Guest Post by Jennifer Iverson: Intersections of Disability Studies, Neurodiversity, and Neuroscience

For many of you who have been acquainted with Disability Studies for some time,  it is not a revelation to view people who test “on the spectrum” (that is, on the autism spectrum) as talented, smart, exceptional individuals. I was delighted to read this article recently, “The Boy Whose Brain Could Unlock Autism,” by Maia Szalavitz in the web publication Medium. The article describes the research of neuroscientist Henry Markram, who now leads the EU’s Human Brain Project. Markram and his research team induced autism in rats’ brains, and studied how the synapses and cells responded to excitation. His team found that brain cells in autistic-type brains were hyperactive and much more connected than in neuro-typical brains. This research shows that autistic people are extremely smart; in fact, they learn much faster and have many more associations because of their hyper-wired brains. Of course, this can also result in sensory overstimulation and fear responses. Markram terms this the “Intense World Syndrome“.

Markram hypothesizes that what fundamentally characterizes autism is an excess of great synaptic activity, not a lack of social processing networks. Note the fundamental shift here from lack to excess–an important change in attitude that has been well understood in disability studies and neurodiversity communities for some time. I’m thrilled to see neuroscience researchers adopting the perspective of ability rather than the perspective of disability. I think this also demonstrates the way in which our humanities scholarship and personal/professional advocacy has important ramifications, sometimes specific, sometimes diffuse. Would Markram have been able to study and conceptualize autism from the perspectives of hyper-ability and excess, had the path not been slowly but surely cleared by cultural warriors who have been advocating for access, inclusion, and neurodiversity in their own communities?

If this topic is right up your alley, be sure to catch Michael Bakan‘s position paper at AMS/SMT, Saturday November 8, 8-11 p.m. Bakan (Florida State University) shares his work on an ethnographic project involving adult musicians who are on the spectrum. He’ll be joined by respondents Andrew Dell’Antonio (University of Texas at Austin) and Elizabeth J. Grace (National Louis University), who are working on similar research involving autism and music-making.