The Neurodiversity Discussion Group

We formed the Neurodiversity Discussion Group (NDG) in response to CogSci 2022’s theme: Cognitive Diversity. During the conference, we discussed our experiences in academia and the problems with the current state of cognitive science. In this blog post, we will outline some of the points raised during the NDG session. We end by outlining some proactive steps against ableism* (i.e., implicit and explicit practices of discrimination against disabled people). 

What is neurodiversity?

In the not-so-distant past, left-handedness was seen as something in need of “correction”, often through corporal punishment. Similarly, homosexuality was commonly perceived as a deviation from what was ethically and biologically “normal”, and was frequently “corrected” with physically and psychologically harmful methods like conversion therapies. Fortunately, in many cultures now, these are seen as natural human variations—mere differences rather than pathological deviance from socially acceptable norms. 

Neurodiversity*, at its core, advocates for the same trajectory: away from treating certain cognitive differences as disorders in need of violent correction, and towards acceptance of variation in brains and cognition. It thus offers an evolving, inclusive view of the diversity of human minds (Walker, 2021; Manalili, 2021). However, in the experience of many neurodivergent* people—those whose cognitive styles (e.g., Takiwātanga*/Autism*, ADHD*, Plurality*, Dyslexia*, Stuttering*) differ from what is presumed to be common or neurotypical*—progress along this trajectory has been woefully inadequate. Research on neurodivergence is still dominated by medicalized and racialized notions of deficit or disorder. Many neurodivergent people are still subjected to harms akin to conversion therapy such as Applied Behavioral Analysis (which is still rooted in behaviorism, despite the cognitive revolution of the 1950s). And we still experience exclusion and injustice in both our working and private lives. 

Neurodivergent people’s experiences in cognitive science

During the NDG session, neurodivergent researchers in cognitive science and adjacent fields shared many all-too-familiar stories of institutional alienation and marginalization. Many said that they conceal their diagnoses for fear of no longer being taken seriously. Participants reported that advisors have used slurs to refer to neurodivergent people, have said that neurodivergence is not real, and have said that neurodivergent people are not capable of earning a PhD. Some participants also shared experiences of these fears being realized when they revealed their diagnoses, often involving emotionally-taxing conversations with their advisors because of ableist and racist hostility in academia. 

A related theme that emerged from the discussions was the lack of institutional support, not just for neurodivergent people but also for those who want to learn to be good allies. One participant mentioned that in the universities they worked for, faculty members in psychology and neuroscience did not know what neurodiversity is. Another participant highlighted how academia becomes extremely difficult to navigate the further they climb up the academic ladder as higher positions often involve hidden and inflexible expectations. The problem is that academic norms assume neurotypicality and whiteness as the default way of being. Neurodivergent academics will only really feel safe, included, and empowered when not forced to conform to rigidly neurotypical and white norms for what counts as success.

In general, the importance of accessible pedagogy is recognized in academia. However,  universities often do not provide support to achieve teaching and research that is accessible for various forms of neurodivergence. Moreover, as another participant shared, even when neurotypical academics want to make their classrooms and labs more accessible, they are frequently unsure about what exactly neurodivergent or disabled students are struggling with. They were simply told that students need “special” accommodations but were not given further information or training on how to provide such accommodations. There is clearly a need for education and dialogue, but this requires a corresponding shift in norms so that the communicative burdens are not dumped on marginalized neurodivergent scholars.

Due to such poor institutional realities, NDG participants expressed how grateful they were for the safe, open, and educational space that the NDG session provided. One participant said that they usually get lured into a false sense of security in cognitive science spaces that claim to value neurodiversity but often end up being ableist. Most notably, participants agreed that the NDG session helped them feel less alone in academia. We found it empowering to learn from each other, especially about the recent emergence of neurodivergent communities within larger structures (e.g., this NDG at CogSci 2022, within Neuromatch, and within FORRT) and how these have had a hugely positive impact on neurodivergent people’s experiences in academia. 

Problems with cognitive science

Another main topic during our panel discussion was how cognitive science, though aiming to be inclusive when it comes to cognitive diversity, is failing to embrace neurodiversity on par with other forms of cognitive diversity. We have written an open letter detailing the historical and theoretical roots of this gap. Many of the issues raised in our letter stem from current works in cognitive science that take a reductive approach to neurodiversity.

Approaches that reduce neurodivergent people based on their outwardly observable behaviors or performance on tests designed by white neurotypical researchers prevail in cognitive science to this day. Neurodivergence—when studied in cognitive science—is frequently treated as being only informative as a failure of assumed neurotypical and white norms, rather than as a way of being in its own right. These reductive approaches are akin to harmful medicalised approaches such as looking for “autism genes” (see Baron-Cohen’s Spectrum 10K project; Dattaro, 2022). And even when cognitive scientists recognise that non-pathologizing accounts exist, there is often a sense of risk associated with questioning the assumption that neurodivergence is inherently disordered, which seems to come from deference to a paternalistic idea of psychology, cognition, or cognitive neuroscience.

A consensus emerging from both the panel and the audience was that dominant theories of neurodivergence take a paternalistic attitude towards neurodivergent people, thereby contributing to our oppression by othering us and misrepresenting our lived experiences of neurodivergence. For instance, deficit-based theories of autism (e.g., Baron-Cohen et al., 1985; Frith, 1991; Baron-Cohen, 2002) still inspire current research that relies on pathologizing and dehumanizing language (e.g., Berent et al., 2022, who go so far as to present autism as a contrast to “natural” forms of thought, an implication we vehemently reject). The same dominant theories invoke gendered framings, which contribute to gatekeeping and exclusion (Jack, 2011; Zener, 2019; Hodgetts & Hausmann, 2022). As a result, neurodivergent women are still more likely to be misidentified/misdiagnosed and this is especially the case for autistic women of color (Davis et al., 2022; Diemer et al., 2022; Malone et al., 2022). Fortunately, there is a growing call to reject such deficit-based views (Astle & Fletcher-Watson, 2020). We enthusiastically endorse this call, though we hope to see this trajectory further developed to include more forms of neurodivergence such as stuttering (Constantino et al., 2022) and Developmental Language Disorder* (Manalili, 2022) in empirical cognitive science research.

There is also a stagnating goal in cognitive science: optimality. This may explain why neurodivergence is a blind spot for many cognitive scientists. It is relatively easy to model how individuals make optimal decisions in constrained contexts and then use these models to understand human deviations from the optimum. It is harder to model complex group dynamics where individuals pursue entirely different strategies that contribute positively to group outcomes. It is especially hard when the diversity of strategies means no single normative standard exists that can be used to fairly evaluate the goodness of all individual strategies. Yet despite these difficulties, this is what is needed for a comprehensive and inclusive view of neurodiversity. 

Progress towards inclusion

Ableism and racism undermine the potentials of cognitive science to provide broader accounts of cognitive diversity. When cognitive scientists rely on deficit-based theories of neurodivergence, they generate a flawed body of research that perpetuates ableism and racism. Hence, if the Cognitive Science Society (CSS) wants to support neurodiversity, an important first step is to be more explicitly anti-ableist. CSS is explicitly anti-racist and it alludes to the importance of intersectionality in its CSS Anti-Racism Statement and CSS Conference Code of Conduct. But these are not enough when, as mentioned earlier, academics are often unaware of how common attitudes towards neurodivergence are in fact ableist and racist. Hence, there is a need for CSS to make explicit anti-ableist and intersectionality statements. Further, we believe that more education is needed before Code of Conduct prohibitions of harassment can properly protect neurodivergent people. There is currently a knowledge gap that needs to be filled by global neurodivergent standpoints. 

In preparation for filling this gap, NDG is working on a *Glossary of Neurodiversity. Further, we are aiming to build a neurodiverse* community of cognitive science researchers (including neurodivergent people in related fields) via our NDG Discord server. Through these essential emancipatory research and community-building efforts, we believe we can make recommendations on how to tackle ableist and racist sentiments regarding neurodiversity. These resources can also be used to make recommendations to editorial boards of cognitive science journals about how community involvement statements (as part of author notes, cf. Autism Manuscript Submission Guidelines) and positionality statements (as part of author, reviewer, and editor notes) would greatly improve manuscript submissions and peer-reviewing that concern neurodiversity. Together, these advances will help make CSSand the cognitive sciences in generalmore inclusive for neurodivergent communities around the world. Ultimately, the aim is to support and promote neurodivergent-led cognitive science research. We would like to make cognitive science a field where neurodivergence-affirming approaches happen in an open and democratic way.

* Glossary of key terms and concepts related to neurodiversity.

Marie Manalili (siya/she/they) is a neurodivergent Tagalog woman, an experienced speech/language therapist, and a researcher from the Philippines. She is the founding member of the Neurodiversity Discussion Group. She is also a Chevening Scholar at University College London and City, University of London. As a researcher, she is interested in exploring the emancipatory possibilities of languaging and neurodiversity paradigms for facilitating epistemic diversity in speech/language pathology, cognitive science, and philosophy of science.

Justin Sulik (he/him) is a postdoctoral researcher interested in the psychology of science: how people understand the world around them when part of that understanding involves scientific expertise. His primary topics include the cognitive biases and social contexts that drive science denial; the role of trust in science in people’s decisions and behaviors; and the role of cognitive diversity in collective problem solving. 

Inika Murkumbi (she/her) is a neurodivergent second-year undergraduate studying social anthropology under the Human, Social, and Political Sciences Tripos at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. She is also the convener of the Neurodivergent Socialities Undergraduate Research Network at the Centre for Global Knowledge Studies. She lives in Mumbai, India and is especially interested in medical anthropology, care, and globalization. Tentatively, her third-year dissertation will explore the cross-generational care of ‘hearing voices’ elderly in urban India.


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