I began writing and speaking about autism because I wanted to share some things I’d learned. I wanted to help your generation grow up without the feelings of shame I grew up with. It was that and the recognition of how much knowledge of autism transformed my life in a good way that led me to where I am today—writing books and speaking and teaching and traveling the world as an autistic advocate.
But as much as autism awareness helped me, today there’s a fundamental problem. Words like autism are medical definitions that doctors apply to explain what’s wrong with us. I learned about my autism in middle age, and I immediately saw how it explained both my success and failures. For me, autism was always about gift and disability.
For young people, it’s not that way. Not one of you had cause to celebrate when you heard about your dyslexia ADHD or autism in childhood. Not one of you would have cause to celebrate because you learned about your neurological differences after a series of failures in school. When you were five, or ten, or fifteen, you didn’t have a lifetime of successes to balance against autism’s social disability and failure.
When I learned about autism, I had a lifetime’s perspective to see the good and the bad. Kids don’t get to see both sides when they get a diagnosis. For young people, it’s humiliating and it’s painful and carries a stigma that follows you all the way to college. It doesn’t have to be that way. I wrote a story in Psychology Today seven years ago called What is Neurodiversity? In that story I presented the idea that neurological difference is a natural part of human diversity. Some of you are tall; some are short. Some of you have light skin, some dark. That’s diversity you can see, but there’s also diversity hidden inside.
Some of you are really emotional while others are really logical. Some of you are brilliant in math while others of you have extraordinary memories. Some of you need to focus on one thing at a time while a few of you can hold a hundred tasks in your head. All of you are good at something and that diversity of ability and traits is all a natural part of humanity.
Alongside those exceptionalities are the disabilities. Some of you can’t read other people. You don’t know what to say. You may struggle to read or organize life’s basic tasks. When you learned about them, it may have seemed like all you were, was disabled. Less. You’re more than a package of disability. In fact, those disabilities might be thought of as offsets for your exceptionalities. They are what lead to the diagnoses of autism, ADHD, or dyslexia, but it’s not fair or healthy to describe those conditions exclusively in the context of disability.
I didn’t understand that when I wrote Look Me in the Eye (my first book), or when I published that Psychology Today piece, but I certainly get it now. Today I recognize that neurodiversity is not just another medical term like autism. Neurodiversity is a word that springs from our community; it’s a real word for real people. Neurodiversity is me, my wife, my kid, my parents. Neurodiversity is all of you.
Who is going to take charge of how we talk about neurodiversity? It’s us, folks. Neurodiversity is our word, created to answer what other people have called us. It’s a word we need because the words doctors use for us carry some heavy baggage. When people say to you have ADHD or autism, what they are often thinking is: You are messed up, and you won’t amount to anything. That’s the stigma we talk about, right there in those people’s minds. They hear the words and they think: broken human. Is that what you want to be? We have to work hard, not to believe it ourselves.
When I say I’m neurodivergent, there is no stigma. Often people ask what that means, and I explain—showing the disability and exceptionality that makes us who we are. Complete, correct humans. I say our gifts and disabilities are all part of neurodiversity. You and me—we are neurodivergent individuals. We are not just disabled. With a neurodiversity perspective, we are empowered.
You've heard that you’re all welcome here at Landmark. You’ve heard about how other people see disability, and you may know that this school was founded by a person with a disability—dyslexia. Thirty-some years ago, he wanted to help students with learning disabilities. At first blush, that sounds great. It’s surely a wonderful thing to help someone with a disability. But when we use phrases like “helping people with disabilities,” we internalize that marginalization of us. Saying we are disabled paints a one-sided picture of us as diminished. That makes us seem less than so-called normal people, but we are not less. We are different.
We are more than disabled. We are neurodivergent, and while our disability is real, so is our exceptionality. We are part of an awakening neurodivergent tribe. We won’t tell the world we have autism, ADHD, or whatever because those words carry a stigma we don’t need. We can use knowledge of our differences to become the best we can be, but we needn’t open ourselves to shaming by describing ourselves in terms that diminish us in other’s eyes.
We aren’t going to say we “have” anything because “having” something implies you don’t want to have it. If I have pneumonia, I want a cure. Neurological differences are part and parcel of who we are, and cure is not in the offing. We may not like every aspect of how we are, but there’s not much we can do to change our neurology, so the healthiest thing is to accept it.
We are neurodivergent. It’s a way of being, not a disease or disorder.
I want you to think about something else. Every civil rights movement in recent history has started with the affected populations. Think about African American civil rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, religious freedom. All of those movements were driven by the affected people, but they had a lot of help from passionate college students like you. You will be the ones to move this forward. You have the freedom to learn the issues and form strong opinions. You will develop your ideas and values in this safe place. You have come to the one college in America established by and run for neurodivergent people.
The majority of us are neurodivergent here—many of the faculty and most of the students, plus a bunch of parents and siblings. What I hope now is that you’ll think about this and take these values of an emerging neurodiversity movement and go out in the world and really kick ass!
Disability is part of life for all of us, but disability comes to everyone eventually. Meanwhile we’re going to talk about our exceptionality while our disability remains where it belongs—in the background. It is simply the trade-off humanity makes for having exceptional people like us in the world.