The politics of neurodiversity: fashion or affliction?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Sunday 29 October, Church House, London


Neurodiversity is increasingly in the public consciousness. Environmental activists and TV presenters have talked about their experiences of autism and footballers describe their difficulties of living with ADHD. According to some estimates, as many as 20 per cent of the global population are neurodivergent, spanning everything from severe autism to dyslexia.

Some argue that increased visibility and destigmatisation of such conditions are a welcome development, both for those who can understand themselves better through a diagnosis and for societal acceptance of natural human difference. Others question the benefits of these developments, arguing that the sharp rise in diagnosis is effectively making such diagnoses meaningless. In turn, this takes away resources and treatment from those for whom their condition is debilitating, in favour of those who may in the past have been described as shy, socially awkward or a bit quirky.

Furthermore, while the prevalence of ADHD or autism obviously does not discriminate along political lines, people on the progressive left seem to be much more likely to talk about – if not proudly proclaim – their diagnoses. As with gender and race, the boundaries of neurodiversity are difficult to police and open to appropriation.

How should neurodiversity be diagnosed and treated in society? Are we over-diagnosing neurodiversity and pathologising normal behaviour, or is it good that we are more aware of these conditions? Can neurodiversity and the way we handle it be saved from becoming a key faultline in the culture wars?

Felice Basbøll
project assistant, Ideas Matter; student, Trinity College Dublin

Dr Ken McLaughlin
former social worker; academic; author, Surviving Identity: Vulnerability and the psychology of recognition and Stigma, and its discontents

Stella O’Malley
psychotherapist; director, Genspect; author, What Your Teen is Trying to Tell You

David Swift
historian; author, The Identity Myth and A Left for Itself

Dr Fiona McEwen
survey and interventions director, King’s College London