Robert Chapman’s appraisal of the neurodiversity movement is timely, cogent, and inspired by a radical vision for social change. While Chapman identifies the unfulfilled potential of the movement, I would push for an even deeper critique of its politics of self-advocacy.

Critique may feel against the grain at a moment when the neurodiversity movement is increasingly making inroads into mainstream thinking. Accessibility offices in higher education are shifting from meeting the minimum legal requirements for accommodations to creating affirming communities, largely in response to the demands of neurodiversity advocates. As Chapman notes, corporations are also open to creating neurodiverse-friendly workplaces. Spokespersons have made the neurodiversity viewpoint intelligible in the public sphere, with compelling examples of how institutions can incorporate inclusive design. Yet as the message of advocates becomes more accepted, the limited scope of its beneficiaries becomes even more salient.

The rise of neurodiverse self-identification and a neurodiversity community came in the wake of the social conditions which made autism an attractive new disability label. Since the 1980s, diagnoses dramatically increased as autism-specific services became available in public schools. More affluent parents are better positioned to obtain the medical diagnoses that these services require. This situation has created marked economic, ethnic, and racial disparities in acquiring an autism diagnosis (though this gap is lessening), and more equitable medical access does not necessarily translate into equal benefits for the economically marginalized. For example, many parents are forced to acquire resources within special education systems that have a long history of disparate treatment based on race. Wealthy parents can bypass these systems by purchasing private services and caretaking.

As the message of advocates becomes more accepted, the limited scope of its beneficiaries becomes even more salient.

Culturally, the appeal of the autism diagnosis has been that it is less stigmatizing than alternative diagnoses (such as intellectual disability and conduct disorders). Seeking out a preferred diagnosis is also consistent with the norms of middle-class parenting, which emphasize effective consumption of health care and maximizing children’s learning potential. As the diagnostic incidence has grown, studies have shown that parents seek medical diagnoses because they are showing greater distress about their children’s social abilities. Consequently, there is a trend toward the diagnosis of less severe cases. This pattern is likely accentuated among adults who seek diagnoses or who self-diagnose.

Ironically, neurodiversity advocates who affirm “something essential about autistic identity” reaffirm a problematic medical categorization that reinforces the social inequalities in obtaining and benefiting from a diagnosis. Many self-advocates cling to the notion that autism is a genetic identity and view themselves as part of a “neurotribe.” Such identity claims are based on an oversimplification of what it means for autism to be considered a “genetically determined disease,” ignoring the complicated and poorly understood translation of those genetic factors into phenotypes. Even more importantly, it promotes the politically precarious idea that our group affinities are linked to our genetic fates as well as implying that the distinction between the neurodiverse and the neurotypical is a “natural” binary.

While Chapman laments the apolitical ethos of the neurodiversity movement, this stance has also allowed the negative implications of autistic essentialism to lay dormant. With recognition of neurodiversity, as Chapman notes, stereotyped images of quirky personas have been popularized, counterproductively fostering a superficial understanding of what is required for acceptance and inclusion. Fictionalized characters—the autistic doctor or detective—entertain precisely because they are not taken seriously as a group that makes political demands for recognition and resources. While neurodiversity advocates have condemned the “old eugenics” for promoting cured-focused initiatives, they have not fully wrestled with the place of autism in an era of “new eugenics” marked by genetic enhancement, surveillance of pregnant women, and the promotion of biologically based racial differences. Cooptation is particularly likely as neurodiversity advocates seek input into scientific research. At its worst, this strategy results in a token neurodiversity advocate on governing boards, failing to oppose the new eugenic thinking that undergirds prevailing research paradigms and muting critiques in the interest of acquiring legitimacy.

“Elite capture” is one way of framing this issue. But my unease is with the messaging within the neurodiversity movement itself. Its antagonistic response to “profound autism” is a profound political misstep. Neurodiversity advocates have failed to adequately address longstanding concerns about the representativeness of their voice across a spectrum of severity. This issue cannot be dismissed by citing a few examples of non-speaking self-advocates or complaining that this criticism implies a failure to appreciate autistic strengths across the spectrum. While it is crucial for disability activists to challenge those who misjudge the capabilities of those labeled as intellectually disabled, it is also essential to see that dependency is a material and physical consequences of diverse embodiments. When neurodiversity advocates critique the label of profound autism because they fear it will reinforce old stereotypes associated with “mental retardation,” they take a position that comes dangerously close to asserting the “specialness” of autistic ways of being relative to other forms of “disability.” A forward-looking politics should both reject the “deficient model of autism” and resist autism’s characterization as a special talent. Instead, it should replace disability labels with a recognition of universal bodily vulnerability and oppose the stigmas associated with dependency by acknowledging our universal conditions of interdependency.

Can today’s neurodiversity movement flourish? Chapman proposes an intersectional path forward. Doing so would require not only reckoning with the differences within the spectrum but also situating autism as a uniquely privileged claim to disabled identity. While neurodiversity advocates can be credited with seeking to better the lives of adults who have the capacity to self-advocate, many living in precarity lack this kind of avenue to give voice to their situation. For example, an identity-based disability politics fails to direct our attention to the effects of the slow violence of environmental racism, the debilities created by war and civil conflict, the losses due directly to health disparities, and the effects of poverty and hunger on children’s neurodevelopment (which in most cases creates unrecognized “disabilities”). If an intersectional politics is possible, it could form a platform for a wide range of disability activists as well as those who advocate for a more responsive social welfare state.

Ultimately, engaging in intersectional politics might allow for the neurodiversity movement to dissociate from autism as a biological identity, much in the same way that feminism has left behind biological sex. A better path forward would require less rather than more attachment to this medicalized label and a broader critique of the social norms that are driving people to identify as neurodiverse.