Anna Stenning, Hanna Bertilsdotter Rosqvist and Nick ChownJul 21, 2021
A New Critical Paradigm
Since the term was popularized in the 1960s, a “paradigm shift” seems second in difficulty only to the primary task of identifying one to begin with. This is because a paradigm determines what counts as real, thereby imposing limits on consciousnesses. Put differently, the challenge with identifying and shifting paradigms is why not every fish might realize that what surrounds them—and makes their swimming possible—is water. Indeed, this is how the late David Foster Wallace described the difference between default or cultivated kinds of consciousness his famous 2005 commencement speech.
The neurodiversity studies paradigm is one in which autism, ADHD, dyslexia, aphantasia, and other forms of long-term neurological differences are “part of a broader spectrum of human diversity, rather than inescapably associated with deviance, disorder, or impoverished selfhood,” write editors Hanna Bertilsdotter Rosqvist, Anna Stenning, and Nick Chown in the Acknowledgements to
Neurodiversity Studies: A New Critical Paradigm (Routledge, 2020). They go on to credit those who have been marginalized in (what can now be called) the neurotypical paradigm as having produced the contours of this alternative paradigm through many years of “ardent campaigning.” The resulting collection of essays function to both identify and center the paradigm of neurodivergence, in the tradition of Feminism, Critical Race Theory, and Queer Studies. As the book description concludes, “at the crossroads between sociology, critical psychology, medical humanities, critical disability studies, and critical autism studies, and sharing theoretical ground with critical race studies and critical queer studies, the proposed new field – neurodiversity studies – will be of interest to people working in all these areas.”
As ableism begins to feature in more mainstream discussions about identity and oppression (alongside racism, sexism, and homophobia, for example), Neurodiversity Studies is poised to elucidate paradigmatic limits as well as possibilities within education specifically. Writing towards the end of the infamous paradigm wars in the social sciences in 1989, Lous Heshusius named and critiqued the “Newtonian mechanistic paradigm” as the tacit foundation of special education and associated fields such as psychology—the origin of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), which a significant contingent of neurodivergent folks and allies now vehemently oppose. Heshusius highlighted how the Newtonian mechanistic paradigm operated within research and practice on learning disabilities to reify rationality and simplicity, or atomization (the imperative of breaking complexity down into neat components that could then be ordered linearly). According to Heshusius, these foundational assumptions enshrined the field’s faith in objectivity, causality, predictability, certainty, control, etc.—which in turn gave rise to the pedagogies, instruments, diagnostics, assessments, programs, and objectives that seem sacrosanct in special education.
The parallels to religion in this last sentence are intentional, because while religion has historically given rise to geopolitical wars, battles over paradigms catalyze metaphysical ones. Rather than reproduce the Newtonian mechanistic paradigm that would atomize those of us ostensibly interested in “challenging the universality of propositions about human nature” into hostile opposing camps (i.e., special education vs. neurodivergent), the editors and contributors to Neurodiversity Studies are “…questioning the boundaries between predominant neurotypes and ‘others’” through narrative, theoretical, and empirical arguments that both identify and invite paradigm shifting in a way that cannot be dismissed by the neurodiverse—which is all of us.
Christina Anderson Bosch is faculty at the California State University, Fresno. She is curious about + committed to public, inclusive education in pluralistic societies where critical perspectives on questions of social and ecological justice are valued enough to enact material dignity and metaphysical wellbeing on massive scales.