Judy Singer didn't invent Neurodiversity. These People Did.

Rachel Worsley  |  16/03/2024

A group of academics have questioned the origin story of neurodiversity, saying that attributing its invention to one person would be to “knowingly and egregiously erase neurodivergent people from their own history”.

Australian sociologist Judy Singer has been frequently cited in the media as the originator of the term neurodiversity. However, In a letter written to the journal Autism, the academics say that Australian sociologist Judy Singer’s Honours thesis in 1998 may have been the first known “sociological study of the neurodiversity movement” but it did not mean she coined the term.

Instead, the idea of neurological diversity arose as early as 1996, as part of discussions held by the Independent Living email newsletter. One email newsletter participant, Tony Langdon, wrote of the “neurological diversity of people”, where “the atypical among a society provide the different perspectives needed to generate new ideas and advances, whether they be technological, cultural, artistic or otherwise.” Furthermore, Langdon adds that “a lot of this ‘curing’ needs to be applied to society at large rather than to autistic individuals”.

The academics also point out that Singer did not originally claim to invent the word “neurodiversity”, saying that she cited the work of journalist Harvey Blume who used the terms “neurological diversity” and “neurodiversity” in works in 1997 and 1998.

However, the narrative had changed after the publication of Steve Silbermann’s book NeuroTribes, which positioned her as the developer and inventor of the ‘term’ neurodiversity. In recent years, Singer has even been portrayed as the “mother of neurodiversity” by the newspaper The Guardian.

Instead, the academics argue that the concept was collectively developed by autistic activists and ‘cousin’ members of the autism rights/neurodiversity movement by 1996, if not earlier. They also pointed out that neurodiversity has expanded from its origins through multiple parties, such as the invention of the term “neurodivergent” and “neurodivergence” by Kassiane Asasumasu and the expansion of neurodiversity to cover conditions outside of autism.

For too long, the academics argue, this collective of activists and members of the movement have been “erased in favour of an alluringly simple yet ultimately inaccurate version of the history of the neurodiversity movement and its theory, which, in light of new evidence, and backed by our input here, is now clearer.”

“To continue to attribute the coining and theorising of neurodiversity uncritically to any individual would from this point on be to knowingly and egregiously erase neurodivergent people from their own history,” they conclude.

Read the letter here.

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