Sunday, October 26, 2014

Neurodiversity : Biological Fact or Fiction?

I don't think it will come as a shock to anyone who has been reading this blog over the years that I don't care for the idea of neurodiversity.  The core idea of neurodiversity - that everyone is different and should be accepted for who they are - is a pretty simple and obvious idea and one that I completely agree with.  But the neurodiversity movement doesn't stop with just that simple idea and piles so much other crap on top of it that core principle is distorted beyond recognition.

You start with the idea that a person should be accepted as a person even if they are different and you end with with random people wandering the internet screaming at autism parents such as myself that they hate their children.  For example, here is a recent example of a comment that one of these lovely people left here not too long ago -
I never get tired of allistic parents thinking they know more about autism from having young autistic children than actual autistic adults who have been autistic for decades. Really great. Love it. (All sarcasm, sorry.)
It's not worth trying to convince martyr parents like this one, Anon. He's utterly convinced he's an authority while he continues to use functioning labels and make ableist jabs at an autistic person who disagrees with him. (Also seems to support Autism $peaks? Gross.) I'm so freaking tired of trying to Google helpful info about autism and getting only results from whiny parents trying to 'correct' their kids or whatever.
Really, if this is how he reacts to actual autistic people who DO possess the ability to respond to him and voice our opinions, I can only imagine how nasty he must be to his kids, whether he realises it or not. 
Anon, if you wanna talk more about autistic stuff with actual autistic people who won't try to talk over each other, send me an ask (you'll need a tumblr account, sorry) at (REDACTED) and I'll give you my real URL once I know it's you and not OP or his gross curebie fanclub. 
Otherwise, yeah, don't waste your energy on this guy. I'm about to use my Google Blocklist to make sure this trash blog doesn't show up in the results for me anymore. 
Really sorry for OP's kids. We've all been there, but sure, of course he knows what's best even though we're expressly telling him he's wrong from experience, right? (more sarcasm, sorry)
In the interests of full disclosure, I did delete this person's (repeated) comments and simply told him (repeatedly) to go away.  This isn't a woe is me or pity party post and in the not too distant past I might have engaged this person and tried to change his mind.  But you can only have the same discussion so many times before it really just gets old.

The point is that attitudes like this are one of the comment end results of neurodiversity.  You start with the idea that everyone should be accepted for who they are and end with people who think differently are not accepted.  It never ceases to amaze me that none of the neurodiversity advocates recognize the inherent hypocrisy of their position.

So with that in mind it is interesting to look at where neurodiversity starts.  One person was nice enough to perform, as they put it, a "public service" and give their opinion about what all of the terms surrounding neurodiversity mean.  I would like to draw your attention to the basic definition of neurodiversity that was provided since it is a common one -
What It Means: 
Neurodiversity is the diversity of human brains and minds – the infinite variation in neurocognitive functioning within our species.
What It Doesn’t Mean: 
Neurodiversity is a biological fact. It’s not a perspective, an approach, a belief, a political position, or a paradigm. That’s the neurodiversity paradigm (see below), not neurodiversity itself. 
Neurodiversity is not a political or social activist movement. That’s the Neurodiversity Movement (see below), not neurodiversity itself.
...
I think the seeds of where the neurodiversity movement goes wrong are in this basic definition so lets break it down.  Is an "infinite variation in neurocognitive functioning within our species" a "biological fact"?

The answer is no for a number of reasons.

The first reason is a rather pedantic but also important one.  The word "infinite" has a very specific meaning -" limitless or endless in space, extent, or size; impossible to measure or calculate".  The human brain is clearly not limitless or impossible to measure.  In a more general sense you can't take something that is finite and get to infinite simply because there are lot of possible permutations.  The number of theoretical combinations might be an very large number but it is still finite.

Maybe a better way of saying this is that you can't represent infinity in about 1.5 kg of tissue.

Its very romantic to think of the human brain as having infinite possible configurations but the word simply doesn't fit.  There are going to be a finite number of configurations that your brain can be in, which leads to the next point.

Of all of the theoretical combinations that your brain can be in, how many do you think are valid state in which your brain would function?  Just because the underlying biology can be put together in a certain way doesn't mean that brain would actually function in that configuration.  By function I mean not only things that are outward behaviors but also little unimportant things like keeping our body running.

I don't have an exact answer to how many configurations are valid but basic biology tells us that our cells need very specific and narrow conditions to live.  The body has many redundant systems whose purpose appear to be to keep the itself operating within parameters.  I would presume the same holds true for how the brain wires itself.  Just because a brain could be wired a certain way doesn't mean that way will produce a result that would actually do anything or be able to sustain the basic biological functions of a person.

I would estimate of all of the possible permutations of the human brain only an extremely small number of the permutations would be able to run the human body and produce a result that resembles anything even close to what we understand as a person.

So no, the "biological fact" isn't that "infinite variations" are possible.  The "fact" is that while the number of possible variations may seem to be impossibly large to us, it is in "fact" quite a small range that will actually work.

A good analogy here might be how we think of color.  The human eye can perceive what some might consider an almost infinite variation in colors.  But in "fact" we can only see an extremely narrow range of the possible spectrum.  The human eye is very limited in its range and yet to our narrow perspective the range seems impossibly large.

Once you leave the romantic idea, or "biological fact" if you prefer, of infinite possibilities behind you can start considering what the possible set of variations are going to be.  Without getting too far afield, let's just assume that out of the possible set of configurations there are going to some that are more common than others.  There is a substantial body of evidence that suggests that this is the case and there are many reasons why it could be true.

This common set is what most people think of as "typical" or "normal".  Those words have a lot of extra meaning packed into them but the basic idea is that most people, for whatever reason, are going to be inside this range.

So what about the people who don't fit inside this "normal" range, the people that the neurodiversity movement is so concerned about?  Going back to the basic idea you shouldn't assume that a person is somehow less of a person because they don't fit into some typical range.  But this statement isn't an extrapolation of "biological fact" but rather an ethical one.

Neurodiversity is an ethical construct that is based on extremely human ideas and that is why it starts going so wrong at the very start.  Neurodiversity conflates the ethical idea of a person having value because we have chosen to value people with the idea that all of the possible biological permutations have the same desirability or value.

Inside the limited set of permutations that can occur in your brain that will produce a result that is a "person" there are going to be some permutations that are more desirable than others.  The limited human set still allows a wide variety - some permutations are going to give you the ability to function better than others while some permutations are going to take away abilities that almost everyone else has.

Ethics tells us that we value people because they are people.  It does not tell us that value people because of a specific trait nor does it does say that not valuing a specific trait means that we devalue the person.

Ethics also tells us that we should help people who need help.  It doesn't say that you look at a person and say, yep, there are permutation XYZ and it is wrong to try and help because that would "change" them in the same way that it wouldn't tell you that should leave a person bleeding to death on the street because that is an equally valid permutation of the human state.

Proponents of neurodivesity apply it to autism and value the difference simply because it is different and, as such, worth protecting.  That leads to the end result of attacking people who try and alter the difference.

But the underlying ethical idea is that a person has value because they are a person and not the specific permutation or condition that they are in.  That is one of the reasons why I always say person with autism rather than autistic person.  The person is the thing with value not the permutation that is autism.

10 comments:

  1. The thing that so many people who argue the merits of neurodiversity don't seem to get is that for some of us, society isn't the biggest problems for our children, *nature* is.

    The easiest way to identify such a person is to see if the 'insult' ablelist is thrown around; when my son's autism was making him race through parking lots to compulsively touch bumpers of SUVs my problem wasn't that society had made all those SUVs, but rather, the dispassionate laws of physics. Nature is the ultimate ablelist, the neurodiverse and everyone else may not like it, but those are the facts; Nature doesn't give half a shit about how unfair it might seem.

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    1. Hi PD,

      I think nature is next on ASAN's hit list, right after they manage to get the whole world to provide every possible accommodation simultaneously so that every person with autism can properly function. Every environment will be changed so that it is bright and dim, loud and quiet, and packed with people and empty all at the same time.

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  2. Great article!

    For someone who is pro-neurodiversity, you could try this: ask if the same rules apply to a person who is ADHD, bipolar, or depressed. Shouldn't we accept who these people are and not interfere with their personalities? In that case, there is no need to try medication, counseling, exercise, or any natural remedy. Right, isn't that the same logic they use for people with autism? Why try to "help" them, when they don't need any help at all? Celebrate the quirks of a suicidally depressed or bipolar individual! Don't try to "help" them, because that would imply there is something wrong with them. This might force the pro-neurodiversity person to stop and think! Expose their double standards!

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    1. You know, I almost thought you were being serious there for a minute.

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  3. I am a 'proponent of neurodiversity'. I don't attack people who try to change those differences. I attack people who insist that those differences should be changed, rather than letting the different (i.e. autistic) individuals themselves decide whether they want to be changed.

    Ethics also tells us that people should be treated as independent agents who can make their own decisions - and that is often *not* how neurodivergent people are treated.

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    1. If autism was just a difference instead of a developmental disability then you might have a point. And while there are certainly people whose autism lets them function well enough that what you are talking about becomes an issue it certainly isn't true for the vast majority of people with autism.

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  4. From the materialistic viewpoint person is entirely encoded in brain permutations. And it is hard to separate the person from his or her autism.

    About ethics and improvements: if it is ethical in the relation to autistics, it is definetly ethical to "cure" neurotyicalism (i.e. upgrading normal brain configuration to something more advanced using e.g. genetic engineering, TMS and cyborgization). And the concept that person is human in all cases limits development and transition to posthumans.

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    ReplyDelete
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    ReplyDelete