Neurodiversity and Intersectionality

By Azrin Manzur

Reading time 10 minutes ⏰


Intersectionality was a term coined by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw. It describes the unique experiences people live through when they fit different combinations of social identities such as race, class, sexual orientation, age, gender, ability, and more. For example, a Black neurodiverse (or ND) woman and a white ND woman might have similar life experiences based on their neurodiversity and gender, but different experiences in terms of race. The name for this concept is intersectionality because these social identities can be thought of as roads, and sometimes those roads can overlap with each other, creating intersections (TED, 2016). Intersectionality theory was originally created to provide a new lens for modern feminism, but it can be applied to any aspect of identity, including ability and neurodiversity.


So how does intersectionality interact with neurodiversity? One of the biggest ways is through biological sex. There is evidence that women and girls with autism are much less likely to be diagnosed than men and boys due to the lack of research and the differences in symptomatic presentation (Whitlock et al., 2020). However, ND individuals can also have different experiences based on race. For example, on the subject of diagnoses, Black children are more likely to be diagnosed with conduct disorder rather than autism compared to white children, which is just one instance of medical racism (Mandell et al., 2007). The difficulties associated with obtaining a diagnosis can result in a lack of accommodations in school or at work, an inability to access medication, therapy, or other healthcare, and a general feeling of unease and lack of identity.


Race also majorly intersects with socioeconomic status (SES). Indigenous, Hispanic, Pacific Islander and Native Hawaiian families have a greater likelihood of living in poverty compared to white and Asian families in the U.S. (U.S. Census Bureau, 2014). This intersection can also play a major role in one’s experiences with neurodiversity. Depending on one’s SES, the healthcare options, and educational opportunities for children who have learning disabilities (e.g. dyslexia, dyscalculia, ADHD, etc) can greatly differ. Specialized schools with trained professionals to help children with these conditions can be expensive, and ND children who come from families that can afford this kind of education are more privileged and can end up with more employment opportunities compared to ND children who come from economically disadvantaged families.


It is important to recognize these differences in privilege through the lens of intersectionality. It is easy to assume all ND individuals have a shared experience, but in reality, each one has a unique set of circumstances shaped by the factors around them.


References


Botha, M., & Gillespie-Lynch, K. (2022). Come as You Are: Examining Autistic Identity

Development and the Neurodiversity Movement through an Intersectional Lens. Human Development, 66(2), 93-112. https://www.doi.org/10.1159/000524123.


Mandell, D. S., Ittenbach, R. F., Levy, S. E., & Pinto-Martin, J. A. (2007). Disparities in

diagnoses received prior to a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37(9), 1795–1802. https://doi-org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/10.1007/s10803-006-0314-8.


TED. (2016, December 7). The Urgency of Intersectionality | Kimberlé Crenshaw. [Video].

YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akOe5-UsQ2o.


U.S. Census Bureau. (2014). U.S. poverty report. Retrieved from

https://www.census.gov/population/projections/data/national/2014.html.


Whitlock, A., Fulton, K., Lai, M. C., Pellicano, E., & Mandy, W. (2020). Recognition of girls on

the autism spectrum by primary school educators: An experimental study. Autism Research, 13(8), 1358–1372. https://doi.org/10.1002/aur.2316.