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Anti-Oppression: Anti-Sanism


Background What does saneism look like? Support Resources for Neurodivergent Folks Informational Resources for Allies

A note on the scope of this guide:

This guide is intended to provide general information about anti-oppression, diversity, and inclusion as well as information and resources for the social justice issues key to current dialogues within the Chicago School community. This guide is by no means an exhaustive list of anti-oppressive initiatives nor does it capture all of the many facets of the larger conversations about the issues listed here. This guide serves as an introduction to these issues and as a starting place for finding information from a variety of sources.



Sanism (also called mentalism) is prejudice plus power; anyone of any neurological condition can have/exhibit neurocognitive-based prejudice, but in North America (and globally), neurotypical people have the institutional power, therefore Sanism is a systematized discrimination, antagonism, or exclusion directed against neurodivergent people based on the belief that neurotypical cognition is superior

Sanism often stems from the "pathology paradigm [that] ultimately boils down to just two fundamental assumptions:

  1. There is one “right,” “normal,” or “healthy” way for human brains and human minds to be configured and to function (or one relatively narrow “normal” range into which the configuration and functioning of human brains and minds ought to fall).
  2. If your neurological configuration and functioning (and, as a result, your ways of thinking and behaving) diverge substantially from the dominant standard of  “normal,” then there is Something Wrong With You." (from Nick Walker)

Anti-Sanism is strategies, theories, actions, and practices that challenge and counter inequalities, prejudices, and discrimination based on neuro-cognitive condition or ability.

Anti-Sanism often cites and upholds "the neurodiversity paradigm, [which] is a perspective that recognizes neurodiversity as a naturally-occurring form of human diversity, like cultural diversity, racial diversity, gender diversity, diversity of physical ability, and diversity of sexual orientation. It follows these fundamental principles:

  1. Neurodiversity – the diversity of brains and minds – is a natural, healthy, and valuable form of human diversity.
  2. There is no “normal” or “right” style of human brain or human mind, any more than there is one “normal” or “right” ethnicity, gender, or culture.
  3. The social dynamics that manifest in regard to neurodiversity are similar to the social dynamics that manifest in regard to other forms of human diversity (e.g., diversity of race, culture, gender, or sexual orientation). These dynamics include the dynamics of social power relations – the dynamics of social inequality, privilege, and oppression – as well as the dynamics by which diversity, when embraced, acts as a source of creative potential within a group or society." (from Nick Walker)



What does sanism look like?

Sanist Microaggressions are commonplace verbal or behavioral indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults in relation to neurodivergence and/or mental health diagnoses. They are structurally based and invoke oppressive systems of a "normal cognition" hierarchy. Sanist MicroinvalidationsMicroinsultsMicroassaults are specific types of microaggressions.

Note: The prefix “micro” is used because these are invocations of normalized cognition hierarchy at the individual level (person to person), where as the "macro" level refers to aggressions committed by structures as a whole (e.g. an organizational policy). "Micro" in no way minimalizes or otherwise evaluates the impact or seriousness of the aggressions.

Further Reading:

Support Resources for Disable & Differently Abled Folks

Informational Resources for Allies

Neurotypical Privilege

Neurotypical privilege refers to the unearned benefits that American society and many other societies and cultures accord to neurotypical people. This privilege is rooted in two cultural beliefs: 1) that "there is one “right,” “normal,” or “healthy” way for human brains and human minds to be configured and to function (or one relatively narrow “normal” range into which the configuration and functioning of human brains and minds ought to fall), and 2) that if your neurological configuration and functioning (and, as a result, your ways of thinking and behaving) diverge substantially from the dominant standard of  “normal,” then there is Something Wrong With You." (from Nick Walker). These beliefs or societal models mean that many cultures, including within the US, have set up social expectations, structures, cultural mores, and institutions to accommodate neurotypical people by default and that dismiss and/or marginalize the needs and experiences of neurodivergent people. Neurotypical privilege speaks to how not being (or not being perceived as being) neurodivergent means not having to think or address topics that those without neurotypical privilege have to deal with, often on a daily basis.

To give you an idea of neurotypical privilege, here are some examples of the benefits neurotypical people receive:

  •  I can easily arrange to be in the company of people of my neurological condition.
  •  If I have a medical problem, I do not worry that my doctor will dismiss it as part of my neurotypicality.
  •  When attempting to purchase health insurance, I know that I will not be rejected because I am neurotypical.
  •  I am not considered more dangerous and more likely to commit a crime because of my neurocognitive functions.
  •  I can reveal my neurology to my boss and coworkers without fear of losing my job.

Further Reading: 

Neurotypical Fragility

Neurotypical fragility (drawing on white fragility in critical race theory) is rooted in a desire to restore and reproduce neurotypical normativity. It is a combination of lack of stamina in interrogating conceptualizations of neurocognitive configurations and functioning, as well as a resistance to challenging those conceptions, often react[ing] with defensiveness [and] forcing neurodivergent people to do the emotional labor of comforting the neurotypical person in addition to educating them. (adapted from Cis Fragility)

The dominant association between "normal" and "neurotypical" allows most neurotypical people to live in social environments that insulate them from challenging encounters with neurodivergence, neurodiversity perspectives, or people who differ from themselves. Within this dominant social environment, neurotypical people come to expect social comfort and a sense of belonging and that their perspective of "normal" is correct by default. When this comfort is disrupted, neurotypical people are often at a loss because they have not had to build skills for constructive engagement with neurodivergent people and their social perspectives. They may become defensive, positioning themselves as victims of anti-saneist work and co-opting the rhetoric of violence to describe their experiences of being challenged on neurotypical privilege. (adapted from "Christian Fragility")

Books @ TCS & Subject Headings


In an effort at full disclosure, it should be noted that the collaborators on this guide occupy some of the oppressed identities outlined here, but not all of them. We have attempted to bring together quality, relevant resources for the anti-oppression issues in this guide, but we are not immune from the limits and hidden biases of our own privileges and perspectives as allies.

We welcome and greatly appreciate any feedback and suggestions for the guide, particularly from the perspectives and experiences of the marginalized groups listed and not listed here.