Neurodiversity is a concept that embraces variations in human neurology as normal. In the past, individuals diagnosed with autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and/or other specific conditions were viewed as having a “disorder,” and their traits were described using deficit-based language. The idea of neurodiversity suggests that all brains are simply different, and that having a variety of neurotypes benefits humanity as a whole.1
What Does the Term “Neurodiverse” Mean?
Neurodiverse describes a population of people with varying neurotypes. If a group includes individuals who are autistic, have ADHD, or other neurological conditions, the group would be considered neurodiverse. “Neurodivergent” refers to a person who has a neurotype that falls out of the expected “norm.” Conditions that fall under the neurodiversity umbrella include autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and Tourette’s.2
The term “neurodiversity” was created in the 1990s by autistic sociologist Judy Singer.3 In a movement away from deficit-based language, Singer highlighted notable strengths of the autistic population including ability to focus, recognize patterns, and remember factual information. Considered somewhat radical at the time, her work helped change the conversation to include a more balanced perspective that honored the strengths and gifts of individuals of varying neurotypes.3
Prior to the neurodiversity movement, autism, ADHD, and other conditions were considered disorders that needed to be treated or “cured.” The increasing prevalence of autism diagnoses was even referred to as an “epidemic.” The concept of neurodiversity suggests, however, that these conditions are simply different ways of being, and that individuals with these conditions don’t need to be pathologized, cured, or changed, but supported for exactly who they are.
What Are the Core Concepts of Neurodiversity?
The primary concept of neurodiversity is that different types of brains are not inherently “wrong,” and do not need to be “corrected.” With an understanding of neurodiversity, we can help people with different types of brains thrive by identifying and supporting their needs, creating an environment that is accepting of differences and conducive to each individual’s success.
For example, an autistic person might find environments that are loud, bright, or crowded overwhelming and distressing. But if an environment is designed with sensory needs in mind — including soft or natural lighting and a quiet place to take breaks or work alone — that person may now thrive because the environment is suited to their needs. Someone with ADHD may need frequent movement breaks, or the ability to structure their day in a way that works best for them. By accommodating the needs of each individual, as opposed to trying to change the individual to fit into a more “standard” mold, each person can more effectively reach their potential.
Dignity Regardless of Support Needs
Within the neurodiverse community, each person has their own specific support needs. Some individuals require a high level of support to manage daily life, while others may need very little support at all. It is important to remember that individuals who have minimal support needs may still struggle daily. It is also important to note that those who require a greater level of support have gifts, skills, and talents. No matter the level of support needed, everyone has an inherent right to dignity, agency, and autonomy. It is important to listen to the individual, even if they communicate in unexpected ways.
Many in the neurodiverse community are also proponents of identity-first language. For example, in the autistic community, “autistic person” is generally the preferred term instead of “person with autism.” The preference for identity-first language illustrates how many autistic individuals feel that their autism is a significant part of their identity. Autism isn’t something they “have,” but a foundational part of who they are.
Autism affects the way one thinks, feels, perceives and relates to the world. It can even affect one’s perception of gender and sexual orientation, as people within the autistic community are more likely to identify as LBGTQ+.4 The neurodiversity movement accepts and honors how intertwined one’s neurology is with one’s personality and sense of self.5
Neurotypical vs. Neurodivergent
A neurotypical person is someone who is not autistic and doesn’t have ADHD, dyslexia, or some other neurological condition. Neurotypical people make up a larger part of the population, which is why they are often considered to be the “norm.” Neurodivergent individuals are the people who fall outside of this expected “norm.”
Because neurotypicals comprise the majority, the world was generally set up with them in mind. Mainstream schools and workplaces are frequently designed to meet the needs of neurotypical students and employees, but these are places where neurodivergents may struggle. To these people, offices with open floor plans can feel distracting or overwhelming, and crowded supermarkets with bright fluorescent lights can prove difficult or distressing.
Some common characteristics of neurodivergence may include:
- Sensory differences: sensory sensitive or sensory seeking
- Social differences
- Difficulties with executive functioning
- Special interests or ability to hyper-focus on one subject or task
- Creativity in the arts
- Giftedness in math and technology or struggle with math and technology
- Deep empathy and strong sense of justice
- Powerful experience of emotions
- Enhanced ability to learn languages, or difficulty learning languages
- Different relationship to gender and sexual orientation
- Ability to think “outside the box”
- Enhanced memory, or difficulty with working memory
- Limited “social battery:” needs more alone time to recharge
- Ability to recognize patterns and notice small details
- Need for movement breaks
- Need to stim
Is Neurodiversity On a Spectrum?
Neurodiversity is a large category under which various conditions fall. Within each neurotype, you will find a plethora of traits that may be more or less pronounced, depending on the individual. Some conditions like autism and ADHD share an overlap of common traits like potential for hyper-focus and need for movement. It can be helpful to envision neurodiversity as a color wheel as opposed to a linear spectrum.
In the case of autism, each autistic person carries a common set of characteristics, but the spectrum itself is not a linear scale from “least autistic” to “most autistic.” Similar to a color wheel, where each color appears in varying shades, two autistic individuals may possess the same traits to varying degrees. The degree of variation can also be compared to a sound engineer’s mixing board. For one person, a trait like having special interests might be turned up high. For another person, the same trait might be turned down low. The autism spectrum is multidimensional, and we should think about variations in neurodiversity in the same way.
What Are the Benefits to Neurodiversity?
Neurodiverse groups offer a different way of thinking, and an ability to perceive and create differently; that’s an enormous asset to the world. Art, music, innovation, and advances in medicine and technology are often made possible by contributions from neurodiverse groups who are able to “think outside of the box.”
Neurodiversity is thought to have always been present throughout human evolution, and evidence dates as far back as the Ice Age. While studying cave paintings in the Chauvet Cave in France, archeology researchers noted images that were so detailed, they believed them to have been created by individuals who possessed the autistic trait of “detail focus,” enabling them to create such realistic images.6
In the present day, autistic pattern recognition and attention to detail are so valued that there is a unit of the Israeli military, Special Intelligence Unit 9900, that actively recruits individuals on the autism spectrum to analyze satellite images of aerial activity, acting as “eyes on the ground.”7 Similarly, the Australian Defense Department seeks out neurodiverse talent to work in the field of cybersecurity.8 Historically, neurodiverse traits have also been valued in the world of technology and science.9
In current popular culture, Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter, Billie Eilish, is known to have Tourette’s. Sir Anthony Hopkins, diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum in his 70s, is an accomplished actor, painter, musician, and composer. David Byrne, also on the autism spectrum, is a brilliantly talented musician and visual artist who created and stars in an acclaimed show on Broadway.10 He also designed a series of functional bicycle rack sculptures around New York City.11
Acknowledging Differences & Disabilities
We can both celebrate neurodiversity and acknowledge that certain disabilities can be an inherent part of the neurodivergent experience. While some individuals do not consider their neurodivergence a disability, others identify strongly with the disabled community. Many in the neurodiverse community subscribe to the social model of disability that says they aren’t disabled by autism, but by their environment.1
The social model of disability highlights the importance of disability accommodations. Similar to the importance of braille, sign language interpretation, and curb cuts for wheelchair accessibility, there is a need to accommodate neurodiverse needs in the form of sensory considerations, movement breaks, and allowing people to learn, listen, and participate in a way that works with their neurology.
For example, to someone who is unaware, a neurodivergent person might not appear to be paying attention. However, many neurodivergent people listen better while drawing, ”fidgeting,” or looking around the room. With an understanding of the unique needs of different neurotypes, we can accommodate more people.
What Is the Best Way to Support Someone Who Is Neurodivergent?
The best way to support someone who is neurodivergent is to accept them as they are. Accept that their needs and ways of thinking may be different than your own, and that they may struggle with tasks that feel easy or mundane for you, like going to the grocery store or cooking a meal. They might also have sensory needs that require environmental adjustments.
Here are a few additional ways to support someone you love who is neurodivergent:
- Ask genuine questions and listen with an open mind
- Know that every neurodivergent person is different and, as such, they will have different support needs
- Learn about neurodiversity and understand each person’s strengths and challenges
- Listen to the individual in the mode of communication that works for them
What Is the Best Way to Get Help For a Neurodivergent Child?
The best place to start in helping a neurodivergent child is unconditional acceptance. Next, celebrate the child for exactly who they are, not who neurotypical society might have expected them to be. Also, be curious about discovering more about them, and work with their differences instead of against them.
Be curious about a neurodivergent child by asking the following questions:
- What are their likes and dislikes?
- What are their strengths and challenges?
- How do they learn and perceive the world?
- Do they have a special interest where they would like to focus their attention and learning
- Do they need to move while learning?
- Do they need regular sensory breaks or breaks from social interaction?
- Do they need more rest or downtime than other kids their age?
Additional ways to get help for a neurodivergent child:
- Seek an IEP or 504 plan if the child needs accommodations at school. Many school systems will evaluate kids to determine support needs in the educational environment, meaning they can often receive support without a formal medical diagnosis. Services like occupational therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy, and counseling can also be provided through the school system, or accessed privately depending on insurance coverage and clinician availability.
- Communicate in a way that works best for the child, listening with care and an open mind to truly understand and support them.
- If they’re willing to give it, ask for insight from neurodivergent adults. You might ask what they liked about their childhoods, what they would have changed, what was helpful for them, and what wasn’t.
- Seek out neurodivergent role models for the child, including characters and public figures who may have the same condition or neurotype.
- Seek out a school or learning environment that understands, supports, and celebrates the child’s neurodiversity.
- Help neurodivergent kids connect and form friendships with other neurodivergent kids, if they are interested.
Final Thoughts On Neurodiversity
Neurodiversity is an inherent and necessary part of humanity, and it has likely been around for as long as people have. By accepting and celebrating the differences in a variety of unique brains and neurotypes, we create a culture that helps every individual become their best self, able to contribute their own gifts toward enriching and improving society as a whole.