What Is Neurodiversity?

Smiling parents looking at autistic son while sitting on sofa in living room

 

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What Is Neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity describes differences in brain function from person to person that affect daily mental functions.

Neurodiversity embraces differences in brain function and behavior as a natural manifestation of humanity's variety, rather than viewing them as wrong or problematic.

History

As autism has become more recognized, psychologists have lobbied for it to be considered a different way of functioning rather than a disorder. The concept of neurodiversity was introduced during the fight for autism awareness and rights. Sociologist Judy Singer (who is autistic) coined the term in 1997.

Though neurodiversity was coined in reference to people on the autism spectrum, it has since come to encompass additional ways that brains can function, such as in people with ADHD and dyslexia.

Neurotypical vs. Neurodivergent

Under the umbrella of neurodiversity, people fall into two subcategories: neurotypical or neurodivergent.

Neurotypical
  • People with standard brain processing and functioning

  • Neurotypical people often do not know that they are neurotypical

  • Seen as "normal"

Neurodivergent
  • People whose brain functioning and processing deviates from what is considered "typical"

  • Neurodivergent people are usually made aware that their brains function differently

  • Seen as "abnormal"

Neurotypical

This describes people who have standard or typical brain processing and behaviors. Neurotypical people were formerly considered "normal," and people who weren't neurotypical were treated as if they had disorders.

The framing of neurotypical as normal is similar to the idea of heteronormativity, which is the notion that being straight and cisgender is the default, regular way for people to be, and that any other sexuality or gender identity is abnormal and problematic.

Being neurotypical is an identity that's rooted in not having to think about how your brain functions or how it manifests in your behaviors because you function in a way that so many other people do, too. As a result, many neurotypical people often do not realize that they are neurotypical.

Neurodivergent

Unlike neurotypical people, neurodivergent people are usually made aware that their brains work differently.

A neurodivergent person has one or more ways in which their brain functions outside the "typical" way. For example, neurodivergent people may be diagnosed with autism, ADHD, OCD, dyspraxia, dyslexia, dyscalculia, or Tourette's.

At one time, these conditions were treated as problems. However, with understanding neurodiversity, we now have a better and more appropriate way of handling them.

Neurodiversity advocacy focuses on embracing and celebrating neurodivergent brains instead of trying to fix them and make them neurotypical. In turn, advocacy work for alternative methods of handling autism (rather than Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) which seeks to make people with autism behave more similarly to neurotypical people) has increased.

It is also important to note that although neurodivergent people have brains that work differently than most of the population, there is now much more understanding that those differences can also be beneficial. The qualities and traits that neurodivergence creates are widely varied and include everything from high perception to strong abilities with computer systems to enhanced creativity.

The Impact of Understanding Neurodiversity

It's not just neurodivergent people who can benefit when society accommodates neurodiversity. The understanding of neurodiversity allows us to appreciate how each of us functions differently. Instead of thinking in terms of "right" and "wrong" ways of functioning, we can embrace these differences.

In workplaces and schools, this means accommodating the atypical needs and playing to the unique strengths of each neurodivergent person. This might look like:

  • Allowing a person who is neurodivergent the freedom to accomplish tasks in their own way
  • Educating employees/students on neurodiversity
  • Fostering an atmosphere of inclusion and acceptance
  • Providing noise-blocking headphones for a person who finds noise overstimulating
  • Following inclusive hiring/teaching practices

It also can reap significant rewards. For example, workers in JPMorgan Chase's Autism at Work program were up to 140% more productive than neurotypical employees and made far fewer mistakes.

The Future of Neurodiversity

Although the idea of neurodiversity was introduced over two decades ago by an autistic person, it is still gaining steam. The more we can understand neurodiversity now, the more we can shift our behaviors in the future.

Advocacy

The biggest way that the understanding of neurodiversity is shaping advocacy for neurodivergent populations can be seen with the shift away from ABA, which seeks to "cure" autism by modifying the behaviors of children with autism, rather than embracing ways to work with the differences in brains. Many consider ABA to be a form of abuse. In fact, there are entire websites dedicated to providing resources for people looking to understand why ABA should be avoided and what better methods are available for children with autism.

The understanding of neurodiversity has led to an entire network of neurodiversity leaders and educators who seek to help people understand how to embrace and work with neurodivergent people instead of attempting to fix them.

Education and Employment

The advancement of alternative therapies instead of ABA for children with autism is a strong example of advocacy and the changing narrative around educating neurodivergent people.

The knowledge that neurodiversity can lead to powerful specific skills has led to a shift in which neurodivergent people are more sought-after for employment.

For example, The Harvard Business Review made a case for employers to hire more neurodivergent people, calling neurodivergence a "competitive advantage."

Social Change

The stigma and hardships that neurodivergent people face haven't yet disappeared from our society. Still, the cultural understanding of neurodiversity helps provide us with a framework to change how we think about the topic and how we treat neurodivergent people.

A few decades ago, left-handed students were forced to write with their right hands, which had long-term impacts. Now, left-handedness is considered a difference, not a disorder, and we are accustomed to allowing children to learn to write with whichever hand comes naturally to them.

Similarly, the more strides we take to understand and embrace neurodiversity, the better we will interact with one another and help all individuals learn and behave in the ways that suit them best.

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. Armstrong T. The Power of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain. Da Capo Lifelong; 2011.

  2. Singer J. The origins and evolution of neurodiversity. Neurodiversity Media.

  3. Overlooked workers gain appeal in challenging times. Financial Times. March 17, 2020.

  4. Siebner HR, Limmer C, Peinemann A, et al. Long-term consequences of switching handedness: a positron emission tomography study on handwriting in “converted” left-handersJ Neurosci. 2002;22(7):2816-2825.

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