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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

There’s no excuse for jumping on this new brain bandwagon

Are you ‘neurodiverse’, or do you perhaps know someone who is? Before you answer I should tell you that the definition is rapidly changing – broadening out, mushrooming. That a term originally coined in the late 1990s to destigmatise what were previously described as ‘neurodevelopmental disorders’ such as autism is now confidently being applied to a whopping one in seven of us. So whether you know it or not, your answer should probably be ‘yes’.

Given that anyone whose “brain functions, learns and processes information differently” is now defined as neurodiverse, at least according to the UK Civil Service’s Neurodiversity Network, I’m astonished it’s not more widespread. And of course it will be, by next week, next month, next year. Not because, as every neurological expert will tell you, every single human brain is different, but because the term is the latest to be co-opted by the self-serving victimhood brigade.

I say co-opted, but I should say stolen.

That’s what happens when a valid condition is used cynically and indiscriminately to a person’s own advantage. When a term devised to include a demographic in genuine need of greater understanding and acceptance (estimated to be approximately 1 per cent of the population, according to the latest figures from the Foundation for People With Learning Disabilities) is inflated to the point of it losing its value; until people disbelieve in it and sneer at it. When the people that term was originally designed to help are overshadowed and, ironically, excluded by eagle-eyed opportunists.

I’d feared this was on its way. Then a news snippet on Sunday proved me wrong. It’s not on its way: it’s here. ‘Growing number of Civil Service applicants declare themselves neurodiverse and ask to work from home and have time off to visit therapists’ was the headline. And before I even got to the part about the requests for ‘special dispensations’ including ‘different working patterns’, I could foresee the implications across the board.

Because, when the only diagnosis needed is the assertion that one is ‘in some way, shape or form… neuro-divergent’ and the mission of so-called neuro-divergent campaigners is ‘to create a safe space for anyone who is neurodiverse to be themselves’ just imagine how liberally that will be bandied around by children keen to avoid the ‘working patterns’ of the school day. 

Then there are our terminally fragile university students to consider. The same students who are seeking a formal apology from Wolfson College, Cambridge, after an “older male photographer” taking pictures at the college’s matriculation ceremony suggested male students might want to help the ladies dismount from the raised platform they were being photographed upon. If that made these delicate flowers feel “unsafe” and if the phrase ‘trigger warning’ has been deemed “too provocative” for University of Warwick students, then how likely is it that these same students will slap a neuro-divergent label on themselves the first chance they get?

I wonder how the autistic young actor Connor Curren, revealed to have been given his big break at the weekend as the lead in the National Theatre’s production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, will feel as the phrase once used to destigmatise his characteristics is increasingly bastardised. Describing how he felt growing up, when he almost gave up on his dream of becoming an actor simply because he had never seen “anyone like me doing that”.

I wonder too how the Australian sociologist, Judy Singer, who originally coined the term ‘neurodiversity’ and describes herself as “somewhere on the autistic spectrum” will feel as the narrative she has bravely tried to reframe – presenting autism as an accepted “way of being” with its own strengths as well as weaknesses – is turned into something so far removed?

Because although it has been contentious within its own community from the start – with either family members or those on the autism spectrum themselves claiming this overlook downplays the daily challenges – most agree that the reframing of that narrative has been beneficial. That advocating for a neurodiverse community and workforce has ensured a wide variety of skills, abilities and outlooks available to all. But surely leaving the term open to the widest of interpretations threatens to undo some of that good work?  

Reacting to the ‘growing number of Civil Service applicants’ declaring themselves neurodiverse, the Government says it will publish its own data soon, with one description posted on its website confirming: ‘It’s highly likely that you, or someone you work with, is contributing to the neuro-diversity within our workforce.’

I’d go so far as to say that it’s certain, and not just within any given workforce. That it’s not just one in seven. Just you wait and see how fast that statistic climbs.

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