What Is Neurodivergence and What Does It Mean to Be Neurodivergent?

Being neurodivergent isn't a disability, but a difference in how the brain works

Autistic boy writing in book over table at home

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What Is Neurodivergence?

Neurodivergence

Neurodivergence is the term for when someone's brain processes, learns, and/or behaves differently from what is considered "typical."

Formerly considered a problem or abnormal, scientists now understand that neurodivergence can have many benefits. It is not a disability but a difference in how the brain works. With this shift, practitioners are no longer treating neurodivergence as an illness. Instead, they are viewing them as different methods of learning and processing information.

This article defines neurodiversity and provides examples. It also teaches you how to find out if you're neurodivergent and describes what it's like to be neurodivergent.

Understanding Neurodiversity

Neurodiversity is the idea that it's normal and acceptable for people to have brains that function differently from one another. Rather than thinking there is something wrong or problematic when some people don't operate similarly to others, neurodiversity embraces all differences. The concept of neurodiversity recognizes that both brain function and behavioral traits are simply indicators of how diverse the human population is.

The idea of neurodiversity also seeks to frame these differences as ones that are not inherently "bad" or a problem; instead, it treats them in a more neutral manner and also highlights the many different ways that neurodivergence can be beneficial.

The term neurodiversity was coined by sociologist Judy Singer, who is autistic, in 1997. Neurodiversity can be broken down into two categories of people: those who are neurotypical and those who are neurodivergent.

Neurotypical

Neurotypical is a descriptor that refers to someone who has the brain functions, behaviors, and processing considered standard or typical.

Neurotypical people may have no idea they are because the subject has likely never come up for them before. These people usually hit all of their developmental and behavioral milestones at the same times and ages that are considered standard for most people.

Once grown, they generally move through life without having to wonder if their brains function in the same way as others do.

Neurodivergent

Neurodivergence is the term for people whose brains function differently in one or more ways than is considered standard or typical.

There are many different ways that neurodivergence manifests, ranging from very mild ways that most people would never notice to more obvious ways that lead to a person behaving differently than is standard in our society. We'll examine the most common types of neurodivergence and the ways they manifest ahead.

The History Of the Word 'Neurodivergent'

Like the umbrella term neurodiversity, the word neurodivergent was also coined by sociologist Judy Singer. While originally used to refer specifically to people who have autism, usage of the term has broadened significantly in years since.

Neurodivergence now refers to any structured, consistent way that brains work differently for a group of people than they do for the majority of others. Let's learn about the many different types of neurodivergence.

Types of Neurodivergence

Because the idea of neurodivergence has grown to encompass a range of consistent ways that some brains work differently than others, it shouldn't be surprising to learn that there are many different ways neurodivergence manifests.

You may not have heard of all the different types, but chances are you are familiar with some. These are the most common examples.

Autism

Autism is known as a "spectrum disorder" because cases range from mild to severe. It previously had many subtypes, such as Asperger's and Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD), but now they are all classified as an Autism Spectrum Disorder. ASD can affect someone's behavior and emotions.

Autism is a broad set of conditions that may include challenges with socializing and social skills, repetitive behaviors, and speech difficulties that can lead people to communicate only nonverbally.

Autistic people often display the following traits: great attention to detail, strong focus skills, creativity, and visual learning abilities.

ADHD

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is an executive function dysregulation disorder, which means individuals may have difficulties managing their thoughts, attention, behaviors, and emotions.

People with ADHD may have difficulty with organization, be restless, seem disinterested or zoned out, and show inappropriate behavior when experiencing strong emotions.

Thanks to their out-of-the-box thinking, people with ADHD are often great problem solvers, may be energetic and "fun," and are often sensitive to others.

Dyslexia

This form of neurodivergence involves speaking, reading, and writing. Dyslexia is typically associated with misreading, writing, or speaking words or letters out of order, but it encompasses more than that. For example, it may involve confusion with certain letters, difficulty organizing words into sentences, trouble acquiring a vocabulary or pronouncing words, and/or challenges following directions.

People with dyslexia are often big picture thinkers who excel at visual processing. In addition, they tend to have strong spatial awareness and may be very creative.

Other Types

Other types of neurodivergence include Tourette's, dyspraxia, synesthesia, dyscalculia, Down syndrome, epilepsy, and chronic mental health illnesses such as bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder, anxiety, and depression.

How to Know If You're Neurodivergent

If you have been diagnosed with any of the above conditions, you would be considered neurodivergent. On the other hand, if you have never been formally diagnosed but resonate strongly with the descriptors for one or more types of neurodivergence. You might benefit from seeking a professional to find out for sure.

While neurodivergence is common, many people do not realize they are neurodivergent until they reach adulthood. This can create challenges as people find ways to adapt to the differences in how they think and process information, but it can also be helpful. For many adults, finding out they have ADHD, autism, or another form of neurodivergence often helps explain things they didn't understand about themselves previously.

In all areas of life, having a formal diagnosis can bring you a deeper sense of understanding about why you function the way you do and how to best work with that.

If you have never been diagnosed with any of the above terms and never felt that you had any symptoms, then chances are you are neurotypical.

Can You Become Neurodivergent?

Many forms of neurodivergence are an innate part of how the brain develops and functions. While these differences may go unrecognized or undiagnosed in childhood, that doesn't mean they were not there and suddenly appeared in adulthood.

Acquired neurological conditions, such as traumatic brain injuries, strokes, and Alzheimer's disease, can also lead to neurodivergence.

How Common Is Being Neurodivergent?

The exact number of people who are neurodivergent is not known, but looking at the prevalence of conditions linked to neurodiversity can indicate how common it may be.

  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in every 44 eight-year-olds is believed to have autism spectrum disorder or 2.3% of children in that age group. It is 4.2 times more common in boys than it is in girls.
  • The CDC suggests that around 9.4% of all children are diagnosed with ADHD at some point before the age of 18.
  • According to the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, dyslexia affects 20% of the population.

What Is It Like to Be Neurodivergent?

There is no one answer to what it's like to be neurodivergent. There isn't even an answer to what it's like to have any kind of specific neurodivergent diagnosis!

People are individual and unique; in the same way that it doesn't feel the same for all people to have bodies, it doesn't feel the same for all people with different neurodivergent diagnoses.

Life is experienced differently by all humans, whether their brains function very similarly to the majority of people, or very different.

Learn More About Neurodivergence

If you're interested in learning more about what it's like to be neurodivergent, there is plenty available on the subject!

Books

Books such as "Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's," "Thinking in Pictures," and "Funny, You Don't Look Autistic" are personal accounts of being neurodivergent.

Fictional books with neurodivergent main characters include "Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine," "Flowers For Algernon," and "On the Edge of Gone."

Nonfiction books about neurodivergence and the future of neurodiversity include "NeuroTribes," "Neurodiversity: Discovering the Extraordinary Gifts of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia and Other Brain Differences," and "Divergent Mind."

Podcasts

There are podcasts on the topic for those who prefer to listen to materials. These include The Neurodiversity Podcast, Neurodiverging, and Sensory Matters.

Social Media Accounts

If you'd like to diversify your social media feed with neurodivergent voices and advocates, some top choices to follow are Neurodivergent Activist, Nurturing Neurodiversity, Paige Layle, and The Chronic Couple.

The Future Of Neurodivergence

As society shifts its understanding of how the brain operates, the way in which we treat those who are neurodivergent will also change. For example, there is much work that has been done to stop treating autism as an illness that must be cured.

Special education is making progress in this arena as well, with approaches becoming centered around how people with assorted neurodivergent tendencies learn best.

Advocacy for neurodiversity acceptance may have begun with autism and how it is managed, but it has grown to include the many different neurodivergent types. The more we accept and understand that it's quite common for brains to work differently, the more easily we can go about accommodating people in ways that work best for them to learn, function, and thrive in society.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Doyle N. Neurodiversity at work: a biopsychosocial model and the impact on working adults. Br Med Bull. 2020;135(1):108-125. doi:10.1093/bmb/ldaa021

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prevalence and characteristics of autism spectrum disorder among children aged 8 years - Autism and developmental disabilities monitoring network, 11 sites, United States, 2018.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Data and statistics about ADHD.

  4. The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity. Dyslexia FAQ.

By Ariane Resnick, CNC
Ariane Resnick, CNC is a mental health writer, certified nutritionist, and wellness author who advocates for accessibility and inclusivity.