Toward a Neurocosmopolitan Society

October 1, 2014

In my previous post, Autism, Aikido, and Systems-Oriented Cognition, I published my answer to a question that the fabulous Steve Silberman asked me as part of the research for his book, Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity

Below is another excerpt from that same conversation with Steve – my answers to two more of his thought-provoking questions. 

My aikido dojo, which Steve visited prior to this conversation, is called Aikido Shusekai. Shu means, essentially, commitment to excellence (a more in-depth explanation of shu can be found here, for those who are curious). Sekai means world or society. So Aikido Shusekai roughly (very roughly) translates as Aikido for an Excellent World. This is what Steve is referencing in his first question, when he puts the word “excellent” in quotation marks – he’s citing my own use of the word, in the name of my dojo and in my explanations of the vision that guides my work

A Portuguese translation of this piece is available at

Q: Why would a society that honors and celebrates neurodiversity be more “excellent”?

Well, I guess in order to answer that question, we first have to ask another question: by what standards should we measure a society’s excellence?

First, I’d say, by the degree to which the society succeeds in meeting the fundamental needs of all of its members, while simultaneously safeguarding their fundamental rights (including but not limited to cognitive liberty, bodily sovereignty, pursuit of happiness, freedom from coercion, and freedoms of expression and association).

Second, by the degree to which the society is committed to (and successful at) developing the systemic flexibility and complexity necessary to accommodate and integrate the fullest possible range of available diversity into a harmoniously functioning overall unity – a unity that’s based not on conformity, but on heterogenous elements functioning together while retaining differences (the Baha’i – and also the philosopher Edgar Morin, of whom I’m a great fan – refer to this as “unity in diversity”).

Third, by the degree to which members of the society treat others – particularly those who are significantly different from themselves, and those who are in a position of need, difficulty, or distress – with acceptance, compassion, civility, generosity, regard, and respect.

And fourth, by how well the society recognizes, protects, and cultivates its natural resources for the benefit of both present and future generations – and neurodiversity, like most forms of biodiversity, is an essential natural resource – as is the unique creativity of each individual.

Honoring and celebrating neurodiversity (along with the many other forms of human diversity) is obviously essential to meeting any of these standards.

Here’s a bit from another recent interview with me, that’s also relevant to this question:

I’d like to see the eradication of the use of functioning labels — “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” — to describe Autistics or any other human beings. What exactly to we mean by “functioning”? In practice, when people say “high-functioning” and “low-functioning,” they generally seem to be using the term “functioning” to mean “conforming to dominant neurotypical social and cultural norms, standards, and demands.” But do we really want to buy into the assumption that such conformity is the proper “function” of a human being?

I propose that instead of rating human beings as “high-functioning” or “low-functioning,” we apply the terms “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” to societies, rating the functioning of a society according to the degree to which it succeeds in supporting and furthering the well-being of all of its members; and the degree to which it can accommodate and integrate diversity, and employ diversity as a creative resource, without attempting to reduce or eliminate it, and without establishing hierarchies of privilege.

My preferred term for this approach to neurodiversity is neurocosmopolitanism.

Q: What would be the benefits for all of building a neurodiversity-positive society?

This question troubles me, because in some sense, it’s a question that should never even be asked – a question that is rooted in the attitudes responsible for some of the worst atrocities in human history, including some that are still happening. Because the inevitable shadow side of “benefit” is “cost” – so as soon as you start framing the acceptance of human diversity in terms of benefits, you’ve stepped into in the dangerous realm of thinking about human lives in terms of cost/benefit analysis.

And human lives, and human equality and dignity, should never be considered in terms of cost/benefit analysis. It’s far too slippery a slope, because sooner or later, inevitably, one runs into a situation in which the benefits, by the standards and values of the dominant culture, don’t appear to outweigh the costs. And then suddenly we’re in Nazi territory, eugenics territory, Autism Speaks territory, with certain human beings being talked about being talked about in terms of their “cost” – being talked about as “burdens.”

That’s where the dominant culture is right now, in fact, in regard to Autistics and various other neurominorities. That’s a big part of what the Neurodiversity Movement is trying to change.

Of course, there would be many benefits to building a neurodiversity-positive society – or a neurocosmopolitan society, as I’d call it. Neurodiversity is an invaluable creative resource, a problem-solving resource. The greater the diversity of the pool of available minds, the greater the diversity of perspectives, talents, and ways of thinking – and thus, the greater the probability of generating an original insight, solution, or creative contribution.

And in any given sphere of society, we only get the benefit of the contributions of those individuals who are empowered to participate. And we only get the full benefit of a given individual’s unique potential if that individual is empowered to participate without being forced to suppress their differences.

How many potential Einsteins have lived and died without giving society the benefit of their genius, because they were murdered or driven to suicide, or because they were denied the accommodations that would allow them to bring their genius to fruition?

Or because their particular forms of genius, their uniquely brilliant and beautiful ways of knowing the world, their most potentially valuable cognitive capacities, were inextricably connected to their natural Autistic styles of movement, embodiement, and play, and could no longer blossom once those styles of movement, embodiment, and play were squelched with ABA?

So, yes, there would be enormous benefits to society as a whole. A truly neurocosmopolitan society would actively explore, cultivate, and reap those benefits.

But again, if we make those potential “benefits for all” our primary argument in favor of a “neurodiversity-positive” society, we’re still operating in the territory of cost/benefit analysis. And a truly just, moral, and humane society simply can’t be founded on that sort of thinking, because that sort of thinking always leaves the door open to the possibility of someone deciding that the “benefits” of certain lives aren’t worth the “cost.”

One crucial factor that is outside most people’s awareness, when they speak of societal “costs” and “benefits” of neurodiversity, is that these cost/benefit analyses take place in the context of the currently dominant capitalist social paradigm, which tends to define “costs” and “benefits” in terms of financial profit and material productivity. Again, this is not a good way to evaluate human lives.

One of the greatest benefits of building a truly neurocosmopolitan society is that it would call for us to reassess the current capitalist, profit-and-control-oriented paradigm and its values, because that paradigm and those values make ableism inevitable. A society that regarded love, novelty, beauty, laughter, knowledge, and wonder as the most valuable contributions a person could make would not only have a far more positive attitude toward neurodiversity, it would be a better society for everyone.




Previous post:

Next post: