Lydia X.Z. Brown, a policy counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology known as Autistic Hoya online. Photos: Gabriella Demczuk

Autism Is an Identity, Not a Disease: Inside the Neurodiversity Movement

Activists argue that rather than trying to ‘cure’ or treat the neurodivergent, society should learn to accept, appreciate, and accommodate their needs

Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Published in
20 min readJul 1, 2020

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At first glance, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) annual gala in November looked like many a Washington, D.C., nonprofit fundraiser. Approaching the swank ballroom of a downtown hotel, I saw the standard check-in table by the door, and coat check nearby.

But with my drink ticket, I received an unusual packet: a set of color-coded communication badges to display like a name tag. Green signifies “actively seeking communication and happy to be approached for a conversation.” Yellow means “I only want to talk to people I know.” Red indicates “I don’t want to talk to anyone.”

I clipped a green badge on my jacket, and proceeded into the event. At the tables, each place setting sported a colorful stim toy — a small object to fidget with in order to self-soothe — and a list of potential table conversation topics, including “If you could eliminate any societal unwritten rule, what would it be?” and “Should small talk be illegal or just discouraged?” a nod to the discomfort many autistic people* feel when making conversation with strangers. Since clapping can cause a sensory overload for some people, the audience used flapplause — flapping hands in the air above our heads — to signal enthusiasm as speakers took the stage. Some attendees rocked in their seats, or played with their phones or stim toys, or took breaks in the nearby quiet room.

Moderator John Marble apologized for forgetting his glasses, with a little joke. “Please bear with me if I look sometimes at these notes, but if you can’t be awkward at an autistic event, where can you be awkward?”

This is autistic culture. And this event was a living example of neurodiversity, a concept that emerged in the late 1990s to describe variation in brain wiring, which can include autism, depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, intellectual and developmental disabilities, dyslexia, epilepsy, and more.

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Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Elemental

Journalist writing about science, children, mental health, race, gender, disability, education and related topics. Author of The Good News About Bad Behavior.