of coaching others from a brokenness perspectives, any incompleteness, but rather from personal unique strengths.
In fact, we’ve seen transformational joy demonstrated when we abandon “cookie cutter” approaches to guiding, walking with others and simply embrace persons for whom they are and encourage them furiously and with a passion for full personhood.
Today, the Neurodiversity movement is underway, and like any movement towards a fuller human consciousness, an opening of human awareness, it is often fractured, stumbling forward.
My hope for the neurodiversity movement, for it’s advocates and ambassadors, is that it unequivocally renounces anything less than the long, painful, and gloriously beautiful journey to see the Higher Country.
Standing there, together as a unique tribe of fully-human persons, we will still know pain, suffering, and misunderstanding, but we will know it in one mind– united we will look out into a Greater Good and a far better future.