May this letter find its way onto the desks of those with the power to enact the following much-needed form of inclusion campus inclusion.
Please dedicate one or more central campus spaces to the neurodivergent students, faculty and staff of your community. Give us a Center by which to center our experience of campus on campus, to find community with our peers in innovative and fruitful ways, to find that we even have peers in the first place, and to have a space of our own where we can simply exist without qualification. I propose to call it the Neurodiversity Constellation Center.
See this post on what I mean by ‘constellation’:
Last fall, I conducted a survey on campus for neurodivergent students with the intent of informing my advocacy for a more effectively inclusive campus for everyone, neurodivergent people too! Consistently, nearly every respondent expressed a desire for community on campus; over a third furthermore conveyed the need for a physical space in which to build such a community.
Only a generation before, people were institutionalized for an autism diagnosis. Their lives and autonomy were stolen from them from a presumption that someone else knew what was best for these individuals. Medical and scientific attention on ‘autism’ only began in 1943 during the heyday of eugenics in Europe and the US. For decades it was classed as a mental illness, something unfortunate in need of curing that stole any possibility of a fulfilling life from those so diagnosed. And with the evolution of the DSM has come an ever evolving list of diagnostic criteria. However, scientific research by neurotypical researchers has routinely misunderstood what they have proposed to study; it is only a younger group of neurodivergent researchers who are moving questions forward, and actually posing proper questions in the first place, since we ourselves understand ourselves in ways neurotypical people could never imagine. We are the experts of our own identities, foremost for our understanding of ‘autism’ as a foundational facet of identity rather than a medical condition in need of curing.
Research by neurodivergent scholars has begun to reframe our understanding away from one of deficits to a model of intensity: neurodivergent brains are hyperconnected. We are hypersensitive. We take in more information, not less. What you witness are only our reactions to our experiences, to the sensory overloads we endure, to the intensity of sensing so many things all at once in a synesthetic soup. More, not less. Hyper-, not hypo-.
On a parallel track, a self-advocacy movement begun in the 1990s is building momentum: we are not only the experts or our own identities, we are the only ones who can make our own needs known in order to ameliorate the conditions of our existence. We must have a Coming Out, a Pride of our own. We must tell the world that we are here, that we carry as much potential as anyone else—for excellence and failure alike.
In my own generation and even still, children are literally tortured with restraints and subjected to other forms of abuse every day because an autism diagnosis has served in their lives as an institutional sanction for those around them to use brute force to achieve ‘normality.’ The worst part of this is that an autistic person is much more sensitive to the world around them than the average neurotypical person, so that the distress another person sees is only an autistic individual’s response to the intensity of everything they are sensing around them. They’re given the rod when space is needed; they’re met with the lash when these children have been showing us that those around them are doing something wrong, something overwhelming, something traumatizing. None of us, however, even those of us who escaped the additional traumas of a formal childhood diagnosis, have escaped our childhoods without significant trauma.
The trauma is so wide-spread, and therefore systemic, that there is a good deal of confusion diagnostically as to how to discern ‘Autism Spectrum Disorder’ from ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder’ because they present so similarly to the outside observer. To be neurodivergent is to be traumatized in so many ways small and large and to be forced to bear the burden of these accumulating wounds as we attempt to face each new day. That is the result of the societal response to our divergent neurocognitive structures of perception and apperception in a human world that was not designed with us in mind, that did not consult us about ourselves, and that has gone about its illogical ways without a thought for the trauma everyone experiences everyday regardless of neurotype, the accumulation of which becomes debilitating to an autistic person, as with neurodivergent people at large.
A few points of order: ‘Neurodivergent’ is a general label describing a broad swath of people, anyone with an atypical neurotype, whether that’s diagnosable as ‘autism spectrum disorder’ (ASD), ‘attention-deficit/-hyperactivity disorder’ (AD/HD), dysphoria, depression, anxiety, ‘obsessive-compulsive disorder’ (OCD), ‘oppositional defiance disorder’ (ODD), (complex-)post- or continuous-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD, c-PTSD or CTSD), or any other alleged ‘mental illness’ that is a response to the systems in which we find ourselves, our environments and the people around us, as well as deaf folks, blind folks, synesthetic folks. Notice that neurotypical individuals who experience trauma become neurodivergent for the traumas endured: trauma, like depression and anxiety, alters the brain.
First of all, let me say this clearly to anyone who has just recognized themselves as clearly as if their name had been called aloud: Your depression is not your fault. Your anxiety is not your fault. You deserve better than to fault yourself for AD/HD. Your OCD, PTSD, body- or gender-dysphoria, your schizophrenia, your ‘autism,’ your ‘oppositional defiance’: try are you might, you will not find these as faults within yourself, no matter how many years you search. You are a human being responding to your social world, to the systems underlying everything. Seek the cause of your responses not within yourself but in the social systems around you to which you are responding.
Second of all, welcome to the neurodivergent community. We are that home for each other that each of us have been looking for. Only together will we find our strength sufficient to create the changes we deserve. Join the Society of Disabled and Neurodiverse Students!
Third, I invite you to join me in learning how to advocate for ourselves and our community in order to restructure our world to better accommodate everyone including us.
I turn back to those of you with the power to achieve a crucial form of campus inclusion. Give your neurodivergent students a space for us to join each other in community. If you were to consult many therapists who specialize in neurodiversity, most of them are likely to tell you that the most effective thing for their patients—and themselves—has been group sessions. We are tremendously helpful to one another. We gain so much insight into ourselves and our community just by sharing our individual experiences. But we must have a space in which to do this. We need a Center that centers us on campus, a place that provides us a physical point of orientation, a point de repére, if you like. But more importantly, we need a space where we can simply exist without neurocognitive qualification, without having to be ‘that weird kid’ labelled as other.
Allow us a space designed in the closest consultation with your neurodivergent student group, the Society of Disabled and Neurodiverse Students. NOTHING ABOUT US WITHOUT US. We can no longer accept to have our autonomy stripped of us by well-meaning caretakers. Let us not be designed for. We must design our own spaces. NOTHING ABOUT US WITHOUT US. Each of us has different sensitivities and support needs, as well as different ways of stimulating different areas of our brains to focus on a task at hand. While a Center itself could not meet all of our individual needs, each of us would individually benefit in every domain by engaging with our peers at a Neurodiversity Constellation Center. NOTHING ABOUT US WITHOUT US. Ahead of so many other actions, the results of my survey last fall convinced me that this must be among the first. This must be given priority. Appropriate funding and institutional support must be focused into achieving this goal in consultation with your Society of Disabled and Neurodiverse Students.
My other posts on neurodivergence and inclusion:
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