What makes ”neuropsychiatry-” terminology biased and misleading?

The term ”neuropsychiatry” is based on historical misunderstanding from a time when autism and other neurominorities were believed to be psychiatric conditions. Today, it fuels and keeps alive many harmful prejudices and misconceptions about neurominorities. Even so, it is still going on strong and is favored especially by neurotypical-identifying people when they discuss issues pertaining to neurominorities.

So in reality, ”neuropsychiatric-” talk does NOT signal expertise or good understanding of neurominorities. Far from it. Here, I’m going to highlight some harmful misconceptions maintained by use of this manner of speech.

❌ Many people still believe that being in neurominority is like a psychiatric illness. One must at least want to be cured from it, and one should want to cure people “suffering” from it. It is mistakenly assumed, that inside every neurodivergent person there is “imprisoned” a little neurotypical person, who is suffering greatly. Yet even the -in itself problematic- diagnostic process is based on excluding psychiatric illnesses from among possible reasons behind observed struggles. So in fact, being neurodivergent is in particular not anything “psychiatric”. (Please note, that neurodivergent people can still get mentally ill, just like anyone else. But neurodiversity in itself is not a mental health issue, or anything equivalent).

❌ People believe, that members of neurominorities feel the better the less noticeable their minority traits are. They fail to understand, that a good life need not be life lived according to neurotypical ideals and preferences. This in turn leads in eg. encouraging people to mask their minority traits, which, according to research, is a serious risk to our health and even life. Also, supporting us becomes considerably more difficult when solutions based on acting differently from neurotypicals are not seen as viable solutions to perceived issues.

❌ It is a commo belief, that suffering is a natural and inevitable share of neurodivergent people. People believe that social problems assosicated with neurodivergence, such as unemployment, loneliness and struggling in daily life are unfortunate but natural consequences of our flawed condition. This, in turn, hides discrimination and social practices producing inequality.

❌ When people mistakenly believe, that there is something wrong in our heads, outsiders talking over us and making decisions for us is normalized. Surely we must be somehow incompetent, unpredictable and unable to bear responsibility. We should be patronized for our own good and eg. protected against embarrassing ourselves by closely guarding our representation.

❌ When only our struggles count as neurodivergent traits, our strenghts are overlooked and belittled. Things in which neuromajority could easily help us become mountain-sized issues that we are forced ton survive alone and that far outweigh any and all strengths we might have.

❌ We are presumed to be terrible, annoying and burdensome personalities. In truth, not only are  most of us very likeable people, this attitude easily leads in toxic social situations when neurodivergent people hesitate too much setting boundaries and expressing their needs out of fear of coming across as “difficult” and “a burden”. On the other hand, this attitude encourages majority to see even our basic needs as something super special.

❌ People fail to understand, that we are a minority. For instance, our own, perfectly good way of communication and lifestyle choices normal for us are pathologized, problematized and seen as worthless. Minority stress and trauma reactions go unrecognized and people fail to understand their connection to our minority status and it invisibility.

We would be far better off if we got rid of neuropsychiatry-talk. Even use of a much more equal expression ”neurominority” can be problematic outside contexts of equality and minority position, because in fact there exist several neurominorities that are very different from one another and may have even contrasting support needs. It is, indeed, difficult to discuss sensibly about issues such as support needs or reasonable accommodations and adjustments, if different neurominorities are just lumped together. This is no small issue, either – for example, in schools, it would be a recipe for disaster to  group autistic kids with sensory sensitivities and sensory seeking ADHD kids together on the basis that “both are neurodivergent”.

Finally, everyone should understand that neurominorities can not be understood well while sticking to the level where we can be sensibly treated as one minority. Because perspective provided by lived experience, in addition to academic expertise, is essential for understanding minority experience correctly, and because nobody can simultaneously belong to every neurominority, general “expertise neuropsychiatry” is an oxymoron and just a marketing trick. Real experts about neurominorities either only discuss the specific minorities they personally hail from (like Kaiao does) or either make it very clear to their auditions that the depth of treatment of the subject is very superficial and their knowledge about the matter is considersably limited…and that very likely, one could find better experts belonging to relevant neurominorities.

Kaiao is Finland’s leading expert in neurodiversity-affirming language and terminology. We have participated in creating equal vocabulary for Autism as consulting partner to ASY , and currently provide support for all who wish to communicate about neurodiversity in a way that is equal and supportive to neurominorities.