Enmeshment of Neurodiversity in Identity and Law
Author: Bex Rose, LMHC
November 13, 2023
As a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC), staying abreast of modern psychology practices and treatment modalities is a topic of utmost importance; this includes, understanding Neurodiversity and the items associated with it.
Neurodiversity is not a stand-alone word, some of the emerging terms associated with neurodiversity as it relates to current society are such as Neurodivergence. A particular perspective to consider is that the writer is both a mental health professional and diagnosed individual with Tourette’s, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and Attention-Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Managing this dual role, it's evident that exploring the interconnection of identity within neurodivergent populations is of great significance. The truth is, today there are many different movements for an array of differing schools of thought, experiences, and basic human rights, all of which impact how we identify within the roles we play in society. Movements in general are a natural progression to evolve in society, in fact there’s much doubt that any real change and/or Human rights campaign could be won without creating a movement of some form or other. Let’s break this down by understanding the terms, laws, and current movement.
A brief overview of terms:
In order to understand the rights to care, services, and access for neurodivergent populations, we first must define what is considered neurodivergent and its difference in comparison to neurodiversity. Neurodiversity and neurodivergence have become synonymous with one another; however, both have their own respective definitions. Neurodiversity refers to the variation in cognitive functioning, while neurodivergence pertains to deviations from what is considered typical or normal mental or neurological functioning. In essence, it distinguishes between variation and function. If we throw in the idea that we have to learn this not once but twice in the seat of the patient/client, it can only get more slippery as we go.
According to D’Souza H, Karmiloff-Smith A, around 15-20% of people are neurodivergent. (D’Souza H, Karmiloff-Smith A, 2016). Even without thinking of the multiple layers of what this can imply, it’s clear how important human rights can factor into this equation.At present, there is no dedicated rights act specifically for neurodivergence or neurodiversity; instead, these concepts are often included under an umbrella term. According to Pierce, “in the eyes of the law, “neurodivergence” is a broad term that can include autistic people, people with ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, mental health conditions, learning disabilities, etc.” (D’Souza H, Karmiloff-Smith A, 2016).
In regards to protections and rights for neurodivergent individuals, Pierce refers directly to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act – commonly known within the Neurodiverse community as (504). (Pierce, 2023). Without getting too far into the weeds, one can only imagine how many disabilities, experiences, and limitations are generalized when really, they should each be given their fair due. This brings us to the topic of movements.
According to Caroline Miller, of the Child Mind Institute, “The neurodiversity movement was launched by Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist who is herself on the autism spectrum. Singer saw neurodiversity as a social justice movement, to promote equality of what she called “neurological minorities” — people whose brains work in atypical ways.” (Miller, 2023). In fact, while the ADA has its merits, this excerpt by Miller is especially significant because it directly addresses the 15-20% of the population that lacks specific laws and regulations. The ADA defines disabilities as: “ a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.” (ADA, 2020). Despite legal jargon, it's important to recognize the challenges that individuals with neurodivergence may face in dealing with enmeshment.
It's not uncommon for individuals to become enmeshed in society, wearing multiple roles or 'hats' and frequently finding themselves in similar groups. However, not every enmeshment comes with complications. Walker does an excellent comparison of both terms as it relates specifically to identity.
In Walker’s book, “Neuroqueer Heresies,” Walker defines Neurodiversity as “an intrinsic characteristic of the human species.” It is a diversity produced by a combination of multiple interacting factors, including the myriad possible permutations of genetics, the influence of developmental environments on genetic expression, and the infinite variety of ways in which each individual mind is shaped by culture, activity, environment, and experience throughout the lifespan.” (N. Walker, 2021)
Neurodivergence is divergence not from some “objective” state of normality (which, again, doesn’t exist), but rather from whatever constructed image and performance of normality the prevailing culture currently seeks to impose. (N. Walker, 2021)
Now add the earlier concept of having up to 20% of the population experiencing this with no specific civil rights geared towards neurodiversity, it’s a significant oversight. It’s also not surprising that these movements, however emerging, still have a long way to go. Just thinking alone in terms of the 3 more visible diagnoses – OCD, ADHD, and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), there is a wide range of factors to consider. This discussion only scratches the surface of how to identify and understand rights related to these neurodiverse individuals. Human rights encompass much of how individuals are treated in societies, by and large, it’s a roadmap to many of the policies we see today.
Speaking to the idea of enmeshment, or in this case, our relationship to our identity in society, we are also addressing how this carefully crafted identity serves as the blueprint for our communication, interactions, and relationships with others. We are also addressing how this identity we have curated becomes the template for how we speak, interact, and relate to others. It begs the question of pondering - if there is no legal precedent for me, how do I fit in? Not knowing your role or how you are seen in society’s eye can cause much distress.
As an adult, managing more than 2-3 roles is challenging, let alone finding solace in finding legal protection as a neurodivergent person. The “right to equality” is hard to configure when we are still trying to make neurodiversity visible within mainstream platforms and media. So brings the 1-million-dollar question: How is our “right to equality” being compromised? The answer is not so simple. Technically, disability laws do apply to neurodiverse populations. However, there is still no distinct definition of how neurodiverse populations are specifically protected. Whenever you lump many different objects together, like an egg and a hammer, they can’t be expected to be the same when shaken. The same concept applies here: even if we’re only referring to a neurodivergent individual, a person with ADHD is going to encounter different obstacles and need different levels of consideration than someone with severe Tourette’s. Both the lack of visibility in law by term and overgeneralization of experiences directly impact the right to equality. How do we account for equality under distinctions if we don’t even list them? What’s more, as a neurodivergent individual, young or from older generations, it is hard to not feel invisible or even at a loss for how to belong in modern society. By definition, as noted above, being neurodivergent literally are different ways in which the brain functions (i.e., Neurotypical). This highlights that there is much more work to be done. The lack of visibility regarding equality under law is not just damaging, but also isolating.
The sad truth, as many may know, is that movements and human rights can be impacted more by larger groups. By first seeking to educate the population on what neurodiversity is, we can focus on how current laws force us to have an enmeshed identity. Often cloaked in uncertainty when it comes to timelines, accessibility, and treatment, we can only hope to move the laws and regulations as it impacts each respective group within the neurodiverse community.
ADHD: Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is marked by an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development.
Dyslexia: A condition of neurodevelopmental origin that mainly affects the ease with which a person reads, writes, and spells, typically recognized as a specific learning disorder in children.
Dyspraxia: Difficulty in performing coordinated movements, often associated with a neurodevelopmental condition in children (developmental coordination disorder).
Enmeshment: Cultural enmeshment is the idea that an individual cannot separate from the two or more cultural identities. The individual is torn between or among different cultures and is unable to identify with the more salient culture.
Modalities: A modality is the way or mode in which something exists or is done.
Neurodivergence: Differing in mental or neurological function from what is considered typical or normal (frequently used with reference to autistic spectrum disorders); not neurotypical. "There are some things that neurotypical people just know or can figure out and that neurodivergent students may need to have a model for"
Neurodiversity: Neurodiversity is a word used to explain the unique ways people's brains work.
Neurotypical: Not displaying or characterized by autistic or other neurologically atypical patterns of thought or behavior.
Tourette’s: A nervous system disorder involving repetitive movements or unwanted sounds. Tourette syndrome starts in childhood. It involves uncontrollable repetitive movements or unwanted sounds (tics), such as repeatedly blinking the eyes, shrugging shoulders, or blurting out offensive words.
Permutations: A way, especially one of several possible variations, in which a set or number of things can be ordered or arranged.
Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. (1990).
D'Souza, H., & Karmiloff-Smith, A. (2017). Neurodevelopmental disorders. Wiley interdisciplinary reviews. Cognitive science, 8(1-2), 10.1002/wcs.1398. https://doi.org/10.1002/wcs.1398
Miller, C. (2023, April 21). What is neurodiversity?. Child Mind Institute. https://childmind.org/article/what-is-neurodiversity/#:~:text=The%20neurodiversity%20movement%20was%20launched,brains%20work%20in%20atypical%20ways
Pierce, R. (2023, September 6). Laws & legal protections for those with neurodivergency. Life Skills Advocate. https://lifeskillsadvocate.com/blog/laws-legal-protections-for-those-with-neurodivergency/#What-Exactly-is-Neurodivergence-in-the-Eyes-of-the-Law
Walker, N. (2021). Defining Neurodiversity. In Neuroqueer heresies: Notes on the neurodiversity paradigm, autistic empowerment, and postnormal possibilities (pp. 53–59). story, Autonomous Press.