The term "neurodivergent" refers to the idea that differences in the human brain are natural and normal and, in many cases, can lead to meaningful and positive insights and abilities. People are described as neurodiverse when their thought patterns, behaviors, or learning styles fall outside of what is considered "normal," or neurotypical.
The concept of neurodiversity is gaining traction as both neurodiverse and neurotypical people are finding that differences are not necessarily disabilities. Some differences can be real strengths.
This article will discuss the meaning of the term "neurodivergent," types of neurodiversity, why it is important, signs of neurodiversity, and how to accommodate a person who is neurodiverse.
Overview of Neurodivergence
The term neurodiversity was first used in 1997 by autistic sociologist Judy Singer. The term was intended to be similar to the term "biodiversity," suggesting that differences in neurological functioning can be strengths rather than weaknesses.
Who Is Neurodiverse?
The neurodiverse population includes people with specific diagnoses that are considered developmental disorders (as opposed to intellectual disabilities or mental illnesses). These include but are not limited to:
- Autism: A developmental disorder that includes differences in social communication skills, fine and gross motor skills, speech, and more
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): A neurodevelopmental disorder that includes features of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity
- Tourette's syndrome: A tic disorder starting in childhood that involves involuntary, repetitive movements and vocalizations
- Various learning disabilities such as dyslexia (difficulty with language skills, especially reading) and dyscalculia (difficulty with doing basic arithmetic)
There are also individuals with related symptoms but without diagnoses who consider themselves neurodiverse.
The term neurodiversity is rarely applied to mental health disorders such as schizophrenia, depression, or bipolar disorder. However, there is debate whether the term "neurodiversity" is an appropriate term for treatable mental health illnesses. A different and related term, "mad pride," is sometimes associated with mental health illness.
Why the Term "Neurodiversity" Caught On
The term "neurodiversity" caught on quickly. This occurred for several reasons. For one, the number of people with diagnosed developmental disorders exploded in the early 2000s, making neurodiversity a much more common phenomenon.
In addition, because people don't "grow out of" autism, ADHD, learning disabilities, or Tourette's syndrome, neurodiverse children become neurodiverse adults—many of whom are very capable of self-advocacy.
Another important reason for the popularity of the concept of neurodiversity is that definitions of terms like autism spectrum, ADHD, and learning disabilities (some of the challenges most often associated with neurodiversity) were and still are in a state of flux.
Many people grew up before certain disorders were given a label, but they always felt atypical. Today, many such people feel embraced by the neurodiversity movement.
Diagnostic labels are constantly changing, based largely on cultural norms and expectations. People who were neurotypical 50 years ago are no longer considered to be so—and vice versa.
For example, it was only in 1973 that homosexuality (romantic love of a person of the same gender) ceased to be listed as a pathological (related to or caused by a mental health illness) condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The DSM is the official handbook of the American Psychiatric Association on mental and developmental disorders.
In 2013, major changes were made that (among other things) removed the disorder called Asperger's syndrome (the highest-functioning end of the autism spectrum) from the DSM, changed the definitions of autism and ADHD, and added hoarding disorder (as a brand new diagnosable disorder.
Asperger's syndrome was considered a unique disorder for only about 20 years—from 1993 to 2013. Hoarding (accumulating excessive belongings, often of little value) only became pathological until 2013. Presumably, it was considered neurotypical before that time. Clearly, the distinction between neurotypical and neurodivergent is flexible and constantly changing.
Why Neurodiversity Is Important
The concept of neurodiversity has become increasingly attractive to people who consider themselves neurodivergent (often those with specific diagnoses) and those who write about, speak about, and work directly with neurodivergent individuals. There are several reasons for this, including:
- Neurodivergent self-advocates have become strong supporters of the concept of neurodiversity and are working hard to establish a sense of pride in neurodiverse ways of thinking and behaving.
- Educators are discovering that a large portion of their student population is neurodivergent, and they are legally bound to provide appropriate educational accommodations based on individual needs rather than diagnosis. "Neurodiversity" is an umbrella term covering a large population of students.
- Many employers and members of the general population see real adaptive benefits to neurodivergence. In fact, the Harvard Business Review specifically touts neurodiversity as a competitive advantage because it often imparts many strengths and positive traits.
- The number of people who could be described as neurodivergent is very high and continues to rise. While there is no official statistic available, the peer support organization ADHD Aware estimates the number of people with neurodivergent disorders (autism, ADHD, Tourette's, various learning disabilities, and related challenges) comes to over 30% of the population.
Signs of Neurodivergence
Neurodivergence is often first recognized as the result of a diagnosis, but, of course, neurodiversity exists before a diagnosis—and can exist with or without a diagnosis. It is possible to become neurodiverse as the result of a physical or emotional injury or trauma, but in most cases, neurodiversity typically exists from birth onward.
Research is ongoing into the genetic and environmental causes of disorders such as autism and ADHD, and there is no doubt that many people are simply born with atypical brains.
There are a great many ways in which thoughts, behaviors, and emotional responses can be neurodivergent, and it's important to remember that neurodivergence is a cultural construct. So, behaviors that are considered "normal" in one part of the world may be considered "atypical" elsewhere or at a different time in history.
Challenging Symptoms of Neurodiversity
Having neurodiversity can be challenging because neurodiverse people, by definition, are not "just like everyone else." As a result, they may have challenges fitting in socially, behaving in expected ways, or easily adjusting to change. Some common and challenging symptoms of neurodiversity include:
- Social communication difficulties
- Speech and language challenges
- Learning challenges that may be related to difficulties with focus, reading, calculation, ability to follow spoken language, and/or problems with executive functioning (important skills, including working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control)
- Unusual responses to sensory input (sensitivity or unusual insensitivity to light, sound, heat, cold, pressure, crowds, and other stimuli)
- Unusual physical behaviors, such as rocking, expressing tics, blurting, and shouting at unexpected times
- Inflexibility (inability to adapt or to change interests based on age or situation)
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Helpful Symptoms of Neurodiversity
While neurodiversity can make life more difficult, it can also make certain tasks easier. In some cases, neurodiverse ways of seeing and making sense of the world can result in exciting discoveries and intriguing outcomes. Some positive signs of neurodiversity include:
- Ability to stay focused for long periods on a topic or activity of interest
- Outside-the-box thinking, which can lead to innovative solutions to challenges
- Strong observational skills and attention to detail
- Superior ability to recognize patterns, including in codes and behaviors
- Having strong skills in areas such as music, art, technology, and science, for some
Of course, these are very generalized descriptions. Each individual is unique, and certain skills are more likely to appear in, for example, an autistic person than a person with dyscalculia, or vice versa.
How to Accommodate Someone Who Is Neurodivergent
People who are neurodivergent can be very different from one another, which makes it difficult to provide a single list of accommodations. However, there are some accommodations that can support both children and adults with or without specific neurodivergent diagnoses.
Some accommodations are legally required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Some of the easiest and most effective accommodations are:
- Awareness of neurodivergence and willingness to be flexible at school or in the workplace when specific, reasonable requests are made: These may range from wearing noise-blocking headphones in school corridors to a preference to work from home or communicate via text vs. videoconference.
- Positive responses to sensory challenges that may cause physical discomfort: These may include replacing fluorescent light bulbs with less-harsh incandescent or LED lights, reducing ambient noise, eliminating perfumes, providing noise-blocking headphones, and providing natural light.
- Technological supports for managing time and schedules: These can include smartphone alarms, calendars, and other time-management software.
- Options for different ways of taking in and communicating information: These may include oral vs. written reports, videos vs. lectures, typed responses vs. in-person meetings.
- Sensitivity to social differences: Examples include taking it in stride rather than reacting negatively if someone speaks loudly, has tics, stammers, or finds it difficult to socialize in a typical manner, as well as repeating words or speaking more slowly to improve comprehension.
- Opportunities to learn or communicate in preferred ways
In addition to accommodating differences, it's also important to recognize and build on differences when they are helpful. Ways this is accomplished include:
- Carving out a job that makes the most of an individual's strengths without unduly challenging weaknesses
- Assigning a particular job or activity based on an individual's strengths and preferences
- Asking neurodivergent students or employees for their advice and input when designing office spaces, teams, and project management systems.
Neurodivergence is a relatively new concept that presents neurological differences as normal variations rather than pathological disorders. While the concept is new, it is growing in significance and can be very helpful in creating universally accessible schools, workplaces, and communities.
People who are neurodivergent usually are diagnosed with a neurodevelopmental disorder such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, or Tourette's syndrome, but may also have related differences such as sensory dysfunction.
It is not only appropriate but easy and helpful to work with neurodivergent self-advocates, students, and employees to provide accommodations while also supporting and promoting individual strengths and abilities.
A Word From Verywell
If you feel that you or a loved one is neurodivergent, you are not alone. The term is increasingly well-understood and can be helpful as a tool for explaining your challenges, needs, and strengths. You may also want to become more involved with the neurodiversity movement by reading more about the subject, joining advocacy groups, or speaking up for specific accommodations in your school or workplace.
Frequently Asked Questions
Am I neurodivergent?
As there is no official definition of neurodivergent, various people and groups have different ideas of what it is. You absolutely are neurodivergent if you have been diagnosed with a developmental or learning disorder, such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, or Tourette's syndrome.
You may decide to consider yourself neurodivergent if you have no diagnosis but think, behave, or interact in ways that are outside the norm.
You might also choose to describe yourself as neurodivergent if you are diagnosed with a mental illness such as schizophrenia, although mental illness is not usually included in definitions of neurodivergence.
Is neurodivergence a disability?
People who are neurodivergence usually have a diagnosis that is generally described as a disability. That said, many autistic people feel that their autism is a strength, and the same goes for people with diagnoses such as ADHD or dyslexia.
The reality, however, is that the world is generally set up for the benefit of neurotypical people, so it can be more difficult for neurodivergent people to function well at school or at work.
Is neurodivergence genetic?
Some forms of neurodivergent are almost certainly genetic, at least in part. For example, research shows that autism and ADHD are often hereditary. It is also possible to become neurodivergent as a result of exposure to certain drugs in the womb, or as the result of a physical or emotional injury.