Embracing Neurodiversity: Have We Been Inclusive Enough?
by James M. Branum
I married later in life at age 35. The experience of being newly married and a step-father in middle-age enriched and challenged me, especially as it relates to issues of identity. In time, these experiences led me to go through two overlapping journeys of self-discovery. The result was my: (1) being adopted into Judaism through the Society of Humanistic Judaism in 2014, and (2) being diagnosed as being autistic in 2016.
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When I went through these two initiations of understanding, I saw them as two distinct parts of my life, but today I understand that my Humanism, my Judaism and my Autism are all integrally related to each other as core parts of my identity. But I also think that my feelings of connection between these concepts is bigger than just their co-coherence in my identity, rather I believe that the embrace of neurodiversity (see glossary) could be an integral part of the Humanistic Jewish experience, one that would provide new challenges but also opportunities for our movement.
I am excited about these opportunities because they touch on core principles of what it means to be a Humanistic Jew. As Humanists, we value human potential in all of its varied forms, and hence we believe that we all have something important to share as part of the collective work of seeking a better world, not in the hereafter, but RIGHT NOW. And as Jews, we stand with the underdog, the outcast, and those who are told they don’t count. So supporting the interests of neurodivergent people is in our philosophical DNA.
One of the opportunities brought by embracing neurodiversity is the resulting infusion of new ideas. Neurodivergent people experience the world differently than neurotypical people and we think differently. As such, many of us have remarkable skills when it comes to problem solving and artistic creativity. In fact, many argue that the continued presence of autism and other forms of genetically-derived neurodivergence might in fact be an evolutionary adaptation that has served humanity well. This creativity could be a catalyst for significant positive changes in our congregations and our movement as a whole.
A second opportunity is pragmatic, because respecting neurodiversity brings in new people. The academic world has recently noticed what many Autistic people have known all along — that we are more likely to be atheists, agnostics or religious freethinkers than the neurotypical majority. At the same time, some of us also are deeply engaged and interested in religion, often as one of our special interests (see glossary) but have experienced misunderstanding and rejection by our past religious communities. These dynamics make Humanistic Judaism an attractive philosophical home for many neurodivergent people.
And the numbers go beyond neurodivergent people themselves, but also to their family and friends, many of whom will only feel comfortable in a collective Jewish context that is welcoming to their neurodivergent loved ones.
A third opportunity that deeper inclusion provides is the opportunity for new intersectional justice work. Neurodivergent people have long been organizing ourselves in advocating for our own interests, but we have also been active in confronting other kinds of oppression, most notably on the issues of gender and sexuality (this is likely since a high percentage of neurodivergent people identify as being LGBTQ+). Welcoming neurodivergent people into our communities often means welcoming new activists who are working to undo all forms of oppression.
Finally, the embrace of neurodiversity by our movement provides an opportunity for all Humanistic Jews to better understand aspects of ourselves, and each other. I say this because many of the traits of the various conditions associated with neurodivergence are in fact traits that are also shared by portions of the larger population, often by people who might meet some but not all of the diagnostic criteria set by the DSM-5. People who fall into this broader phenotype would benefit from not only some of the accommodations that might be made to welcome neurodivergent people, but also from the wisdom and shared experiences of neurodivergent people.
Our movement has been on the forefront of inclusion since our birth in the 1960’s. We were one of the first Jewish denominations to accept patrilineal descent in Judaism, and we have long had the most open policies towards welcoming non-Jews into Judaism. As our mythical forebearers Abraham and Sarah once welcomed the strangers into their tent, we are challenged to continue the process of showing radical hospitality to the outcasts, but thankfully we also are given the opportunity to grow from this experience.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2021 issue of Humanistic Judaism Magazine. It is written by James Branum, the current editor of HJ Magazine. He also is an attorney, writer, peace activist, and an SHJ member in Oklahoma City.
Ableism: discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities and/or those perceived to be disabled.
ADHD: short for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which encompasses differences in brain development and activity that affect attention, the ability to sit still, and self-control. A subtype is ADD (attention deficit disorder) which does not have the hyperactivity element.
Aspergers: a diagnosis used under the previous edition of the diagnostic manual for a subset of Autism. It is from this term that the popular expression “aspie” is derived. The term is still used by some people but it is becoming less common.
Autism: a term that refers to a set of differences in thinking, social interaction, communication, and the regulation of emotions and sensory experiences. The term can be used in a clinical context (as in a diagnosis of a condition) but also a term of identity by autistic people.
Autism Spectrum: an umbrella term used to cover a broad range of neurological differences that fall within and/or are adjacent to the diagnostic criteria for Autism. The word “spectrum” is used as a metaphor to explain how Autism manifests in different ways for different people.
Dyslexia: most often manifested in difficulties in reading, but it also is manifested in issues with short term memory and organization.
Dyscalculia: difficulty to conceptualize numbers, size, distance and shape.
Dysgraphia: difficulty in hand-writing.
Dyspraxia: difficulties with movement. It can include fine motor skills (like tying shoelaces) or gross motor skills (such as riding a bike).
Echolalia: repetition of vocalizations (either sounds or words). This phenomenon is sometimes present in Autism and in Tourette Syndrome.
Executive Function: the ability to plan complex cognitive tasks and then to implement those tasks. Issues of executive function can cause difficulties in everyday living.
Functional labels: a controversial concept of labeling neurodivergent people as high or low functioning based on diagnostic criteria. Many Autistic people object to these labels as being overly simplistic and at times misleading.
Identity-first Language: a method of self- reference preferred by many neurodiverse people who see their neurodivergence as a part of their identity, such as “autistic person” rather than “person with autism” (see also people-first language below).
Neurodivergent: Sometimes abbreviated as ND, a neurodivergent person has a mind that works in a different way than the dominant social standards of “normal.”
Neurodiversity: the biological fact that human minds are incredibly diverse and have a wide range of differences in neuro-cognitive functioning.
Neurodiversity movement: a movement that sees neurodiversity as part of the normal human experience, and as such advocates for full autonomy and social support of those who are neurodivergent.
Neurotypical: Sometimes abbreviated as NT, a neurotypical person is anyone who is not neurodivergent.
People-first language: A method of labeling people that seeks to put the person before a diagnosis, in other stating what a person “has” rather than what a person “is,” such as in saying “person with autism” rather than “autistic person.” This usage is most common in the medical community, but has been rejected by most (not all) of the neurodiversity movement.
Special Interests: a term for intense areas of interest that many Autistic people have, which sometimes become hobbies and even vocations, but also are sometimes labeled by some as “obsessive interests.”
Stimming: Short for self-stimulatory behavior, it is the repetition of physical movements, sounds, words or moving objects. Often stimming is a calming experience for Autistic people.
Tourette Syndrome: a chronic tic disorder characterized by the present of both motor tics and vocal (phonic) tics.
A list of source used to compile this glossary can be found at: https://bit.ly/HJ-neurodiversitylinks