Evaluativism and the Neurodiversity Movement

The rainbow-colored infinity symbol represents the neurodiversity movement

What do you call it when someone discriminates on the basis of evaluative diversity? For a long time, I didn’t know there was a word for it, but it turns out to be “evaluativism.” In his essay defending evaluativism, Hartry Field offered the following example:

…in dealing with a follower of the Reverend Moon, we may find that too little is shared for a neutral evaluation of anything to be possible, and we may have no interest in the evaluations that the Moonie gives.

In other words, an evaluativist is someone who disregards or avoids people with whom they have disagreements grounded in evaluative differences (and Field’s example is one in which many of us would behave as evaluativists).

Yet much significant research about evaluativism seems unaware of this term. As examples:

To put it bluntly, we engage in evaluativism a lot and without realizing or naming it. Evaluativism is out of control. Where is the movement to fix it? It might have begun with the GRINfree website, or it might have begun with the neurodiversity movement.

The neurodiversity movement grew from the autism movement of the 1990s, especially from Jim Sinclairs’s essay, Don’t Mourn for Us, in which he pointed-out that autism is part of one’s identity, so a parent who wishes their child were not autistic effectively wishes that child were replaced. This sounds remarkably like evaluativism, where a mother wishes her son had not joined that church, or had not fallen in love with that girl, or become a liberal, or become a conservative, or become a materialist. To wish this is to reject the son’s identity, and the son may reciprocate. They may each disown aspects of the other by declaring topics like religion and politics “off the table” between them.

The neurodiversity movement, however, seems to be far ahead of the evaluativism movement. It has a logo (see above), a manifesto (the Holist Manifesto), a national symposium, a host of petitions (including for a neurodiverse doll, for special school districts, and for neurodiverse Disney characters), Thomas Armstrong’s book, The Power of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain, and even a course at the College of William & Mary (Interdisciplinary Studies 490: Neurodiversity).

Yet where does the scope of the neurodiversity movement end? It is called “neurodiversity” because it includes differences labeled “dyspraxia, dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), dyscalculia, autistic spectrum, Tourette syndrome, and others.“ What are the others?  Does the neurodiversity movement even include advocating for more regard between liberals, conservatives, and highly sensitive persons (political orientations do correlate to brain features, as does emotional sensitivity)?

Drawing a line is a problem for the neurodiversity movement because a line would force people to get diagnoses and wear labels. The better solution is for society to appreciate the distinctions observed in individuals even before diagnosis. In other words, appreciate people for who they are, rather than for the labels they wear. But to advocate for that kind of appreciation would be to fight evaluativism.

For example, in an analysis of whether it makes more sense to label people with “Asperger syndrome” and “high-functioning autism” as disabled or to treat them merely as different, Simon Baron-Cohen pointed out that the observable differences that lead to labeling are merely how the person chooses to spend their time, their interests, what they think is relevant and important, what kinds of experiences they prefer, and how easily they are influenced by others. In other words, the differences are all evaluative. Until diagnoses are made, with their accompanying stigmas, there is nothing but evaluativism for the neurodiversity movement to protect these people from.

Here we must take care to avoid stereotypes. Not all women have the same values, so we must not portray sexism as a kind of evaluativism, yet women are more likely to be Naturally Relational, so women’s liberation cannot be achieved without addressing evaluativism. Not all Muslims have the same values, so we must not portray religionism as a kind of evaluativism, yet religionism cannot be resolved without resolving evaluativism. Likewise, John Elder Robinson points out that although autistic people are more likely to reject organized religion today (much less follow Reverend Moon), some church leaders may have been on the autism spectrum. The resolution of evaluativism may be a high priority for the neurodiversity movement, but we should take care not to equate neurodiverse identities with evaluative types.

The word “evaluativism” may be as new to you as it was to me, but members of the neurodiversity movement have always known that evaluativism is an obstacle they face. Armstrong’s suggestion that we recognize the strengths of the children we raise and teach isn’t just a way to respond to a diagnosis–its a strategy for addressing evaluativism in general.

Recognizing this connection is especially important for people who previously thought they had no personal stake in the neurodiversity movement. The truth is that evaluativism threatens every family, company, and nation, and the neurodiversity movement may be best positioned to rescue us. For your own family’s sake, please start following the neurodiversity movement, encourage its activists, sign their petitions, and invite them to address your organization.