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Disorder, Disability & Difference

I have been a qualified and practising clinical psychologist for over 20 years, trained to provide assessment and treatment to children, adolescents and adults. Some of this training has included learning about the different types of developmental disorders, including ADHD, ADD, autism, and so forth. And for most of my professional career I have not seen it as anything other than a specific area in which I had very little interest. I still recall my first visit in South Africa to a centre for autistic children. It was terrifying. I still remember all those children with their strange behaviour and weird sounds.

It is a profound irony that many years later I understand that I belong more to that group of scary children than I do to my colleagues and peers. And no, it was not my training that had brought me to this insight. It was a journey with a client, and the playful irreverence of a few very close friends who used to joke about me being on the spectrum. Over the last few years I have come to realise not only that I am neurodivergent, but also that many of the things that I struggled with for much of my life actually makes sense from this perspective.

Since 2023 I have embarked on a journey of understanding what neurodivergent actually means by approaching it from the perspective of lived experience, my own and that of those around me. I have not been interested in turning to the vast amount of professional and clinical literature, because I see it as deeply limited. And the starting place of is the notion of disorder. I do not challenge for a minute that the child who is severely autistic is deeply impacted in their developmental journey. There is a severe end of the spectrum of being neurodivergent. But I question the central idea of disorder and of deficit.

I equally disagree with grouping neurodivergence under the banner of disability. As much as the disability movement has done, it has also perpetuated the idea of deficit and limitation, no matter how often the language is changed and whatever the current politically correct terms are. It is not a solution, but more about the advocacy of rights and support. But it remains based on the notion of disability, and more importantly, creating an us/them split, fighting discrimination, and so forth.

I believe the path needs to move beyond ideas of disorder and disability, without dismissing that these were perhaps necessary milestones along the journey. I do not have a disorder and I am not disabled. I am different. And being different is not a club or position from which I want to judge and find fault with the "others" who are neurotypical. I am not interested in perpetuating another us/them distinction of neurodivergents vs neurotypicals.

I am unique. And every position on the neurodivergent spectrum, from the extreme neurotypical to the extremely neurodivergent, brings a unique set of challenges for living. Our difference brings us both pain and beauty, belonging and isolation. I believe this is true for everyone. For me the goal is beyond labels and towards a place of tolerating and celebrating difference and complexity.


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