How Critical Psychology Can Empower the Neurodiversity Movement

A new article sheds light on the crucial intersection of critical psychology and the neurodiversity movement, advocating for the inclusion of autistic voices in mainstream psychology.

7
1634

In a perspective piece published in Frontiers in Psychology, Eleanor Thomas of Prescott College, Arizona, dives into the intricate relationship between critical psychology and the neurodiversity movement.

Thomas’s article, “Why critical psychology and the neurodiversity movement need each other,” highlights how traditional psychology has often marginalized those with neurodiversity, especially autistic individuals. Her analysis reveals the necessity of integrating critical psychology—a discipline aimed at challenging mainstream psychology’s norms and biases—with the neurodiversity movement, a political movement advocating for the rights and dignity of neurodivergent individuals.

“Critical psychologists have historically considered culturally divergent epistemologies, and I proposed that critical psychologists embrace neurodivergent epistemologies following this same model,” Thomas writes.
“Concretely implementing this suggestion involves actively including Autistic voices in research and educational institutions to stretch the boundaries of what is considered “normal” or acceptable for communication style and knowledge production methodology.”

Thomas contends that traditional psychology has historically sidelined and ignored neurodiverse individuals, especially those on the autism spectrum. She posits that critical psychology and the neurodiversity movement are inherently linked, emphasizing the neurodiversity paradigm, which views neurodiversity as an inherent and valuable aspect of human diversity, subject to similar social dynamics and oppression as other forms of diversity. Thomas identifies five key areas where traditional psychology fails to acknowledge neurodiversity, leading to negative consequences and misunderstandings in mainstream treatments for autistic individuals.

According to Thomas, adopting a critical psychology perspective can help combat the dehumanization of autistic communities often seen in conventional psychological approaches. While there have been effective interventions, Thomas believes there is still significant room for improvement.

Her primary recommendation involves dismantling the barriers set up by mainstream psychology that marginalize individuals with different lived experiences, such as those related to race, gender, or neurodiversity. Thomas advocates for the inclusion of autistic individuals in psychological research, highlighting their lived experiences as valuable and insightful. She argues that ignoring these perspectives is not only harmful but also perpetuates the oppressive nature of mainstream psychological methods.

Thomas further suggests that using pathologized groups solely for academic research can be detrimental. She proposes involving neurodivergent individuals, particularly autistic researchers, to enhance understanding of this community’s unique challenges and strengths. She cites the Participatory Autism Research Collective (PARC) as an effective initiative for engaging autistic individuals in research. Involving autistic people in research can provide deeper insights into their communication styles and the necessary improvements in research methodologies.

Thomas critically addresses the concept of “normalization” in the context of neurodiversity, arguing that attempts to pathologize and modify behavior to fit mainstream norms are detrimental. She draws a parallel to the historical pathologization of homosexuality and controversial practices such as conversion therapy, highlighting a similar problematic pattern in the treatment of the Autistic community. Specifically, Thomas points out the issues with Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), a method often used in Autism therapy, which she likens to a recurring cycle of harm.

She emphasizes the criticism of ABA, particularly its traumatic effects, and references the controversial use of electric shock treatments on Autistic individuals—a practice that was initially banned by the FDA but later reinstated due to technicalities. These approaches, Thomas argues, lead to deeper psychological traumas in Autistic adults. Faced with such oppressive and traumatic treatment methods, Autistic individuals are frequently compelled to “mask” or hide aspects of their true selves to conform to societal expectations, further perpetuating a cycle of trauma and oppression within the Autistic community.

Thomas’s third recommendation emphasizes the need for psychotherapists and other providers to adopt a culturally competent approach using the “minority stress model.” This model, initially not designed with the Autistic community in mind, recognizes the additional stress experienced by marginalized individuals and the potential harm caused by mainstream practices. Thomas argues that outdated and damaging autism theories often lead to treatment models that align more with the majority’s understanding rather than considering the unique perspectives of Autistic individuals. By applying the minority stress model in treating Autistic individuals, Thomas believes the negative impact of stereotypes and dismissed experiences can be reduced.

Additionally, Thomas points out the increasing prevalence of queer and non-binary gender identities within the Autistic community. She critiques the binary approach to autism that categorizes it strictly along male and female lines, which she argues is detrimental to non-binary and transgender individuals. Furthermore, Thomas highlights the compounded social injustices faced by Black and Indigenous Autistic individuals, underscoring the need for greater attention to intersectionality within the Autistic community. A more inclusive and intersectional approach, she suggests, will lead to a richer understanding of autism and improved health outcomes.

Thomas firmly states that a social justice movement’s success depends on its ability to address the needs of its most marginalized members. She then shifts focus to address ableism – the systemic marginalization and oppression of disabled individuals – within critical psychology. She points out that overlooking the impact of ableism can perpetuate harm, particularly for Autistic individuals. Thomas calls for a new approach and paradigm in psychology that values and includes the insights and contributions of Autistic individuals. She advocates for an end to the pathologizing language surrounding autism and a rejection of language that reinforces exclusion and bigotry. By doing so, Thomas believes critical psychology can better accommodate and value the experiences and contributions of Autistic individuals, thereby enriching the field.

There has been a growing demand for inclusivity in mainstream psychology, particularly in relation to social inequalities based on race, gender, and socioeconomic status. It has been reported that current treatments for autism are harmful and invasive, which is why there is a call to end them. This perspective piece emphasizes the importance of including Autistic individuals in research discussions and advocating for the end of harmful treatments. The author, Thomas, urges critical psychologists to challenge the status quo and work towards healing and collaboration within the autistic community.

This paper highlights the shortcomings of traditional psychological treatment for neurodiverse individuals, particularly those with autism. It emphasizes the importance of critical psychology in supporting and amplifying the neurodiversity movement, which aims to create a more inclusive and fair landscape within the psychological community. The author, Thomas, notes that this integration is crucial for protecting vulnerable autistic communities from the dehumanizing and harmful approaches often seen in mainstream psychology. Her work urges the field to embrace diverse epistemologies, resist pathologizing neurodivergence, and develop cultural competency around neurodivergent experiences. Doing so provides a path for a more inclusive, understanding, and empathetic approach toward neurodiversity, advocating for the political inclusion and attention it deserves.

 

****

Thomas, E. (2024). Why critical psychology and the neurodiversity movement need each other. Frontiers in Psychology, 15. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2024.1149743

7 COMMENTS

  1. As far as I’ve experienced, people promoting neurodiversity as a concept have also been most obsessed with the bioessentialism of diagnoses, and diagnosis as a unchallengeable identity.

    If you feel misdiagnosed, or as if your diagnosis has been harmful, not helpful, many people simply can’t or won’t accept the idea if your diagnosis is one of the neurodevelopmental disorders(autism, ADHD, the former diagnosis of Aspergers). My story is not validated anywhere. Sometimes I even wish I was diagnosed with a personality disorder instead – not because people have it easy then, but at least there’d be a few people open to discussing and listening and understanding how being diagnosed caused me suffering.

    It’s ironic how neurodiversity activism is so caring about self-diagnosed people and people who want a diagnosis, but not minors who had no choice and have negative experiences with being diagnosed are met with anger and shut down.

    Report comment

    • There is something about people diagnosed with autism complaining about how people with autism who are locked up by the state being treated cruelly that gets me. They don’t seem to realise all people who become wards of the state, or indeed private money making institutions are at high risk of being harmed.

      Report comment

  2. I agree with the above comments. I haven’t read the article – but we need to be very cautious about any movement that introduces yet more loosely-defined labels, based on unevidenced claims about neurological functioning, in order to categorise people into groups.

    Report comment

  3. “Neurodiversity” is just another stepping stone towards the total transformation of Psychology into a propaganda operation. And so is “critical psychology.”

    If psychology wants to survive, it needs to get back to studying the psyche, and let someone else worry about brain, nerves and all that stuff.

    Great strides have been made in understanding the psyche. They just have not been made by psychologists!

    Report comment

  4. Diagnosis or the identification of any presumed difference doesn’t exist in psychiatry. It’s all misdiagnosis based on ever broadening and loosening ‘criteria’ for some subjective opinion of ‘on the spectrum’ out of control harmful medicalisation is everywhere.

    Report comment

LEAVE A REPLY