This forum reflects my desire to see more serious intellectual engagement with neurodiversity, the idea that humanity’s range of psychological differences should be accepted rather than pathologized. In recent years, perhaps because of increased mental health awareness, “neurodiversity” and the related term “neurodivergent” have become popular expressions, from the classroom to the boardroom to TikTok, sometimes even expanding beyond their original meanings. What work do these words do in social and political life today?

This is really many questions wrapped in one: about whether a medical diagnosis constitutes an identity or even a politics; about how developmental and physical disabilities overlap as well as differ; indeed, about whether society can yet more fully include people who are understood to be different. I don’t believe any of these questions bears a simple answer, and I am grateful to Robert Chapman and their brilliant respondents for agreeing to discuss them here.

—Kelton Ellis, 2023–2024 Black Voices Fellow

Last year marked three decades since American autistic activist Jim Sinclair published “Don’t Mourn for Us,” an essay that radically challenged how autism was understood. Written primarily for parents and doctors of autistic children, Sinclair pushed back against a narrative that associated autism with inherent deficiency, tragedy, and the desperate need for new treatments. Instead, Sinclair argued, autism was a “way of being” that, unlike diseases, could not be separated from the person and thus could not be treated or cured without erasing something essential about autistic identity. Moreover, Sinclair suggested, many of the problems autistic people experience stem from the environment as much as from autism itself. Instead of seeing autistic people’s lot in life as a tragic one, the world around them could—and should—be changed to better accommodate them.

More than twenty years after its start, the neurodiversity movement sits at a crossroads.

These themes, influenced by the earlier disability rights movement and its focus on disabling barriers, laid much of the groundwork for the rise of the neurodiversity movement in the late 1990s. In 1997 the journalist Harvey Blume reported in the New York Times that autistic activists connecting online were arguing for a form of “neurological pluralism,” which pushed back against the stifling norms of “neurologically typical” society. The following year, Australian student Judy Singer wrote a thesis offering the first sociological study of the movement, introducing the concept of neurodiversity to academia.

In the years thereafter, new concepts began to emerge that together formed a new paradigm for understanding cognitive and emotional forms of disability. Those who fell outside the neurological norms of society—not just autistics but also those with diagnoses of ADHD, dyspraxia, and much else—were “neurodivergent,” and together they were grouped into “neurominorities.” These groups were understood by subsequent neurodiversity proponents to be oppressed within “neuronormative” societies designed and built for typical brains and nervous systems.

Since the turn of the millennium and especially over the past decade, the movement has won many of its demands. Reclaiming diagnoses as political identities and switching from an individual medical model approach to a disability rights framework has made it possible to demand accommodations and access while resisting societal expectations of “normalcy.” Take, for example, the U.S.-based Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN). Its successes include halting federal contractors from paying autistic people below the minimum wage and partaking in a campaign that led to the ban of electric shocks used to torture disabled children and adults at the infamous Judge Rotenberg Center in Massachusetts. Other organizations, such as Britain’s Genius Within, explicitly draw on neurodiversity frameworks to focus on coaching, alongside diversity and inclusion training, to remove barriers in the workplace, helping many neurodivergent people find and stay in work.

In the wake of these achievements, the neurodiversity movement today sits at a crossroads. The movement has grown in influence, but with its rise has come an increasing co-optation. Those in positions of power—politicians, executives of corporations, NGO heads—have taken up the vocabularies of the movement while reinforcing the status quo. More broadly, capitalism itself is now adapting to neutralize the mass of people fed up with its stifling norms and exclusions, using superficial moves toward greater inclusion that are a far cry from making material improvements to most neurodivergent people’s lives. If we want to truly liberate those of us who are neurodivergent, it’s long past time to go beyond the dominant paradigm—what I propose we call Liberal Neurodiversity. To get there, we can take cues from other radical movements’ emancipatory visions for social arrangements.

Liberal Neurodiversity

Liberal Neurodiversity focuses on advocating for rights-based reforms and challenging negative societal attitudes and popular representations. Sinclair’s groundbreaking essay is a case in point: zeroing in on identity, attitudes, and conceptual frameworks, it overlooks the deeper structures of society. Notably absent from the essay, for instance, is any analysis of economic arrangements or the role of capitalist social relations in shaping conceptions of normality. Similarly, Singer’s thesis explicitly positioned the movement as a new civil rights and identity politics movement, and ASAN’s mission is to “advance the principles of the disability rights movement with regard to autism.” While these individuals and groups differ on specifics, they all approach neurodiversity from within a reformist framework: demanding recognition of disabled people’s humanity and policy changes like state-backed accommodations in education and the workplace.

The successes of the movement have been won by instrumentalizing existing disability rights legislation. These laws differ in each country but were mostly drawn up around the turn of the millennium and mainly with bodily disabilities in mind, under pressure from disabled activists and unions. Prior to the neurodiversity movement, activism from people with psychiatric diagnoses, such as the approach associated with the antipsychiatry movement, often focused on rejecting medical diagnoses and interventions as well as any association with people with bodily disability. While helpful for avoiding certain harms, this approach—often rejecting disabled identity entirely—made it difficult to advocate for change within the prevailing framework of disability rights. With the birth of the neurodiversity movement, activists could reinterpret and reclaim their diagnoses through existing disability rights legislation and thus emphasize their similarities and solidarity with other disabled people.

Reclaiming diagnoses and rejecting the medical model has made it possible to demand accommodations and access while resisting expectations of “normalcy.”

This strategy offered various protections and legal recognition. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, the U.S. disability movement’s landmark victory, prohibits disability-based discrimination while also setting accessibility standards and requiring employers to grant “reasonable accommodations” to disabled people, including people with mental disabilities. The legislation significantly expanded disabled peoples’ access to transportation, public spaces, and private businesses open to the public. It also created a means of legal recourse for those whose rights are violated. In 2009, for instance, Burger King was challenged in federal court after it withdrew a job offer for an autistic individual once they asked to have a job coach on site at no cost to the employer as a reasonable accommodation. The applicant was paid $30,000 by Burger King, which also agreed to implement ADA training at its franchises.

At the same time, while neurodiversity proponents acknowledged the reality of disability, they also began to emphasize the overlooked benefits of neurodivergent cognition. Some researchers now increasingly associate autism with traits such as honesty or attention to detail, dyslexia with creativity, and so on. Over time, what were previously seen as deficits were increasingly reinterpreted into simple differences—or even, in some cases, strengths or “superpowers.” This shift has been empowering for many neurodivergent people—and made some of us more attractive to employers. By 2017 an article in the Harvard Business Review acknowledged that neurodiversity could be a “competitive advantage” in the workplace. Much as biodiversity is necessary for the robustness of an ecosystem, the argument goes, so too is a diversity of ways of thinking necessary for the robustness of a company. After all, if everyone thinks the same way, it can be hard to come up with innovative ideas and solutions.

Just as importantly, neurodiversity proponents have also developed conceptions of Neurodivergent Pride. Like LGBT Pride, this work has allowed many neurodivergent people to develop healthier senses of self and community and to begin celebrating neurodivergent culture. Autistic Pride Day (June 18) and Weird Pride Day (March 4) are now held annually, while autistic open mic nights, for instance, feature mini lectures on participants’ “special interests.” Some recent studies have found positive associations between autistic identity and mental health. Simultaneously, this move has positioned more neurodivergent people to feel confident enough to overcome widely imposed shame at being disabled and thus to make demands in line with our rights in education and the workplace. The rise of a pride-based approach has empowered neurodivergent people to ask employers or schools for adjustments to be made—and helped compel such institutions to comply.

Ultimately, then, Liberal Neurodiversity has begun to help reform the world one piece at a time. It is thanks to such advocacy that several large supermarket chains now have “autism friendly” hours where lights are dimmed and other noises reduced, making them more accessible for those of us with sensory sensitivities. It is also why airports now increasingly offer “sensory rooms.” We also see the success of Liberal Neurodiversity in the proliferation of new guidelines, articles, and books on how to make classrooms, workplaces, building design, and other aspects of social life more inclusive for neurodivergent people. And this approach helps to explain why representations of neurodivergent people have changed so drastically in film, television, and literature, where openly or tacitly neurodivergent people—such as autistic detective Saga Noren in Scandinavian TV show The Bridge, or autistic doctor Shaun Murphy in the American series The Good Doctor—are increasingly celebrated.

The Limits of Liberal Neurodiversity

All this may suggest neurodivergent liberation lies just beyond the horizon. But despite these very real successes, this approach and its analysis have significant limitations.

For one, even in wealthy, (purportedly) progressive nations, once we grant rights in the abstract, multiply marginalized neurodivergent people are all too often left behind. Many people with significant cognitive disabilities remain segregated—and often, incarcerated—all the way through their lifespans. Many people with intellectual disabilities die young from avoidable deaths, most often relating to treatable cardiovascular and respiratory conditions, especially those who are racialized as Black. Or consider how around a quarter of people incarcerated in prisons in the UK have ADHD; similarly high rates are associated with other diagnoses, as are instances of police brutality and deaths in custody. In the United States, autistic people are incarcerated at twice the rate compared to their percent of the general population. In short, more marginalized neurodivergent people often follow a school-to-incarceration pipeline while remaining more likely to live in poverty and to die young.

Many people with significant cognitive disabilities remain segregated—and often, incarcerated—all the way through their lifespans.

In theory, all these neurodivergent people have rights. In the United Kingdom, where I live, all disabled people have a right to “reasonable adjustments” to accommodate our disabilities in the workplace, for instance. But how these rights are dispensed and interpreted tends to mirror the ideology of the neoliberal order; “reasonable” tends to mean something like “doesn’t interfere too much with money making.” When it comes to work, “reasonable adjustments” exclude many atypical needs, like the needs of those who are prone to psychosis. Someone experiencing paranoia and delusions may wish workplace webcams to be covered up due to fears about government spying. For them, this may be the difference between being able to access the workplace and being unable to. Yet how many managers or indeed courts of law would consider this reasonable? In other cases, even if courts would be sympathetic, many neurodivergent people are cut off from the cognitive and financial resources to sue or to otherwise seek protection of their rights. And many others—especially those locked away in carceral institutions—are often shut out of paid labor completely. Fights to secure workplace modifications are thus far from a comprehensive solution to the liberation of neurodivergent people.

Meanwhile, those few neurodivergent people privileged enough to have our individual strengths recognized and who thus find more employment prospects—for instance, in the tech world, where autistic strengths are increasingly sought out—find ourselves valued only to the extent that profit can be extracted from us. While some neurodivergent people are able to find work for certain periods, we remain the first to be abandoned when companies lay people off, while many of us become burnt out or depressed from the pressures of navigating workspaces built for the neuronormative.

According to, for instance, adults with ADHD remain around 60 percent more likely to be fired and are around 30 percent more likely to have chronic employment issues when compared with neurotypicals. In the UK, just 22 percent of autistic people are in paid work, and workplace discrimination against autistics remains rife. If establishing rights and changing attitudes within capitalism does help neurodivergent people, it tends to only be to the extent that their form of neurodivergence can be recognized as a site of potential profit. Those not deemed useful to a company’s bottom line are simply left behind or put to use in other ways such as in unpaid labor in prisons. These tendencies reflect what Beatrice Adler-Bolton and Artie Vierkant call “extractive abandonment.”

Similar trends are playing out in the Global South. In many places, disability rights legislation is not even effectively enforced. At the same time, what Jasbir Puar calls “debility”—or socially produced impairment—may be fashioned in relation to how the wealth of the Global North relies on the continued domination of the Global South. Consider how the infliction of widespread impairment and trauma in Palestine—which amounts to a mass-disabling and neurodivergifying event—comes in part through the generation of great profits from arms manufacturers in Europe and North America. At the same time, autistic teenagers in Israel are fast-tracked into (voluntary) roles in military intelligence, where their purported autistic strengths are used in the service of the continued oppression of the Palestinian people. Here the recognition of neurodivergent strengths does not just fail to liberate neurodivergent people: it is precisely utilized in a conflict that produces systemic oppression, mass disability—and, according to UN human rights expert Francesca Albanese, plausible genocide—along ethnoreligious lines.

In the United States, the policing of “normal” affective responses to such horrors is also a form of neuronormative domination. Before he self-immolated in protest against U.S. involvement in the ongoing atrocities in Gaza, neurodivergent anarchist Aaron Bushnell drew attention to how all this “is what our ruling class has decided will be normal.” His critics have sought to undermine the significance of his sacrifice by pathologizing it. But if stifling normality is what neurodiversity activism is meant to overcome, then the fight to end the ongoing atrocities and for a land where Jews and Palestinians can live in peace demands our full solidarity and support.

When it comes to representation, we hear little or nothing of the superpowers of those of us with more complex forms of disablement. We also hear little about the superpowers of those locked away in prisons or psychiatric units for much of their lives. Instead, in popular culture the ascriptions of superpowers seem to be largely reserved for white, middle-class neurodivergent people. While in reality neurodivergent people are more likely to be incarcerated than incarcerators, media depictions portray the exact opposite: autistic detectives or bipolar CIA agents. In practice, efforts to frame neurodivergence as strength can help to maintain, and even reinforce, the neuronormative systems that the neurodiversity movement arose to fight.

Fights to secure workplace modifications are thus far from a comprehensive solution to the liberation of neurodivergent people.

Of course, I do not mean to suggest that this state of affairs is the fault of Liberal Neurodiversity advocates. Proponents of Liberal Neurodiversity do far more than most to resist such injustices. My point is only that its approach—while bringing us some genuinely important wins—has limits we must recognize. In the longer term, if we want liberation for all neurodivergent people, especially those of us who sit at multiple axes of oppression, we will need something more powerful—and less able to be co-opted to preserve the basic structures of the status quo.

Most of all, liberal reformism seems to be largely defenseless when it comes to what Olúfémi O. Táíwò calls the “elite capture” of identity politics. In recent years, we have seen more and more neoliberal and conservative co-optation of our progressive, and sometimes radical, vocabularies, ideas, and efforts. The move to a “strengths-based” approach and discourses about individual “superpowers” have been particularly prone to this phenomenon: they reinterpret people previously seen as drains on the capitalist system as untapped resources to be mined. Meanwhile, growing awareness has fueled the rise of neurodiversity-focused businesses and charities, as well as new claims to expertise in an emerging neurodiversity industry. These developments threaten to transform a still young movement with liberatory potential into just another part of the dominant order.

Toward Neurodivergent Power

A historical parallel might help us imagine an alternative path. In a speech at a protest march in Mississippi in 1966, Black liberation leader Kwame Ture (then named Stokely Carmichael) proposed a change in the strategic and rhetorical approach of the Black civil rights movement. Instead of focusing on jobs, civil rights, and freedom, he demanded, “What we are going to start saying now is ‘Black Power’.” Disillusioned with how antidiscrimination legislation had not led to the ending of systemic racism, the emphasis of the term he popularized essentially switched toward a more militant approach—one that associated liberation with the economic and cultural self-determination of Black people. In line with the zeitgeist of the time, this demand quickly caught on, and, along with the rise of the Marxist-Leninist Black Panther Party, signaled a new era in Black liberation politics in the United States and beyond.

The Black Power movement did not achieve all its radical aims; the odds, of course, were stacked against it. Nor was it a movement without its own internal contradictions and limitations, including when it came to intersectionality. But it was vital in paving the way for a more liberatory politics by connecting the struggles of Black Americans to other struggles with a common enemy. Black Panther leaders such as Huey Newton saw their ultimate enemy as capitalism, not individual white people as his critics often implied. He thus made significant efforts in what he called his “intercommunal” analysis to include the struggles of white workers alongside Black ones. The Panthers also focused on the lumpenproletariat, which included the petty criminals, drug dealers, sex workers, and so on who had been largely left out of revolutionary socialist struggle. Ture further connected the struggles of Black Americans across borders and continents to the struggles of Black Africans, while the Panthers allied with the Vietnamese against U.S. imperialism, cutting across borders and cultures, and Black feminists such as Angela Davis showed how gender, racial, and other forms of oppression were linked. In fact, as Sami Schalk has shown in Black Disability Politics (2022), the Panthers began to recognize the significance of disabled liberation before they disbanded in 1982.

These revolutionary thinkers thus paved the way for understanding how different forms of oppression related to the capitalist system, and they sought to build an international anticapitalist movement for everyone. At the same time, the Black Panthers fought not just to end capitalism but also for the development of Black cultural institutions—Black Studies departments in universities, bookshops, cooperatives, and so on—in ways that laid the grounds for both Black empowerment and much of our understanding of racism, colonialism, and imperialism today.

The status quo that the neurodiversity movement faces today is similar, thought certainly not identical, to what the Black liberation movement faced in the 1960s. In many countries we do now have rights, and these have helped us to some extent when it comes to discrimination and access. But by choosing these targets, Liberal Neurodiversity has all too often left the most marginalized neurodivergents behind. As the beginnings of an antidote, I propose we shift our focus away from recognizing individual superpowers and toward building collective Neurodivergent Power.  Instead of working to grant some individuals success in reformed institutions, Neurodivergent Power would place our sights squarely on our collective ability to resist the entire economic system that disables and discriminates against us.

Individually, we are disabled; united, we hold a form of strength that could help us achieve collective liberation.

This concept may be new, but the practice of collective neurodivergent action is not. Consider the recent campaign to boycott Spectrum 10k, a multi-million-pound research program at Cambridge University launched in 2021. In this case, the funding grant for a ten-year project was based partly on seeking to locate discrete biomarkers for autism subtypes, which might be used to identify and terminate autistic fetuses (as already happens on an industrial scale with Down syndrome). As I wrote about at the time, autistic activists found it especially concerning that a prior publication written by a principal investigator of the project that was widely read as supporting eugenics. Against this, a great number of autistic activists and groups organized to protest and boycott the study—forcing them to back down and pause the project.

But a politics of Neurodivergent Power should not just be directed against practices, institutions, and abuses. It must also target the deeper relations that hold neuronormativity in place. What would this look like in practice? We can see its mirror image in the claim that neurological diversity is a vital resource for business success. Rather than using this power to assimilate some of us into an economic system that leaves many others behind, we could instead harness diversity against the system that disables and discriminates against us.

This must be part of a broader effort to foster neurodivergent consciousness-raising through the development of cultural institutions. Consider the importance of neurodiversity studies departments in universities, not to mention mad studies and disability studies departments. While universities have been using neurodiversity vocabularies to rebrand existing institutions, true neurodiversity studies departments do not yet exist. Yet they will be vital for unearthing suppressed histories of neurodivergence, for the development of political theories of neurodivergent emancipation, and for aiding in the development of a mass neurodivergent consciousness. Such consciousness is not merely about neurodivergent pride, but instead must show how neuronormativity relates to the material base and social relations of the world system of global capitalism. The sites of so much contemporary struggle—over war, incarceration, borders, homelessness, and workers’ unions—need an awareness to ground ever increasing solidarity between neurodivergent people and other groups facing domination in the same system.

Like the Black Panthers, we must also have concrete demands and goals. The specifics should be determined together, but we start with the freeing of those of us forcibly incarcerated in prisons and psychiatric hospitals; the end of homelessness through free housing for all; and the end of imperialist wars that bring mass murder, create debility and destroy enabling infrastructure. These are all problems disproportionately associated with neurodivergent disablement, although we must remember that all too often neurotypicals are often little better off in the current system, especially if they are marginalized in other ways. Looked at systemically, neurodivergent people are not oppressed by neurotypicals; rather, both neurotypicals and neurodivergents are harmed by our market-oriented system, albeit in different ways and to different extents.

Changing economic relations is unlikely to be achieved through liberal, rights-based reformism alone. Mass organization, not just nonprofit activism and lobbying, is essential, as is unionizing against neuronormativity to push for fundamental changes in the structures, pacing, and expectations of the workplaces that exclude as “unproductive” a host of neurodivergent dispositions. This will be vital for neurodivergent people, but surely it will also aid the thriving of many neurotypicals, making this goal central to coalition building between those of us in work and those of us locked out of work.

Rather than aiming to assimilate some of us into a system that leaves many others behind, we could instead harness diversity against the system that disables and discriminates against us.

It may seem a tall order to suggest integrating this kind of politics into a neurodiversity movement born and raised on the dimmed horizons of 1990s neoliberalism. Yet since the 2008 financial crisis, not to mention the pandemic, many are increasingly turning back toward radical politics. And we may find that we need to go further still. As Vincent Bevins argues in his recent book If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution (2023), the non-hierarchical social movements that have flourished over the last decade have failed to transform society. Without a revolutionary party, as Jodi Dean has argued in these pages, it is easy for genuine progressive energies to be diverted away from political change. Reconstructing the project of the party—and ensuring the most marginalized are democratically represented in its workings and pursuits—might be the first task for a movement that wants to go beyond the limitations of Liberal Neurodiversity.

Just as vitally, a politics of Neurodivergent Power must make more efforts to connect the oppression of neurodivergent people to anti-imperialist, decolonial, and abolitionist efforts globally, much as the Black Power movement did. This entails more than simply recognizing that intersectionality is important, as many proponents of Liberal Neurodiversity already assert. It entails collective organizing and movement building to put intersectionality into practice. While the potential members and needs of such a movement are highly diverse, it is also true that similar forms of neurodivergent disablement are evident across the globe.

Ultimately, a politics of neurodiversity that is for everyone is a politics of Neurodivergent Power. This means collective resistance to the production of normal subjectivity, debility, and disablement, to fight for a freer future that meets all of our needs. Individually, we are disabled; united, we hold a form of strength that could help us achieve collective liberation.