This piece is a revised version of an essay that I contributed to the groundbreaking anthology Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking, published in 2012.
While the term neurodiversity originally developed within the Autistic community, the neurodiversity paradigm is not about autism exclusively, but about the full spectrum of human neurocognitive variation. This particular essay, however, was addressed primarily to Autistic readers, and, in its discussion of the implications of shifting paradigms around neurodiversity, it is very much focused on autism, because that was the focus of the anthology for which it was originally written.
A Russian translation of this piece is available at
THROW AWAY THE MASTER’S TOOLS: LIBERATING
OURSELVES FROM THE PATHOLOGY PARADIGM
When it comes to human neurodiversity, the dominant paradigm in the world today is what I refer to as the pathology paradigm. The long-term well-being and empowerment of Autistics and members of other neurological minority groups hinges upon our ability to create a paradigm shift – a shift from the pathology paradigm to the neurodiversity paradigm. Such a shift must happen internally, within the consciousness of individuals, and must also be propagated in the cultures in which we live.
So what does all that fancy talk mean? What are these paradigms of which I speak, and what does it mean to make a “shift” from one paradigm to another? This piece is an attempt to explain that, in plain language that I hope will make these concepts easily accessible.
What’s a Paradigm, and What’s a Paradigm Shift?
Even if you haven’t encountered it in an academic context, you’ve probably heard the term paradigm before, because it’s annoyingly overused by corporate marketers to describe any new development they’re trying to get people excited about: A new paradigm in wireless technology! A new paradigm in sales hyperbole!
As a great Spanish diplomat once put it, I do not think it means what they think it means.
A paradigm is not just an idea or a method. A paradigm is a set of fundamental assumptions or principles, a mindset or frame of reference that shapes how one thinks about and talks about a given subject. A paradigm shapes the ways in which one interprets information, and determines what sort of questions one asks and how one asks them. A paradigm is a lens through which one views reality.
Perhaps the most simple and well-known example of a paradigm shift comes from the history of astronomy: the shift from the geocentric paradigm (which assumes that the Sun and planets revolve around Earth) to the heliocentric paradigm (Earth and several other planets revolve around the Sun). At the time this shift began, many generations of astronomers had already recorded extensive observations of the movements of planets. But now all their measurements meant something different. All the information had to be reinterpreted from an entirely new perspective. It wasn’t just that questions had new answers – the questions themselves were different. Questions like “What is the path of Mercury’s orbit around Earth?” went from seeming important to being outright nonsense, while other questions, that had never been asked because they would have seemed like nonsense under the old paradigm, suddenly became meaningful.
That’s a true paradigm shift: a shift in our fundamental assumptions; a radical shift in perspective that requires us to redefine our terms, recalibrate our language, rephrase our questions, reinterpret our data, and completely rethink our basic concepts and approaches.
The Pathology Paradigm
A paradigm can often be boiled down to a few basic, general principles, although those principles tend to be far-reaching in their implications and consequences. The principles of a widely dominant sociocultural paradigm like the pathology paradigm usually take the form of assumptions – that is, they’re so widely taken-for-granted that most people never consciously reflect upon them or articulate them (and sometimes it can be a disturbing revelation to hear them plainly articulated).
The pathology paradigm ultimately boils down to just two fundamental assumptions:
- There is one “right,” “normal,” or “healthy” way for human brains and human minds to be configured and to function (or one relatively narrow “normal” range into which the configuration and functioning of human brains and minds ought to fall).
- If your neurological configuration and functioning (and, as a result, your ways of thinking and behaving) diverge substantially from the dominant standard of “normal,” then there is Something Wrong With You.
It is these two assumptions that define the pathology paradigm. Different groups and individuals build upon these assumptions in very different ways, with varying degrees of rationality, absurdity, fearfulness, or compassion – but as long as they share those two basic assumptions, they’re still operating within the pathology paradigm (just as ancient Mayan astronomers and 13th Century Islamic astronomers had vastly different conceptions of the cosmos, yet both operated within the geocentric paradigm).
The psychiatric establishment that classifies Autism as a “disorder”; the “Autism charity” that calls Autism a “global health crisis”; Autism researchers who keep coming up with new theories of “causation”; scientifically illiterate wing nuts who believe that Autism is some form of “poisoning”; anyone who speaks of Autism using medicalized language like “symptom,” “treatment,” or “epidemic”; the mother who thinks that the best way to help her Autistic child is to subject him to Behaviorist “interventions” intended to train him to act like a “normal” child; the “inspiring” Autistic celebrity who advises other Autistics that the secret to success is to try harder to conform to the social demands of non-Autistics… all of these groups and individuals are operating within the pathology paradigm, regardless of their intentions or how much they might disagree with one another on various points.
The Neurodiversity Paradigm
Here’s how I’d articulate the fundamental principles of the neurodiversity paradigm:
- Neurodiversity – the diversity of brains and minds – is a natural, healthy, and valuable form of human diversity.
- There is no “normal” or “right” style of human brain or human mind, any more than there is one “normal” or “right” ethnicity, gender, or culture.
- The social dynamics that manifest in regard to neurodiversity are similar to the social dynamics that manifest in regard to other forms of human diversity (e.g., diversity of race, culture, gender, or sexual orientation). These dynamics include the dynamics of social power relations – the dynamics of social inequality, privilege, and oppression – as well as the dynamics by which diversity, when embraced, acts as a source of creative potential within a group or society.
The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House
At an international feminist conference in 1979, the poet Audre Lorde delivered a speech entitled “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” In that speech, Lorde, a Black lesbian from a working-class immigrant family, castigated her almost entirely white and affluent audience for remaining rooted in, and continuing to propagate, the fundamental dynamics of the patriarchy: hierarchy, exclusion, racism, classism, homophobia, obliviousness to privilege, failure to embrace diversity. Lorde recognized sexism as being part of a broader, deeply-rooted paradigm that dealt with all forms of difference by establishing hierarchies of dominance, and she saw that genuine, widespread liberation was impossible as long as feminists continued to operate within this paradigm.
“What does it mean,” Lorde said, “when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable. […] For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. To work within a system, to play by its rules, inevitably reinforces that system, whether or not that’s what you intend. Not only do the master’s tools never serve to dismantle the master’s house, but any time you try to use the master’s tools for anything, you somehow end up building another extension of that darned house.
Lorde’s warning applies equally well, today, to the Autistic community and our fight for empowerment. The assumption that there is Something Wrong With Us is inherently disempowering, and that assumption is absolutely intrinsic to the pathology paradigm. So the “tools” of the pathology paradigm (by which I mean all strategies, goals, or ways of speaking or thinking that explicitly or implicitly buy into the pathology paradigm’s assumptions) will never empower us in the long run. Genuine, lasting, widespread empowerment for Autistics can only be attained through making and propagating the shift from the pathology paradigm to the neurodiversity paradigm. We must throw away the master’s tools.
The Language of Pathology vs. the Language of Diversity
Because the pathology paradigm has been dominant for some time, many people, even many who claim to advocate for the empowerment of Autistic people, still habitually use language that’s based in the assumptions of that paradigm. The shift from the pathology paradigm to the neurodiversity paradigm calls for a radical shift in language, because the appropriate language for discussing medical problems is quite different from the appropriate language for discussing diversity. The issue of “person-first language” is a good basic example to start with.
If a person has a medical condition, we might say that “she has cancer,” or she’s “a person with allergies,” or “she suffers from ulcers.” But when a person is a member of a minority group, we don’t talk about their minority status as though it were a disease. We say “she’s Black,” or “she’s a lesbian.” We recognize that it would be outrageously inappropriate – and likely to mark us as ignorant or bigoted – if we were to refer to a Black person as “having negroism” or being a “person with negroism,” or if we were to say that someone “suffers from homosexuality.”
So if we use phrases like “person with Autism,” or “she has Autism,” or “families affected by Autism,” we’re using the language of the pathology paradigm – language that implicitly accepts and reinforces the assumption that Autism is intrinsically a problem, a Something-Wrong-With-You. In the language of the neurodiversity paradigm, on the other hand, we speak of neurodiversity in the same way we would speak of ethnic or sexual diversity, and we speak of Autistics in the same way we would speak of any social minority group: I am Autistic. I am an Autistic. I am an Autistic person. There are Autistic people in my family.
These linguistic distinctions might seem trivial, but our language plays a key role in shaping our thoughts, our perceptions, our cultures, and our realities. In the long run, the sort of language that’s used to talk about Autistics has enormous influence on how society treats us, and on the messages we internalize about ourselves. To describe ourselves in language that reinforces the pathology paradigm is to use the master’s tools, in Audre Lorde’s metaphor, and thus to imprison ourselves more deeply in the master’s house.
I Don’t Believe in Normal People
The concept of a “normal brain” or a “normal person” has no more objective scientific validity – and serves no better purpose – than the concept of a “master race.” Of all the master’s tools (i.e., the dynamics, language, and conceptual frameworks that create and maintain social inequities), the most powerful and insidious is the concept of “normal people.” In the context of human diversity (ethnic, cultural, sexual, neurological, or any other sort), to treat one particular group as the “normal” or default group inevitably serves to privilege that group and to marginalize those who don’t belong to that group.
The dubious assumption that there’s such a thing as a “normal person” lies at the core of the pathology paradigm. The neurodiversity paradigm, on the other hand, does not recognize “normal” as a valid concept when it comes to human diversity.
Most reasonably well-educated people these days already recognize that the concept of “normal” is absurd and meaningless in the context of racial, ethnic, or cultural diversity. The Han Chinese constitute the single largest ethnic group in the world, but it would be ridiculous to claim that this makes Han Chinese the “natural” or “default” human ethnicity. The fact that a randomly-selected human is statistically far more likely to be Han Chinese than Irish does not make a Han Chinese more “normal” than an Irishman (whatever that would even mean).
The most insidious sort of social inequality, the most difficult sort of privilege to challenge, occurs when a dominant group is so deeply established as the “normal” or “default” group that it has no specific name, no label. The members of such a group are simply thought of as “normal people,” “healthy people,” or just “people” – with the implication that those who aren’t members of that group represent deviations from that which is normal and natural, rather than equally natural and legitimate manifestations of human diversity.
For instance, consider the connotations of the statement “Gay people want the same rights as heterosexuals,” versus the connotations of the statement “Gay people want the same rights as normal people.” Simply by substituting the word normal for heterosexual, the second statement implicitly accepts and reinforces heterosexual privilege, and relegates gays to an inferior, “abnormal” status.
Now imagine if terms like heterosexual and straight didn’t exist at all. That would put gay rights activists in the position of having to say things like “We want the same rights as normal people” – language that would reinforce their marginal, “abnormal” status and thus undermine their struggle. They’d be stuck using the master’s tools. If terms like heterosexual and straight didn’t exist, it would be necessary for gay rights activists to invent them.
This is why an essential early step in the neurodiversity movement was the coining of the term neurotypical. Neurotypical is to Autistic as straight is to gay. The existence of the word neurotypical makes it possible to have conversations about topics like neurotypical privilege. Neurotypical is a word that allows us to talk about members of the dominant neurological group without implicitly reinforcing that group’s privileged position (and our own marginalization) by referring to them as “normal.” The word normal, used to privilege one sort of human over others, is one of the master’s tools, but the word neurotypical is one of our tools – a tool that we can use instead of the master’s tool; a tool that can help us to dismantle the master’s house.
The Vocabulary of Neurodiversity
The word neurotypical is an essential piece of the new vocabulary of neurodiversity that’s beginning to emerge – that needs to emerge, if we are to free ourselves of the disempowering language of the pathology paradigm, and if we are to successfully propagate the neurodiversity paradigm in our own thinking and in the sphere of public discourse.
The word neurodiversity itself is of course the most essential piece of this new vocabulary. The essence of the entire paradigm – the understanding of neurological variation as a natural form of human diversity, subject to the same societal dynamics as other forms of diversity – is packed into that one word.
Another useful word is neurominority. Neurotypicals are the majority; Autistic, dyslexic, and bipolar people are all examples of neurominorities. I’d like to see it come into more widespread usage, because there’s a need for it; there are a lot of topics in the discourse on neurodiversity that are much easier to talk about when one has a good, non-pathologizing word for referring to the various groups of people who aren’t neurotypical.
Terms like neurodiversity, neurotypical, and neurominority allow us to talk and think about neurodiversity in ways that don’t implicitly pathologize neurominority individuals. As we cultivate Autistic community and interact with other neurominority communities, and as we continue to generate writing and discussion on issues of relevance to us, more new language will emerge. Already, we’ve generated terms like stim and loud hands to describe important aspects of the Autistic experience. And in my own academic work, my studies of cross-cultural competence (the ability to interact and communicate skillfully with people from multiple cultures) have led me to begin using the terms cross-neurotype competence and neurocosmopolitanism, terms and concepts which I hope will catch on widely.
It’s also my hope that the terms neurodiversity paradigm and pathology paradigm will catch on and come into widespread usage. In the interest of clarity, it’s useful to make the distinction between neurodiversity (the phenomenon of human neurological diversity) and the neurodiversity paradigm (the understanding of neurodiversity as a natural form of human diversity, subject to the same societal dynamics as other forms of diversity). And having a name for the pathology paradigm makes that paradigm much easier to discuss, recognize, challenge, and deconstruct – and eventually dismantle.
Words are tools. And as we recognize that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, we are creating our own tools, which can help us not only to dismantle the master’s house, but to build a new house in which we can live better, more empowered lives.
Outposts in Your Head
It breaks my heart when so many of the Autistic people I meet speak of themselves and think of themselves in the language of the pathology paradigm, and when I see how this disempowers them and keeps them feeling bad about themselves. They’ve spent their lives listening to the toxic messages spread by proponents of the pathology paradigm, and they’ve accepted and internalized those messages and now endlessly repeat them in their own heads.
When we recognize that the struggles of neurominorities largely follow the same dynamics as the struggles of other sorts of minority groups, we recognize this self-pathologizing talk as a manifestation of a problem that has plagued members of many minority groups – a phenomenon called internalized oppression.
A contemporary of Audre Lorde’s, the feminist journalist Sally Kempton, had this to say about internalized oppression: “It’s hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head.”
The task of liberating ourselves from the master’s house begins with dismantling the parts of that house that have been built within our own heads. And that process begins with throwing away the master’s tools so that we stop inadvertently building up the very thing we’re trying to dismantle.
Throwing Away the Master’s Tools
Once we recognize that the foundation of the pathology paradigm – the fictive concept of “normal people” – is a fundamental element of the master’s toolkit, it becomes a lot easier to identify and rid ourselves of the master’s tools. All we need to do is take careful stock of our words, concepts, thoughts, beliefs, and worries, and see whether they still make sense if we throw out the concept of “normal,” the concept that there’s one “right” way for people’s brains and minds to function.
Once we’ve thrown away the concept of “normal,” neurotypicals are just members of a majority – not healthier or more “right” than the rest of us, just more common. And Autistics are a minority group, no more intrinsically “disordered” than any ethnic minority. When we realize that “normal” is just something a bunch of people made up, when we recognize it as one of the master’s tools and toss it out the window, the idea of Autism as a “disorder” goes out the window right along with it. Disordered compared to what state of order, exactly, if we refuse to buy into the idea that there’s one particular “normal” order to which all minds should conform?
Without the fictive reference point of “normal,” functioning labels – “high-functioning Autism” and “low-functioning Autism” – are also revealed to be absurd fictions. “High-functioning” or “low-functioning” compared to what? Who gets to decide what the proper “function” of any individual human should be?
In the pathology paradigm, the neurotypical mind is enthroned as the “normal” ideal against which all other types of minds are measured. “Low-functioning” really means “far from passing for neurotypical, far from being able to do the things that neurotypicals think people should do, and far from being able to thrive in a society created by and for neurotypicals.” “High-functioning” means “closer to passing for neurotypical.” To describe yourself as “high-functioning” is to use the master’s tools, to wall yourself up in the master’s house – a house in which neurotypicals are the ideal standard against which you should be measured, a house in which neurotypicals are always at the top, and in which “higher” means “more like them.”
If we start from the assumption that neurotypicals are “normal,” and Autistics are “disordered,” then poor connections between neurotypicals and Autistics inevitably get blamed on some “defect” or “deficit” in Autistics. If an Autistic can’t understand a neurotypical, it’s because Autistics have empathy deficits and impaired communication skills; if a neurotypical can’t understand an Autistic, it’s because Autistics have empathy deficits and poor communication skills. All the frictions and failures of connection between the two groups, and all the difficulties Autistics run into in neurotypical society, all get blamed on Autism. But when our vision is no longer clouded by the illusion of “normal,” we can recognize this double standard for what it is, recognize it as just another manifestation of the sort of privilege and power that dominant majorities so often wield over minorities of any sort.
Life Beyond the Pathology Paradigm
A paradigm shift, as you may recall, requires that all data be reinterpreted through the lens of the new paradigm. If you reject the fundamental premises of the pathology paradigm, and accept the premises of the neurodiversity paradigm, then it turns out that you don’t have a disorder after all. And it turns out that maybe you function exactly as you ought to function, and that you just live in a society that isn’t yet sufficiently enlightened to effectively accommodate and integrate people who function like you. And that maybe the troubles in your life have not been the result of any inherent wrongness in you. And that your true potential is unknown and is yours to explore. And that maybe you are, in fact, a thing of beauty.