Neoliberal, Marxist, and Intersectional Justice approaches to Neurodiversity

A black and white photo of the head and shoulders of a statue of Karl Marx staring into the distance. Copyright: wal_172619/Pixabay

Three Approaches

I’ve written before about how the concept of neurodiversity means different things to different people (see here and here). I want to build on this by thinking through some different approaches to neurodiversity advocacy. This should be seen as a first attempt to clarify these different approaches rather than the final word.

The three quasi-sociological categories I propose are Neoliberal Neurodiversity, Marxist Neurodiversity, and Intersectional Justice Neurodiversity. Each is defined more by emphasis rather than core traits. In practice, most of us sit somewhere between two or more of these, but each of us will likely veer more towards one or another nonetheless.

I am suggesting these distinctions since getting clearer about such differences will be helpful for understanding how best to cultivate real world change. Here I will briefly outline each approach and note some (potential) exemplars before positing some initial reflections on why I prefer two over the other.

Neoliberal Neurodiversity

By Neoliberal Neurodiversity I mean cases where the concept or framework is used to try to advance the outcomes of neurodivergent (usually autistic) people without fundamentally challenging neoliberalism or capitalism more broadly.

One of the core ways to spot this approach is that it often focuses on individual strengths or talents. (What is meant by ‘strength’ is never clarified, but what it usually means is: trait that can be considered economically useful under neoliberalism.) This approach does utilise the the social model of disability, but more to empower individuals in specific contexts rather than to force broader systemic change.

I most often associate this approach with professionals and business leaders who appropriate neurodiversity terminology to advocate for pre-existing medicalised practices that didn’t emerge from grassroots neurodiversity advocacy. Interestingly, this approach also tends to rely more on things already considered prestigious in neo-liberal circles, for instance, elite universities, business magazines, and so forth.

 A good example might be Lawrence K. Fung. Fung is a psychiatrist who rebranded himself as a world leading neurodiversity expert and is now director of the Stanford University Project. Consider how the recent book he edited is marketed as focusing on: “the strengths-based model of neurodiversity (SBMN), designed to integrate and build on existing theories of positive psychology, positive psychiatry, multiple intelligences, and developmental psychology and to apply them to devise strengths-based assessments and interventions for neurodiverse individuals.” Notably, this description says nothing about changing society in any fundamental way; it is more about reframing relatively standard medicalised practices as neurodiversity advocacy.

Another good example is Neurodiversity in Business, which frames certain forms of neurodivergence as a ‘competitive advantage’. Its vision is to “foster a corporate environment where neurodivergent people are understood and form an invaluable part of the work culture.” By framing neurodivergent people as instrumentally valuable to employers it seeks to help neurodivergent people into jobs but does not aim to change society as a whole.

Marxist Neurodiversity

Marxist Neurodiversity tends to locate neurodivergent disablement and dehumanisation in a broader analysis and critique of capitalism. This follows in the tradition of UK Marxist disability studies scholars such as Mike Oliver, and is more about using the social model to generate class solidarity and to challenge underlying social systems and structures more centrally than focusing on individual empowerment.

For whatever reason, this approach seems to be most popular in the UK. This is probably because there is a strong socialist tradition in the UK, and various existing socialist political parities, unions, and other projects have been able to incorporate neurodiversity advocacy within a broader socialist movement.

A nice example of a Marxist neurodiversity approach is the approach advocated by Janine Booth. Booth is an autistic trade unionist who has written a lot about neurodivergence (mostly autism) and employment. In contrast to the neoliberal focus on talents and strengths, this approach is about incorporating neurodiversity advocacy within existing socialist struggles, and at the same time making socialism more inclusive for neurodivergent individuals and groups.

A similar approach can be seen in the UK Labour Party’s Neurodiversity Manifesto. This positions neurodivergent justice as being at odds with government austerity and current employment, education, and criminal justice law and policy. It pushes for a social model approach and more government investment in removing barriers at all levels of society.

Intersectional Justice Neurodiversity

This approach is grounded more in both intersectional race politics in the North American context, and in queer theory, which is also more influential in North America than elsewhere. Hence, for complex historical reasons, this is more of a North American tradition.

I see this approach as being more firmly intersectional than both Neoliberal neurodiversity and Marxist neurodiversity (even though proponents of those approaches also often emphasise the importance of intersectionality). I also see it as more based on the notion of collective liberation, which emphasises the entanglement of all forms of oppression and liberation. This approach can be more spiritual than the firmly secular Neoliberal and Marxist approaches, although this is certainly not necessary.

A good example of a leader of this approach is Lydia X. Z. Brown, who self-describes as focusing “on addressing state and interpersonal violence targeting disabled people living at the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, faith, language, and nation”. Brown has done incredibly important work all of these things, and has consistently centred multiply marginalised perspectives in their tireless organising towards intersectional justice.

Another good example is the disability justice based performance project Sins Invalid. This project positions itself as “moving beyond individual legal rights to collective human rights”, and away “from identity politics to unity amongst all oppressed people”. The aim is collective liberation for all marginalised peoples, and, notably, also seems based on the notion that all forms of oppression are intimately entangled.

Some reflections

I again want to emphasise that these are not clear-cut classifications, and that most us sit somewhere between two or more of them. It is likely that nobody, including the exemplars I have noted, fit squarely within any one. The classifications I have suggested are thus at best working hypotheses that will need to be revised and clarified. Further distinctions might also be added.

One reason it is helpful to think about differences in approaches is that sometimes their respective aims and methods conflict. With this in mind, while I suspect all three approaches can have their uses, I will end by cautioning against the neoliberal approach and saying why I prefer the other two approaches.

The benefit of the neoliberal approach is that it does genuinely help certain individuals, either by empowering them in their employment or by generating wealth for those who capitalise on this approach (by becoming business leaders, life-coaches, and so forth). The problem, however, is that it does little to fundamentally challenge anything about the underlying social structures that led to the neurodiversity movement becoming necessary in the first place. Moreover, if it becomes dominant in comparison to the other two approaches it may simply undermine their efforts by reinforcing an ever-so-slightly more inclusive version of the current system – the precise system the Marxist and Intersectional Justice approaches seek to dismantle and replace.

By contrast, I think the Marxist and Intersectional Justice approaches are more likely to complement each other. Personally I sit somewhere between these approaches, and see no need to choose between them. For instance, the Marxist approach is especially useful for developing a materialist analysis of neurodiversity and specific forms of neurodivergent disablement, while the Intersectional Justice approach is necessary for making neurodiversity advocacy more genuinely intersectional and for queering neurodiversity theory. There is no obvious contradiction between these approaches.

An example of these approaches coming together in my own work is my argument that autism is a ‘serial collective‘. In the linked article I developed an intersectional critique of identity-based conceptions of autism, and then proposed a realist metaphysics of autism that I hope is more compatible with intersectional justice. My framing of autism as a serial collective drew on a Marxist-feminist analysis of gender and combined it with a social model understanding of autistic disablement. (I explain what this means without using any jargon here.)

I’ll write more on these themes at a later date; for now I have just sought to make some basic distinctions and to note some potential conflicts. I hope that this will be helpful for people trying to navigate different approaches to neurodiversity, think about where they stand, and decide where best to direct their time and energy.