Neurodiversity and social norms

The wonderful Audrey Yap said recently, in her interview with Dialogues on Disability, that  she hopes we can work toward the ‘normalization’ of things we typically classify as mental illnesses – including, in her specific case, depression. She explains:

For me, normalization would mean getting to a place where depression wouldn’t be something that one would have to admit, “disclose,” or “come out” about. Instead, it would be treated as a relatively common phenomenon that many people experience and certainly not something about which one should be ashamed. . . .What I would like, I suppose, is a culture in which we did not disproportionately reward those who are neuro-typical. I just don’t know exactly how we would get there.

I’m very sympathetic to Audrey’s point here. But it’s made me wonder how this idea of normalization fits in with another thing that I’m also sympathetic to – efforts to make professional interaction in philosophy more civil, kind, and respectful. Just so I’m 100% clear: I’m not for one second saying that people who deal with psychological or cognitive disability are somehow less civil, kind, or respectful. Rather, what I’m saying is this: how we go about trying to make a professional environmental more civil, kind, and respectful involves the cultivation of social norms, and this might have a disproportionate impact on people with certain types of disabilities. Some types of neuro-atypicality can affect how people interact socially. They can make it harder to perceive what the social norms are, or they can make it harder to behave according to those norms.

So here’s what often seems to happen. You’re at a conference where everyone is trying to be generally nice and supportive. Then Prof. X asks a question in a way that seems rude or aggressive. After the talk, people of genuine goodwill – wanting to explain why they think X wasn’t really being a jerk or didn’t do something blameworthy – start to whisper ‘Oh, I’m pretty sure X is [insert psychological diagnosis]’. What people are trying to do is explain why Prof. X didn’t intend to be rude, or why – even if maybe she did intend to be rude in that particular instance – she shouldn’t be blamed. But in doing this, they’re of course doing exactly what Audrey hopes we can avoid. They’re disclosing a diagnosis, often without X’s permission and maybe even without any confirmation from X that this diagnosis is accurate.

I think social norms that encourage respectful, collegial professional interaction are important for making our profession more welcoming. But I think they might also, in some cases, be the kind of things that either force the disclosing of a disability or, as Audrey put it, ‘disproportionality reward those who are neurotypical’. And the reason I’m writing this post is that I genuinely don’t know what to think about this.

Maybe this is one of those cases where there’s just a deep-set tension – like when some people have service dogs and other people have severe allergies – and the only thing we can do is muddle through the best we can, with sensitivity and goodwill. Or maybe I’m wrong that there’s a genuine tension here. Or maybe in some circumstances one of these values ought to be sacrificed for the sake of the other. Like I said, I really don’t know. I’m hoping you lovely readers will have smart ideas in the comments.

5 thoughts on “Neurodiversity and social norms

  1. I have some questions about this post. I would not have used the term “neuroatypical” to describe someone with depression, or with mental illness more generally. This is because I don’t believe that mental illnesses in general involve sensory functioning differences, and because I think that there is (in most cases) a separation between social behaviour and the disorder: i.e. one can have a (generic) mental illness, and it be defined in terms of that person’s feelings and thought processes, but one can choose to behave in ways that observe social expectations. I’m a little unclear which point your example is given to evidence. From my previous assertion, one can say that your example appears to me to be an example of the pervasiveness of stigma in society, in that, the people in it respond to behaviour that is perceived to be socially rude by assuming the person has a mental illness. As well as perpetuating stigma about mental illness (attributing negatively perceived behaviour automatically to mental illness), I don’t see how such reactions ever help the situation. I’m an advocate of the idea that one never has to tolerate true rudeness from another person, and that calling people out on harmful behaviour in relation to mental illness can be helpful. However, I can see that the lines could be blurred if one does not consider a person separable from their behaviour, and I do not know how much this is the case for a given individual.

    Perhaps you could say that one can separate the idea of having an ASD from a person’s social behaviours too (I do not know)—as well as argue that it is not possible for some forms of mental illness—and that this is the subtle point here in accepting “neurodiversity”: That we need to make it acceptable the behaviours of someone for whom such behaviours are the natural state, rather than try to condition them to behave in ways that are more acceptable to the majority of society. Friends of mine with ASD have raised the point that, particularly in children, it is unreasonably considered right, and praised, to condition people with ASD to behave in ways that are not natural to them to be better accepted by society’s expectation, which is where seeking to be more inclusive could be helpful. As someone with a personality disorder, I would not like to behave rudely, or harmfully, towards others, and I feel that I can both change my behaviour long-term to better fit society, and that this would be better (Thus, I would like people to call me out on harmful/unpleasant behaviours.); and that I can, at least now (although I am not sure how true this was before therapy) separate my thoughts from behaviours—thus, my illness is defined by my thought processes, and I ought to be choosing to act in ways that are not harmful to others, and are beneficial to myself and others in the sense of meeting politeness expectations etc.

    So, I guess my questions would be: How separate is a person with a (specified) mental illness from their behaviour? Do you define the illness by the behaviour or the thought processes? If a person finds it harder to adapt their behaviours to be more pleasant/not-harmful, should they? It shouldn’t be the case that any person has to tolerate rude or harmful behaviour from another, so responding negatively to such behaviour could lead the first person to adapt to develop behaviours that are “better” for their own social interaction, and for others’ wellbeing. However, I thought I heard that the difference between some mental illnesses and ASD is how flexible the brain is to adapting (which relates to my point about what is defined as neurodiversity): So, a person with a mental illness such as mine can change the structure of their brain over time such that the new behaviours are learned, and become more natural; I was told by friends with ASD that this is not the case for ASD, but I am happy to be corrected on this. Thus, is it unfair to ask someone with ASD to constantly adapt to unnatural behaviours that will always be unnatural, which may both be difficult, and act to reinforce the idea that the person is somehow inferior to neurotypical people. Should we be more accepting of people with their current natural states with mental illnesses where long-term change is possible, in that conditioning change raises to mind the idea that these people are somehow “flawed” as they are, or, at least, would be “improved” by such conditioning? Is that fair?

  2. I really appreciate your doing this post, Magical. There’s lots to think about and I do hope others join in. That said, I’m not sure I can remark on the first comment very well, and so I’m just going to add in some observations. One is that human are notoriously bad at explaining one another. Our explanations tend to employ fallacies. And even when we believe for very good reason that we know someone has a problem or ‘disorder’, we may be wrong in thinking that it is a factor in a particular case.

    If someone is said to have done something fairly bad and we can offer a better explanation, we could also just say that it is always hard to be sure what is going on with others. In effect, we put in question the criticism and attempts to explain it.

    Philosophers are. People from other disciplines tell me, remarkably negative and critical people. ARGUABLY THIS NEEDS TO BE ADDRESSED. [Caps not intended.]

  3. “This is because I don’t believe that mental illnesses in general involve sensory functioning differences”

    There is a good deal of evidence to support diminished cognition, sensory impairment, and so forth in depression patients and other people with mental illness. (For example:

    Although research on these subjects is important, I also believe the lived experience of Mad people is important. As for my own experience, it is absolutely true for me that my sensory functioning is affected by being manic depressive. In fact, my sensory functioning changes between swings of hypomania, mild depression, severe depression, etc. For example, an inability to process information, especially auditory information, is a symptom I experience during periods of extreme depression.

    As to the question of what ‘counts’ as “neuroatypical,” non-neurotypical, neurodiverse, or neurodivergent, I am of the opinion that such identifications must be left to individuals. I am manic depressive and I identify as Mad, but I do not identify as neuroatypical. I have autistic friends who identify as both neuroatypical and neurodivergent, but read autistic bloggers who identify as one or the other, perhaps not both. I know long-time sufferers of depression who do not identify as any of these things. It’s not for me or anyone but them to say how they should identify. It’s a very complex and deeply personal matter, the issue of ‘identification.’

    “Should we be more accepting of people with their current natural states with mental illnesses where long-term change is possible”– I hope so… ‘long-term’ is a subjective notion, for one thing. In periods of my life where I have been severely depressed, I thought I would die (kill myself) soon. I couldn’t fathom a ‘long-term.’ I’ll always be grateful to the friends and family that stuck with me (at the time what I saw as ‘putting up with’ me), so that a ‘long-term’ could be possible for me. In these periods, I have always found myself drawn to people who were accepting of my suicidal ideation; their empathy and support made me feel better. So I’d have to say, yes, I feel like we should be more accepting, particularly because we have a long way to go in understanding the human bodymind and the diversity of spiritual-psycho-social-emotional complications that go along with it.

    I’ll be thinking about the questions you posed about personal behavior, especially making a distinction between a person and their actions/behavior. Complicated questions, for sure, thanks for posing them.

  4. Skyride: Thank you very much for your reply. (Also, I have realised that I meant to say “Perhaps you could say that one cannot separate the idea of having an ASD from a person’s social behaviours”, and I apologise for the errors in my last comment!) Thank you for sharing the article on depression: It is interesting, and I will look more carefully at it when I find some time. I am inclined to agree with you on allowing individuals to self-identify (and this is the attitude taken by the university disability community in relation to disabilities more generally). I don’t know a huge amount about bipolar disorder (although an ex of mine has since been diagnosed with it), but I think it may be (?) quite different to a (generic) personality disorder, which I tend to view as, in many cases, a complex-PTSD diagnosis (although I accept there may be exceptions to this). I think when I asked about being more accepting of people with mental illnesses, perhaps I was allowing the question to be more general than I anticipated. I was thinking specifically (too much!) about my own situation in which I think others’ refusal to accept what I consider to be maladapted behaviours on my part forced me to assess them and work to change, for which I am very grateful. However, I find it very interesting to consider it more generally, and in the context of supporting people through difficulties, which you mentioned. I will think more about all of this. Thank you again for your considered reply!

  5. I think there is a genuine tension here. And I think muddling through with sensitivity and goodwill are the best bets. I think one place to start is for people to try and work things out with each other. For example, if someone says something that sounds offensive, or otherwise off-putting, the person who was offended or put off might want to let them know. I realize that this might be putting the onus on a victim, and I realize that’s bad. So again, back to muddling. Maybe people can just refuse to play the whole ostracism game. Like, if someone is behaving in an unhelpful way, refuse to treat them like a pariah, and find some other, more productive way to deal with the problem.

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