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A History of Neurodiversity

Aarohi Gami


Throughout history, stigma toward those perceived to be neurodivergent has been pervasive. The framing of neurodiversity as a condition to be cured has had a profoundly negative impact on the way it is viewed [1]. This stigma against those with different neurological experiences contributed to the former institutionalization and eugenic elimination of disabled people.

The institutionalization of neurodivergent individuals generally stemmed from one of two ideas: that either they needed to be isolated for the sake of experimentation, resting on the belief that a cure for conditions such as autism existed, or that their variance from others made them unfit for participation in society. Regardless of reasoning, those held in institutions such as asylums often faced cruel and inhumane treatment, including physical abuse and neglect [2]. This conduct was undoubtedly fueled by the stigma toward neurodivergent people, which resulted in the dehumanized way in which they were viewed.

Derived from the Greek eugenes, meaning “good in birth”, eugenics is a pseudoscientific practice which claims that the perfect population may be produced through the forced exclusion of those it deems “unfit” [3]. Perhaps the darkest example of this practice was carried out by the Nazi Party, who believed - among very many others - that the disabled and mentally ill were unfit and should be removed from society [4]. his insidious form of discrimination, however, may not necessarily be left in the past. Present fears about the potential impacts of technologies such as prenatal screening for autism continue to put into question whether advocating for the eradication of neurodiversity is a position that can truly be called obsolete[5]. Such threats put into perspective the continued need for neurodivergent advocacy and the continued impact of stigma on neurodiverse people simply living their lives.

And so, from such a dark history, the question of where we go next remains. The most important step is to amplify the voices of neurodivergent people. They are the people whose lives are affected by these stigmas, and their opinions on how best their community will thrive is essential. We must recognize biases when neurodivergence is being discussed, and understand when it is being treated as an illness rather than a society. There is much to be learned from the past and much more to be fought for in the present.


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