What Is Neurodiversity?

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

 

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What Is Neurodiversity?

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 the differences in both brain function and behavioral traits as a natural element of how diverse the human population is.

History

As autism has become more recognized, efforts have been made for it not to be considered an illness but instead a different way that some people's brains function. The concept of neurodiversity was introduced during the fight for autism awareness and rights. A sociologist named Judy Singer (who is autistic) coined the term in 1997.

Though the idea of neurodiversity and looking at brains as naturally different instead of flawed was coined in reference to people on the autism spectrum, it has since come to encompass additional ways that brains can function differently, such as for people with ADHD and dyslexia.

The Two Sides Of Neurodiversity

It's helpful to know about all the different ways that brains can work. Under the umbrella of neurodiversity, people fall into one of 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

The word neurotypical describes people who have what is considered 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 very 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.

If you have never been diagnosed with a condition such as autism or OCD, and you experienced intellectual and cognitive development growing up that was considered within the norm for your age, chances are you 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 to be fixed. However, with the understanding of 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 while 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 can 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 benefit from society understanding neurodiversity.

The understanding of neurodiversity allows us to look at each other and appreciate the ways we function differently. Instead of thinking there are "right" and "wrong" ways of functioning, we can embrace all of these differences.

The Future of Neurodiversity

Although the idea of neurodiversity was introduced over two decades ago by an autistic person, it is still gaining steam. Because the idea is a new one to many people, 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 neurodiverse 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 that autism leads to. 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 how to educate 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.

Only a few decades ago, left-handed students were forced to write with their right hands, which had long-term impacts. The idea of that is silly now because we are so accustomed to allowing children to learn to write with whatever hand comes naturally to them. Now, left-handedness is considered a difference, not a disorder.

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.

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Article Sources
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  2. 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.