Wednesday, March 30, 2016

"Neurodiversity Month": Why "Autism Awareness" Just Doesn't Cut It Anymore

Ahh springtime. The sun is shining, the temperature is rising, and if you're Canadian like myself, you've probably just survived Second Winter (seriously, good on ya mate). It's the time of the year when everything seems to be waking up and things are beautiful. There is, however, another reason this part of the year is meaningful, especially to those of us on the Autism Spectrum and our allies. April is, after all, traditionally known as Autism Awareness Month, and it's that time during every orbit of the earth around the sun when all those who care about Autism choose to show solidarity. Sounds good, right?

The problem is, as both a yearly phenomenon and a movement in general, Autism Awareness doesn't really cut it. It is a cause that dates back to the first parents' movements centred around Autism, and it has the backing of big organizations like Autism Speaks, but the issue is that none of these groups really put Autistics first. Parents' groups are, understandably, focussed on navigating the challenges of raising a child with Autism, and Autism Speaks has a whole host of problems that would take an entire blog post to fully articulate. Despite having honourable intentions, both groups unintentionally (perhaps intentionally, in the case of Autism Speaks) perpetuate the same message; that Autism is a tragedy in need of eradication. Nothing could, of course, be further from the truth.

There is an important saying among Autistic self-advocates that there can be "nothing about us, without us," and it is the violation of this principle which is at the root of all of society's misunderstandings of Autism. People are inundated with clinical facts and statistics about various Autism Spectrum conditions that range from true-yet-overly-simplistic to flat out wrong, and yet not many organizations that claim to fight for the welfare of Autistics actually seem to care enough to consult those of us with first hand experience on the subject. If self representation is a key cornerstone of any civil rights struggle, then it is an opportunity many of us are denied in the mainstream Autism discussion.

Because of this, I'd like to propose something on this blog. Rather than calling this Autism Awareness Month, let's rechristen it "Neurodiversity Month" instead. We would of course still welcome all of the support and shows of solidarity put forth by our allies and friends, and we would still encourage the discussion of best practices regarding working with Autistics and living with Autism. The chief difference would be that, rather than let other organizations define our struggles and triumphs for us, we will do it ourselves. Neurodiversity Month represents us taking back the month and fighting for our own self-representation on this issue, and it's essential. There will be no talk of cures and eradication, only love, acceptance and support the way it should be anyway. Basically, much like June is LGBT Pride month, I propose we make April ours.

I invite anyone reading this blog to support this initiative. Let's retake the month together, and give all of those on the Spectrum a chance to advocate for and represent themselves. Our Facebook page will have custom banners and profile pictures available. I urge you to use them throughout April to show your solidarity and support, not just for Autistics, Aspies and other Neurodivergent folk, but also for our right to be ourselves and speak for ourselves, our struggles and our triumphs in this world.

As always Yours in Diversity

Adam Michael

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Why I Fight. (or why I'm Not Ready To Make Nice)

As I'm sure many of you are aware, next month is Autism Awareness Month. As such, I'm bracing myself for the flurry of Autism-related posts flooding my social media feeds over the next 60 days or so. In the past, I've been fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who have been very supportive of Neurodiversity and not thought less of me for having Aspergers. Sure, I've come across ableist comments (which as you can imagine I have quickly crushed), but in general, I've always been able to look at April and consider it “Neurodiversity Month” because of the positive humans I seem to have surrounded myself with.

Except it isn't Neurodiversity Month. Not really.

I came to this realization a few nights ago while talking to my friend, fellow Aspergian, and fellow Neurodiversity blogger Steph Diorio on Facebook (check out her awesome blog here at She had shared a video about how best to support the Aspies in one's life during a hard month such as April. It brought up the very real fact that Autism Awareness Month isn't about us; its an ableist attempt to talk about cures and eradication of the 'awful tragedy' that is Autism. Frankly, its insulting, and not long after watching this video, I experienced all of this myself first hand. I had to interview my aunt for my book, and while I gained lots of useful information, I also experienced ableist condescension in the process. During my conversation with her, she implied that I was too stubborn and immature for my age, commented on how far I had come and how well I had done (while conveniently leaving out “for someone with Aspergers”), and asked if I shouldn't maybe seek professional help to assist me in managing my “disorder” in adulthood. Nevermind the fact that I'm employed, have a social life, and have earned three university degrees. Needless to say, I was livid, and my temper flared. It took all my strength to keep it contained within until I followed the obligatory social protocols and promptly left her house.

The funny thing about this experience though, is that while yes, I was and am angry, it also led me to remember exactly why I bother with all of this Neurodiversity stuff to begin with. You see, in a way, organizations like Autism Speaks and people with attitudes like those expressed by my aunt are only symptoms of a larger problem; institutionalized ableism and discrimination against those deemed “disordered” by the rest of society. Until society itself changes its attitudes, we will always have ableist discrimination against those on the Autism Spectrum and anyone else who dares to be different from the norm. People like my aunt are part of the problem, and they are the very reason why I started this blog, why I'm writing my book and why myself and countless others continue to care about changing all of this. As with feminism's battle against patriarchy, however, opposing people individually would be akin to cutting off a tentacle, when what we need to do is take down the whole evil boss monster. (+1000 XP if we do!)

So this is why I fight. I fight to make the world a better place for those who are neurodivergent. I fight to end institutionalized ableism against those who are different. I fight to challenge the pathologizing of personality types and the medical model of psychiatry. I fight for those who are nonverbal and cannot fight for themselves. Most importantly, I fight for the right (for myself and others) to exist free of condescension, pity, judgment, and loathing by those who refuse to see our common humanity.

And until we have truly accomplished our goals and banished all of those things in favour of building a more compassionate world? I'm not, nor will I be, to quote the Dixie Chicks, “ready to make nice.”

As always, yours in diversity,

Adam Michael

Thursday, March 3, 2016

"Tool of Oppression": The DSM and the Pathologizing of Personality Types

Ahh the DSM. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with psychology is aware of its existence. To mental health professionals all over North America, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the defacto bible by which they shape their careers. Within it is listed every condition discovered by psychological professions up to this point. To society, it is the gold standard by which all mental health conditions are categorized and understood. It is the lens by which most of us view the workings of our own minds, whether we realize it or not.

But is it the best way?

I've been thinking a lot about the DSM lately for many reasons (my book-in-progress and my self-discovery of also having ADHD-Inattentive, to name a few), and its led me to one inescapable conclusion; in some ways, the DSM is the worst enemy of anyone who challenges what I like to call the 'pathology paradigm' present in psychology. Simply put, the DSM is the tool by which, whether knowingly or not, mental health professionals perpetuate our culture of stigma and oppression towards those who are differently wired. The problem isn't even really with the DSM; as a field guide to the various ways in which human minds can be constructed, its very valuable as it has been thoroughly researched and can effectively give guidance on what kinds of problems someone with any of the conditions listed within may possibly face. The issues arise, however, when we start to treat the DSM as the unflinching word of the gods.

I read an interesting article recently on the topic of neurodiversity which argued that in order for any real change to happen in this area, those of us who are neurodivergent would have to stop using the “tools of our oppressors,” (disability first language, words like pathology and disorder, etc.). While I'm not strictly anti-psychiatry per se, the author had a valid point and it is encapsulated in the tendency of the DSM, and psychology in general, to pathologize the human mind and its various personality types. By its very nature, psychology seeks to categorize and classify the various states of the brain and identify 'disorders,' but who exactly decides what is a disorder and what is simply a divergent state of normal human wiring? Such classifications are all-too-often culturally biased and based almost entirely on what is deemed acceptable by the standards of the society in which they have been created. By accepting such a practice without even considering the socially constructed element of disability, are we not effectively filtering otherwise normal human personality types through an arbitrarily designed acceptability filter?

Don't get me wrong; I understand full well that there are certain conditions listed in the DSM which genuinely are concerning both for the safety of society and the individual themselves. In our search for more and more of those however, we must be careful to avoid pathologizing personality types. After all, if we as a species are naturally diverse physically, culturally and even spiritually, why not mentally? There is no one-size-fits-all human body, so why must the brain conform to such rigid standards of normalcy? We need to move away from the traditional medically-based understanding of psychology and towards one which blends what we have learned with an understanding of the wonderful diversity of human nature. One which respects the identity and agency of each and every human being and which doesn't simply reduce them to a diagnostic label on a testing document.

After all, I may be an Aspie, and I may have ADHD, but I am Adam first and foremost. These have shaped me and are a part of me, but at the end of the day I deserve far more than to be reduced to a simple pathology.

The same is true of every human on this planet, no matter the challenges we face.

As always yours in diversity,

Adam Michael

Oh, by the way, here's the link to the article I mentioned in this post. Definitely worth a read!: