What Does It Mean to Be Neurodivergent?

Portrait of a mother with daughter Autism and Down Syndrome in daily lives.

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What Is 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 have come to understand that neurodivergence can have many benefits. 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 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.


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 is known as a "spectrum disorder" because cases range from mild to severe. It has many subtypes, such as Asperger's, and all types can affect someone's behavior.

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.


Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) centers around a person's inability to pay attention or focus for long periods of time on a single task.

People with ADHD may have difficulty with organization, may be restless or move around a lot, and might seem disinterested or zoned out sometimes.

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.


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 ever been diagnosed with any of the above conditions, then you are neurodivergent. On the other hand, if you have never been formally diagnosed with anything, but you resonate strongly with the descriptors for one or more types of neurodivergence, then you might be neurodivergent. In this case, it's very well worth seeking a professional to find out for sure.

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 you've never felt that you had any symptoms of them, then chances are you are neurotypical.

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 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."


For those who prefer to listen to materials, there are podcasts on the topic. 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.

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