Neurodivergence is a term that refers to any difference in the structure or function of the brain or of its associated networks that results in atypical patterns of thinking, feeling, or behaving. It is a broad term encompassing many conditions and experiences, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Neurodivergence is not a new word, and the word was coined in the late 90s by researcher Judy Singer and came from “neurological variation.” However, it has only recently been adopted by members of the neurodiversity movement as a way to discuss their experiences more widely within society. This article will explore everything about neurodivergence.
An Overview of Neurodiversity
Neurodiversity is a concept that regards neurological differences as average human differences. It’s a social model of disability that argues that neurological differences like autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and others should be viewed as cognitive functioning variations rather than disorders or diseases.
Neurodiversity advocates believe that there is no one “normal” type of brain or mind and that neurological differences like autism or dyslexia should be recognized and accommodated as part of the natural variation in the human genome.
It is an inclusive concept that welcomes all people regardless of their neurological makeup. It also seeks to dismantle common stereotypes about what constitutes a “normal” or “healthy” brain. For example, neurodiversity advocates argue that just because someone has a smaller hippocampus (a part of the brain associated with memory) doesn’t mean they’ll have worse short-term memory than someone with a larger hippocampus.
Neurodiversity isn’t just about recognizing how different brains function — it’s also about accepting those differences as expected, positive aspects of humanity. This doesn’t mean everyone has to accept every type of diversity, but it does mean accepting that all types exist and is equally valid (and not something to be cured).
Categories of Neurodiversity
While the neurodiversity movement has been around for quite some time, it’s only in recent years that public awareness of it has increased. And as with any movement, many terms are thrown around and used interchangeably, including neurotypical and neurodivergent. Let’s quickly understand them.
What Does Neurotypical Mean?
Neurotypical is a term that describes people whose brains function like most other people’s brains. Neurotypicals may not be aware of how their brains work or what it feels like for their brains to work differently from others. Still, they can assume that other people see, hear, taste, and feel similar things.
Characteristics of neurotypical people:
- They can understand social cues such as body language and facial expressions.
- They have trouble understanding the world from an autistic person’s perspective but are willing to learn more about it.
- They can communicate verbally and nonverbally with others without difficulty (unless they are deaf or hearing impaired).
- They don’t need extra help with daily activities like dressing themselves and getting around in public places like malls and grocery stores.
People with neurotypical brains have no problem with attention, impulse control, and self-awareness. They can easily understand the way other people think and feel. They usually have good language skills and are good at reading facial expressions.
What Does Neurodivergent Mean?
A neurodivergent person’s brain functions differently from most others due to various factors, including genetic differences, structural differences, chemical imbalances, etc. Such differences may affect their abilities to process information in specific ways or how they process it.
Types of Neurodivergence
The term neurodivergence is broad and complex, encompassing many different types of neurodivergence. There are some commonalities between these categories, but each has its unique symptoms, causes, and treatments. Here are some of the most common types:
These include Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Asperger Syndrome (AS), Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD), Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD), etc. People with ASD may have social interaction and communication problems, restricted interests, and repetitive behaviors. These disorders are usually diagnosed in early childhood and can lead to lifelong challenges for children and adults.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
This condition affects people differently from one another and is characterized by difficulty focusing on a task or activity at hand that might not seem challenging to others. It can also involve difficulty controlling behaviors such as hyperactivity or impulsivity, resulting in restlessness or acting without thinking first.
People with ADHD often find it challenging to complete tasks at home or school — even if they understand the material being taught — due to their inability to stay focused.
Dyslexia is a neurological and brain-based learning disability that impairs a person’s reading ability. Common symptoms include difficulties in spelling, writing, and pronouncing words, although not all symptoms are present in every case. It can manifest itself in adults as poor reading comprehension.
It is thought to be genetic, but research has found that it may also be connected to other factors such as low birth weight, perinatal problems such as jaundice, and exposure to certain viruses during childhood.
Some people with dyslexia have difficulty recognizing words visually; others have trouble remembering the sounds of letters or numbers. Still, others have problems connecting letters with the sounds they represent (decoding) or keeping the correct sequence of letters in a word (sequencing).
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder that can be disabling. Sufferers experience unwanted and repeated thoughts or rituals. These thoughts and rituals cause significant distress, interfere with daily functioning, and are time-consuming.
Obsessions are thoughts, urges, or images that recur and cause anxiety. They are unwanted and distressing. People with OCD may have obsessions about contamination, harm to self or others, religious issues, symmetry/orderliness, hoarding, sexual orientation, exact numbers/calculation, or being responsible for harm coming to someone else.
Other examples of neurodivergence include anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, epilepsy, and borderline personality disorder.
How to Know If You’re Neurodivergent?
Neurodivergent people experience the world differently. Some of us see things in color; some don’t. Some of us feel emotions more strongly than others, while others feel nothing.
Neurodivergence often manifests as an unusual way of thinking and perceiving the world or a sensory sensitivity that feels like processing too much information.
It’s possible to have neurodivergent tendencies and not even realize it. You may have always felt different from other people but never known why. Or you may have been diagnosed with a mental health condition and started wondering if there’s more going on under the surface.
If you’re wondering whether you might be neurodivergent, here are some signs to look for:
- You have trouble following instructions or completing tasks in a specific order
- You find it difficult to remember things like dates or appointments
- You get confused quickly or lose things such as keys or homework assignments
- You seem “spacey” or absent-minded at times
- You get easily distracted
- You have trouble following directions, especially when they involve more than one step
- You have difficulty staying organized or knowing where to find things
- Your mind wanders from one topic to another without warning or apparent reason
- You get overwhelmed by too much information, even if it’s not particularly complicated material
In other words, you’re neurodivergent if you have a brain that works differently. You might not know how you’re different from others until someone points it out — or you get diagnosed with the abovementioned types, which is important for receiving accommodations in school and work settings.
The neurotypical/neurodivergent dichotomy is a false dichotomy that has been used to marginalize neurodivergent people. It posits that all neurotypical people have the same neurological configuration, and all neurodivergent people have different configurations. This is false: many different kinds of neurotypical and neurodivergent people exist.
There is no such thing as a “normal” brain or mind. Everyone’s brain is unique!
- Doyle, N. (2020). Neurodiversity at work: A biopsychosocial model and the impact on working adults. British Medical Bulletin, 135(1), 108–125. https://doi.org/10.1093/bmb/ldaa021
- Dwyer, P. (2022). The neurodiversity approach(es): What are they and what do they mean for researchers? Human Development, 66(2), 73–92. https://doi.org/10.1159/000523723