Neuroqueer Heresies by Nick Walker, an essential toolkit for theorizing neurodiversity

Several months ago I started seriously exploring the possibility that I was autistic, and I found myself struggling to find information about autism that I could relate to. I wanted to know if my struggle with mental and emotional health was similar to other autistic people’s struggles. (I now know the answer is yes.) When I read what many so-called “experts” on autism have written about autistic people, I couldn’t see myself in their pathologizing descriptions. I knew I needed a different way of thinking about autism, a different way of theorizing autistic experience. 

I wish I had discovered Nick Walker’s book sooner. Neuroqueer Heresies: Notes on the Neurodiversity Paradigm, Autistic Empowerment, and Postnormal Possibilities is crucial reading for anyone just starting to think about neurodiversity in liberating, rather than pathologizing, ways. Walker’s clear discussion of terminology like “neurodivergence” and “neurotypical” would have been invaluable to me when I first started to play around with these words and the window into human experience that they open up. 

Cover of Neuroqueer Heresies by Nick Walker

Walker, an autistic transgender psychologist, has been well-known in the Neurodiversity Movement for years. This book gathers together many of her intellectual contributions to the movement and offers accessible and empowering tools for anyone interested in thinking and learning about neurodiversity in a way that speaks back to the widespread pathologization of autism and neurodivergence more broadly. 

Neuroqueer Heresies consists of updated versions of several of Walker’s well-known essays, which are available on her website. It also contains a few original pieces and recent commentary by Walker, who reflects on how these essays and ideas have been received over the past several years. Many of the essays in the book are focused on introducing particular tools for theorizing neurodivergence and neurodivergent experience in ways that resist what she calls “the pathology paradigm”. 

The first essay in the book, “Throw away the master’s tools: Liberating ourselves from the pathology paradigm” (an earlier version is freely available here), explores what Walker calls “the pathology paradigm”. This phrase provides a useful way of naming and coming to recognize the dominant perspective from which neurodivergence is understood. This dominant perspective often masquerades as a perspective from no where, a perspective that simply sees and narrates the world and the people in it as they are, “objectively”. Walker rejects this naïve view and stresses instead that contemporary scientific and clinical pathologization of autism is no more objective than the historical scientific and clinical pathologization of (gender) queerness. Ultimately, Walker advocates that we rid ourselves of the pathology paradigm, and instead embrace what she calls “the neurodiversity paradigm”.

The book is packed with useful tools for anyone who wants to embrace the neurodiversity paradigm. For example, Walker provides helpful and detailed explanations for frequently used terms like “neurotypicality” and “neurodivergence”, providing clarity to these immensely important but often misunderstood concepts. Walker’s definitions and explanation of theoretical terms like “neurotypicality”, “neurodivergence”, “neurominority”, and “neurocosmoplitanism” provide readers with an account of the politics underlying her and other activists’ use and coining of these terms. Like all social movements, the Neurodiversity Movement has a set of theoretical tools for thinking about the world, tools that have been crafted with the goal of undoing oppressive ideologies. Walker provides a richly informed perspective on those theoretical tools and their crafting. 

Probably the most timely aspect of this book is its discussion of “neuroqueering”, a concept that can be used to speak back to transphobic concerns about young people’s gender identities. Such concerns are, as I write this in April 2022, receiving an inordinate amount of media attention. For example, while appearing on the BBC, David Bell, a psychiatrist, raised concerns about gender-affirming treatment for children in the British healthcare system, which, in his opinion, too readily affirms trans children’s agency. During his interview, Bell stated “There’s been a great pressure to affirm these children as trans… without appropriate exploration. 35% of these children are on the autistic spectrum.” Bell doesn’t elaborate as to why we should be particularly skeptical of autistic children’s gender expression. Bell and others like him, who think of autism only using the tools of the pathology paradigm, lack an appropriate tool for understanding autistic people’s agency with respect to gender. 

Walker’s book offers just such a tool in the concept of “neuroqueering”. Walker builds on existing theories of gender and sexuality which stress that there is nothing particularly “natural” about existing gender expectations or the performances they demand, nor is there anything “natural” about compliance with ideas about how we should embody gender (including notably our sexualities). Walker insightfully connects demands that we behave in ways that are consistent with the gender imposed on us to demands that we behave in ways that make us appear neurotypical. Walker writes 

The entwined nature of neuronormativity and heteronormativity means that the compulsory performance of neurotypicality is never a gender-neutral performance, but instead is strongly tied to the performance of binary heteronormative gender roles. Normative performance of whichever gender one was assigned at birth is central to what it means to be “normal” in the eyes of the present dominant culture. Thus, when the enforcers of normativity demand that a child “act normal,” it’s ultimately a demand to either act like a “normal boy” or like a “normal girl,” whether or not the demand is explicitly phrased that way. 

I found this insight helpful in explaining why, even as someone who embodies the privileged identity category of cis-heterosexual man, I find myself quite alienated by gender. Indeed, my gender identity feels decidedly unnatural to me, more like a routine I’ve been disciplined into than an expression of who I am. Walker’s writing about neuroqueering offers an explanation for my experience. Indeed, because I’m autistic, I struggle more to perform my cis-hetero masculinity in ways that are recognizable and acceptable to others. Being autistic makes compliance with the expectations of cis-hetero masculinity more challenging and at times impossible for me. When I was younger, I was often the target of misogynist and homophobic slurs directed at me by peers who more convincingly performed the identity of “normal boys”. Although I’ve complied with many of the expectations others attach to the gender imposed on me at birth, it is not hard for me to see why so many other autistic people choose to play the gender game differently.

I wish people like David Bell, who are fretting about autistic people’s gender expression, understood this. As Walker argues in Neuroqueer Heresies, part of supporting autistic liberation is supporting our right to express our gender as we see fit, including all the ways in which autistic people actively neuroqueer gender identity and gender expectations. And, I do mean all the ways.

I highly recommend checking out Walker’s book (or the essays freely available on her website) for an essential set of tools to think against the pathology paradigm and neuronormativity. I will be using the tools I got from Walker to continue writing about my own relationship with gender as an autistic cis-heterosexual man. If you’re interested in receiving updates about my work, subscribe to my newsletter by entering your email into the form at the bottom of this page. You will receive an email to confirm your subscription, so please check your inbox (and possibly spam folder).