Robert Chapman and I agree on a lot. We are both neurodiversity activists; in fact we are friends and have at times been collaborators. We have both argued for a social ecological view of neurocognitive differences and disabilities, as opposed to a medical model that stigmatizes them and a neurodiversity-lite model of “superpowers” ripe for capitalistic exploitation. We also agree that in our neoliberal climate, the movement’s rhetoric risks being co-opted. But I think Chapman understates how progressive the movement’s organizations have been, and I do not think it is fair to characterize the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN)—for which I served as director of science and a chapter co-director—as a paragon of “Liberal Neurodiversity.”

Take Chapman’s concern about “elite capture” and co-optation of movement demands. One aim of neurodiversity activism has been to criticize ableist language in autism research and to recommend respectful identity-affirmative, depathologized language instead. Shifts in language are a necessary but insufficient step toward radical reconstructions of society. In the wake of these shifts, early career researchers may genuinely adopt more neurodiversity-affirming attitudes. Indeed, a preference for identity-first language clusters with positive emotions toward autism and opposition to a cure for autism. Ableist language expresses inaccurate ideas, and autistic people have shown the least stigmatizing, most balanced and scientifically accurate views on autism in the autism community. In fact, the benefits of harmless stimming—repetitive movements such as hand-flapping and body-rocking—are better recognized in part because of research by autistic people. Likewise, autistic people and neurodiversity advocates have helped illuminate the mutual misunderstandings between autistic and non-autistic people and the limitations of social deficit theories of autism.

A pragmatic streak explains why the movement has sometimes opted for reform over revolution.

Moreover, as awareness of neurodiversity rises, so do attitudes associated with it. Representations of autism in the media and popular culture have begun to improve, in part because of neurodiversity activists. As more autistic people and neurodiversity advocates have entered autism research as academics and lay co-researchers, we have helped to change the contours of debates and propose new ideas about what forms neurodivergence-informed interventions and genetics or biomedical research should take. Last year, each new major research news article on tensions in autism research reported in a more neurodiversity-affirming direction. Research funding in the United States does continue to prioritize biomedical interventions; society still prefers to invest in efforts to build a world without autism rather than one that is better for autistic people. But important progress has been made. In Australia, even funding priorities have begun to shift.

Groups like ASAN, meanwhile, are firmly part of the broader developmental disability self-advocacy movement, fighting to enforce accommodations, income support, and services, as well as to change systems for community living (with publicly funded needed support, a massive commitment from the state); calling for supported decision-making rather than guardianship or conservatorship; embracing augmentative, alternative communication rather than an overemphasis on speech and others speaking for non-speaking people; calling for “real work for real pay” rather than a subminimum wage and “sheltered workshops”; and demanding freedom from abuse rather than physical or chemical restraint and torture, including for people with significant intellectual disabilities.

Does this range of demands make ASAN too modestly “liberal”? It is true that I and other disability rights activists have supported the Employment First movement, which prioritizes competitive, integrated employment as the primary goal—where desired and possible—for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This movement could certainly use restructuring to better integrate representatives of government agencies, the community (including disabled people), and employers. Viable alternatives are needed, but in the current neoliberal context, employment might mean economic, if not literal, survival. Rates of employment of people with disabilities have hardly improved in countries like the United States and United Kingdom since the passage of disability non-discrimination legislation. Perhaps our struggles on this front are part of why the neurodiversity movement underrepresents BIPOC communities. Autistic people and people with intellectual disabilities also conceive of productivity as encompassing a broader array of meaningful activities than nondisabled people’s more capitalistic constructions, for good reason: as a recently released study finds, employment does not necessarily raise autistic people’s quality of life.

Then there is the issue of coalition-building. An approach that outwardly reveals how much the movement supports expanding the state faces an uphill battle in the political climate of the United States. Even basic support for disability rights has dissipated on the right. Republican presidents signed the Rehabilitation Act (with its landmark Section 504) of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, and the ADA Amendments Act of 2008. Yet, more recently, the United States has failed even to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Perhaps the marked failure to increase disabled employment at scale has fueled a rightward shift in disability advocacy; I remember a Republican at an event commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the ADA in Washington, D.C., saying the goal was to get people to work. The employment issue again highlights the failures of capitalism for disabled and marginalized people, and the need for systemic change.

Though political dispositions vary among neurodiversity supporters, a pragmatic streak explains why the movement has sometimes opted for reform over revolution. ASAN wished to replace the DSM with a holistic disability framework but had little practical opportunity to do so. But it did succeed in prompting changes to the diagnostic criteria for autism in the DSM-5, a historic milestone for the neurodivergent community. Some might argue we should have taken a more radical position, as disabled activists did when they occupied a federal building for twenty-five days for the 504 Sit-In protest, in coalition with other activists such as the Black Panthers (with Brad Lomax at the intersection). I agree that intersectional approaches are essential to the neurodiversity movement. As the neurodiversity movement may do more generally, however, Chapman’s conception of Neurodivergent Power risks placing inordinate responsibility on marginalized neurodivergent people to transform forces much greater than ourselves, even if in solidarity with other oppressed groups.

Calls for economic change are also not sufficient on their own; they must go hand in hand with clear demands to protect justice for neurodivergent people. While I believe in the non-pressured right to choose abortion, disability-selective abortion concerns me. Denmark and Iceland have better social provision than the United States, but they also have recent termination rates of nearly 100 percent of fetuses with Down’s syndrome among families who take the genetic test—much higher than in the United States. In addition to the moral harms of eugenics, these decisions hurt the Down’s community by reinforcing stigmatizing devaluation of disabled lives and reducing the community’s size and therefore the support available to it. Likewise, many countries with better social provision than the United States offer medically assisted suicide for people with even non-terminal disabilities and illnesses.

And just as the neurodiversity and broader disability rights movements oppose medical imperialism, so too must we oppose cultural imperialism. We need to take a global perspective and not impose our ideas on neurodivergent people who may reject or radically modify them. Some Indigenous and non-Western people, including in the United States, traditionally reject the notion of disability, though their cultures may offer even significantly disabled people better acceptance and access to support. For these reasons, the movement will need to be diverse in ways Chapman’s vision of Neurodivergent Power may understate.