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Judy Singer

Today, it is my great honour to welcome Judy Singer to a College Fellowship at Birkbeck, University of London. Her contributions to the ideals for which Birkbeck stands are immeasurable. In the late 1990s, Singer conceptualised the term 'neurodiversity'. She combined the 'neuro' in neurosciences with the emphasis on biodiversity within the environmental sciences, to form the powerful concept of 'neurodiversity'. As she explains, 'just as biodiversity is essential to ecosystem stability, so neurodiversity may be essential for cultural stability'. The concept 'caught on', she later recalled, 'because it delivers an instant Aha! moment to so many of us. We hear it, we know it, it fits our times and for many of us, names our struggles'. She urged people to embrace the full spectrum of human functioning. In short, without Singer, the flourishing field of neurodiversity would not exist.

Singer is an Australian sociologist, author, and international speaker and adviser. In the 1980s, Singer became aware of the importance of diversity in the context of the rise of the neurosciences, environmental crises, racism, and antisemitism. She observed that, while it was no longer acceptable for people to make derogatory comments about racially-minoritized people, it was, she wrote, 'still open season on 'nerds', aka Aspies – as we learned to call ourselves'. Her honour's thesis in Sociology (undertaken at the University of Technology in Sydney between 1996 and 1998, and then published formally in a paper in 1998) was entitled Odd People In. The Birth of Community Amongst People on the Autistic Spectrum. A Personal Exploration of a New Social Movement Based on Neurological Diversity. Drawing on critical social research, feminism, and postmodernism, Singer made powerful arguments for why people should balance the medical paradigm, which emphasised the need for to 'cure' conditions that have been categorised as 'autistic spectrum disorder', 'attention deficit disorder', 'dyslexia', and so on, and with sociological, even adaptive models of difference in human functioning. The term was further popularized in 1998 by Harvey Blume, with whom Singer had been in correspondence, in an article in The Atlantic.

The 1980s and 1990s were heady times for public awareness of autism. Although the terms 'autism' and 'Asperger's' had been coined in 1912 and 1928, in the English-speaking world, the labels were not well known until taken up by British child development psychiatrist Lorna Wing, who had an autistic daughter. Feminism, the patients' movement, and slogans such as 'nothing about us, without us' were transforming the way people thought about human variation and the complexities of selfhood. Personal accounts were also being published – including Donna Williams' Nobody, Nowhere (1994) and Temple Grandin's Emergence, Labelled Autistic (1986) and Thinking in Pictures (1996) – which presented alternative ways to reflect on sameness and difference. And then there was the internet revolution, accessible to all. As Singer rightly contends, the internet was 'the prosthetic device that binds isolated, socially unskilled autistics into a collective social organism capable of having a public "voice"'.

But Singer had another insight. In order to tackle stigmatisation and discrimination effectively, neurologically diverse people needed a movement to serve as an umbrella for the emerging online Autistic Self-Advocacy Movement which, as she puts it, 'was beginning to attract "Cousins" – other neurological minorities with similar issues'. A movement needed a catchy name – and that name was 'neurodiversity'. As the first sociologist of 'neurodiversity', Singer was also profoundly aware of the need to ensure that an intersectional approach permeated the movement. The term 'intersectionality' had been coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a legal academic and one of the founders of Critical Race Theory. Crenshaw argued that if we are to understand processes of marginalization or discrimination, we have to pay attention to the complexities – even messiness – of people's lives. In other words, people experience prejudices and discrimination not solely on account of one characteristic – race, sex and gender, class, age, or neurodiversity, for example – but through the compounding effects of these characteristics. The social difficulties experienced by neurodivergent people are not 'innate' or 'inevitable' but are the result of the way society has been organised to exclude or marginalise them. Rather than eradication (let alone 'cure') Singer calls for nothing short of a societal transformation to respect the full range and diversity of humanity. Her aim is recognition as much as ending discrimination. She insists that the 'power of the ND [neurodiversity] movement is that it is a leaderless and non-hierarchical network held together by the internet. As such, it gives both individuals and local or national social enterprises the freedom and power to have "a voice", in whatever medium suits them best'. Crucially, she insists that neurodiversity is the 'name of a social movement, not a diagnosis'. After all, everyone is neurodivergent in the sense that we are all different. Neurodiversity as a concept is a 'socially constructed term intended for advocacy purposes', a 'civil rights movement for those of us who had been stigmatized for being "weird, odd, or unfathomable" outsiders'.

A large part of Singer's importance is due to the fact that she has always been 'hands-on'. Indeed, her early work was an auto-ethnographic study of her own family, which comprised of three generations of autistic women, of which she was in the middle (she describes herself as a 'mild Aspie'). Her family history was a traumatic one. Singer's mother was the only survivor in her family of Auschwitz. In the 1950s, Singer's parents emigrated to Australia. Although her mother was highly educated and spoke English as well as three other languages, it was obvious that there was something 'odd' about her. As Singer recalls, her and her father would ask her mother 'Why can't you be normal for once in your life'. When Singer herself had a child, she also noticed that her young daughter was different from her peers. In searching for an explanation, Singer came across a description of autism that seemed to fit many aspects of her daughter's character (although not her daughter's 'deeply loving and affectionate nature'). Reading Ann Shearer's book, Disability: Whose Handicap? (1981) was a revelation: this was the book that taught her that 'prejudice and social exclusion' were responsible for 'turning biologically-based individual differences into 'personal tragedies"'. It turned her into an activist. She devoted herself to running community support groups for children of autistic parents as well as parents of autistic children. She fought antisemitism. In 2003, she co-founded ASteen, a social club for Aspergers teens and young adults in Sydney. She was also active in Sydney's Inner West Autism and Asperger's Parent Support Group, which gives mutual support, engages in community education, maintains a library of useful resources, and provides other services. Singer is fond of quoting: 'From each, according to their ability. To each, according to their need', adding that to truly know people abilities and needs, people should turn to 'art, science, history, politics, goodwill, awareness of others and one's self. It requires that we all give life our best. That is humanity's moral task'.

So, to conclude, who is 'the person'? Singer is described as 'fun'. She loves the structure and power of folk dancing as well as Gilbert and Sullivan opras. She has a satirical blog that chronicles Australia's treatment of people in social housing and welfare. I am told that she has a 'razor-sharp mind' and 'courage to always say what is right, and not what is easy or comfortable'. She radiates respect for the human species in all its beauty. She has also contributed significantly to our Birkbeck community, acting as an advisor to the neurodiversity work in the Department of Organizational Psychology. Her work is cited in thousands of academic papers, books, doctoral theses, and blogs. Her ideas have launched an entire field – so much so that neurodiversity is now a prominent concept in all areas of academia, education, and the workplace. Indeed, it is a word for each and every of us today.

For her world-changing work in shaping and revolutionising an entire field and acting as an advocate for neurodiverse communities, we are thrilled to welcome her to this College Fellowship.