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From neurodiversity to neurodivergence: the role of epistemic and cognitive marginalization

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Diversity is an undeniable fact of nature (Gaston and Spicer in Biodiversity: an introduction. Wiley, Hoboken, 2004), and there is now evidence that nature did not stop generating diversity just before “designing” the human brain (Joel et al. in Proc Natl Acad Sci 112(50):15,468–15,473., 2015). If neurodiversity is a fact of nature, what about neurodivergence? Although the terms “neurodiversity” and “neurodivergence” are sometimes used interchangeably, this is, we believe, a mistake: “neurodiversity” is a term of inclusion whereas “neurodivergence” is a term of exclusion. To make the difference clear, note that everyone can be said to be neurodiverse, but that it is almost impossible for everyone to be neurodivergent. Neurodivergence is, we claim here, a fact of society. Neurodivergent individuals are those whose cognitive profile diverges from an established cognitive norm, a norm that is not an objective statistical fact of human neurological functioning but a standard established and maintained by socio-political processes. In this paper, we describe the socio-political mechanisms that build neurodivergence out of neurodiversity which, inspired by Mihai (Contemp Polit Theory 17(4):395–416., 2018), we call “epistemic and cognitive marginalization”. First, we extend the traditional concept of neurodiversity, which we believe too closely tied to a neuroreductionist conception of cognition, to that of “extended neurodiversity,” thereby viewing neurodiversity through the lens of 4E (i.e., embodied, embedded, extended, and enactive) cognition. Considering that human cognition depends on epistemic resources, both for their construction (diachronic dependence) and their online dynamic expression (synchronic dependence), we hypothesize that the differential access to epistemic resources in society, a form of epistemic injustice, is an overlooked mechanism that turns neurodiversity into neurodivergence. In doing so, we shed light on a type of epistemic injustice that might be missing from the epistemic injustice literature: cognitive injustices.

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  1. Note that we could have used the term “epistemically privileged” here, but we chose instead to use “epistemically dominant” (we also use “epistemic power”) to distinguish it from a concept from feminist standpoint theory (Harding, 1986; Harawy, 1988): an “epistemically privileged standpoint” is a first-person point of view on a phenomenon that gives knowledge that is neither transmitted nor shared by the dominant group.

  2. Our point is not to criticize those who self-identify as neurodivergent for their use of the term. On the contrary, we believe this type of usage is particularly fitting since marginalization is, as we will argue, at the core of neurodivergence. Our point is simply to note the normative nature of "neurodivergence" (as opposed to the descriptive nature of "neurodiversity").

  3. In this paper we will use terms such as “neuroatypical” and “neurodivergent”, but these terms should be taken as meaning “considered neuroatypical” and “considered neurodivergent”. Just as people are gendered, racialized, etc., they are “medicalized” (or better: “psychiatrized”), that is conditions that are to a great extent dependent on the society to which they belong are made into essential features of themselves as individuals. We do not wish to essentialize the normative distinction between typical and atypical, but we want to refer specifically to those groups that are marginalized because their cognitive profiles differ from the established cognitive norm.

  4. We will use the arguably awkward term “ADHD people” instead of “people with ADHD” to avoid non-inclusive language. This choice is inspired by a growing desire from the ADHD community to find a better suited name for their cognitive profiles. Some have suggested dropping the “D” that stands for “disorder” and simply going with “ADH”, from which “ADHer” can be derived (Hulst, 2021). Others have suggested using “VAST” (Variable Attention Stimulus Trait) (Hallowell & Ratey, 2021).

  5. Freely available online at

  6. How many neurocognitive types there are is an empirical question which we do not want to prejudge here (no one should as we collectively have sufficient knowledge about the matter to settle the issue).

  7. It should be noted however that neurotypical individuals, whose cognitive profile fits with the available epistemic resources, can experience epistemic injustices in other aspects of their life: we can think of racism, sexism, cisgenderism, audism, ableism or any other form of marginalization. However, with an extended view of cognition where brain, body, environment and culture are intertwined in the complex dynamic process that we call "cognition", these other epistemic injustices can logically contribute to the fragility of cognitive resources (Pitts-Taylor, 2016).

  8. While we understand that the nature (and boundaries) of cognition is the subject of much debate, it is not our aim here to take an ontological stance on the matter. We are partial to the 4E view of cognition, but for the purposes of this paper, the reader can assume we take an epistemological stance on 4E cognition: In order to gain a fuller understanding of how certain epistemic injustices turn neurodiversity into neurodivergence, should consider the full dynamic range of contributors to cognition, that is, an embodied, embedded, extended and enactive view of cognition.

  9. Our proposed mechanism is also related to—yet distinct from—the looping mechanism at the heart of interactive kinds (Hacking, 1995, 1999). The expression “natural kinds” refers to categories that maximize the value of inductive inference in science. If one knows that something is H2O, then one can infer that it has a number of other properties. But if one knows that something is a member of the category “things that are on my side of the room” then there are few things one may infer about that thing. But the natural kinds of physical science such as H2O are classificatory inert: they do not react or change their nature as a result of their inclusion by scientists in a particular natural kind. Hacking observed in contrast that the kinds one finds in the social and human sciences do react or change their nature as a result of being classified under a given category. They are interactive. If I learn that my boss has classified me in the category of “bad employees”, then I may decide to improve my behavior or performance in ways that will make her classification false. Or I may come to view myself as a bad employee and act in ways that make the category even truer of me. Psychiatric conditions are, Hacking maintains, such interactive kinds: individuals react to their classification in a psychiatric category in ways that affect the value of the classificatory act. Although they may partly overlap, the mechanisms by which individuals react to their being classified are different from the mechanism which create neurodivergence.

  10. As we mentioned earlier, social movements like the neurodiversity movement are not immune either.

  11. We suspect that some of the biases and prejudices suffered by invisibly disabled people might reveal some shortcomings in the epistemic injustice literature and framework, but this is a discussion that requires more scrutiny to be included in the current paper.

  12. Some even consider epistemic injustices, both testimonial and hermeneutical, as cases of distributive injustices (Coady, 2017). However fruitful such a view might be, our argument does not require subscription to it.

  13. We based this percentage on a recent report by researchers from both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) stating that the percentage of children aged 3–17 diagnosed with a developmental disability between 2009 and 2017 was nearly 17% (Zablotsky et al., 2019).

  14. A prominent—but local—example is a recent documentary series on life on the autism spectrum beyond 18 years old (the legal age of adulthood in Canada) titled “Autiste, maintenant majeur”, which translates to “Autistic, now major”. The series highlights, among other things, the lack of resources offered to autistic adults and, when relevant, their caregivers.


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Funding was provided by social sciences and humanities research council of canada and Fonds de Recherche du Québec-Société et Culture.

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Correspondence to Jean-Nicolas Bourdon.

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This article belongs to the topical collection on Epistemological Issues in Neurodivergence and Atypical Cognition, edited by Alejandro Vázquez-del-Mercado Hernández and Claudia Lorena García-Aguilar.

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Legault, M., Bourdon, JN. & Poirier, P. From neurodiversity to neurodivergence: the role of epistemic and cognitive marginalization. Synthese 199, 12843–12868 (2021).

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