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Neurodivergent, neurodiversity, and neurotypical meanings

Reviewed by Stephanie Steinman

Outline of a head with gears in place of the brain

What we know about the human brain continues to grow and change with more research. However, equally important to what we know about the brain is how we talk about it. 

Terms like neurodivergent, neurodiversity, and neurotypical are changing the way we think about the brain and certain types of mental health disorders. Viewing different cognitive abilities through the lens of neurodiversity promotes acceptance. It discourages the view of some abilities (or lack thereof) as “bad” or “inferior.”

What Does Neurodivergent Mean?

A person who is neurodivergent has different levels of or types of cognitive abilities than the typical person. 

Historically, variations in cognitive ability were viewed as diseases or disorders. This is a practice known as pathologizing. Pathologizing ascribes societal value or moral superiority to one set of neurological strengths and weaknesses over another. 

Terms like “neurodivergent” allow people to acknowledge and understand differences in cognitive ability in a way that is value-neutral. Identifying as neurodivergent can help people celebrate their strengths, acknowledge their limitations, and accept their cognitive differences. 

Examples of Neurodivergent Conditions

Am I Neurodivergent?

“Neurodivergent” is not a diagnosis. It is not a term in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Instead, it is a way of thinking about other diagnoses, such as those listed above.

Identifying as neurodivergent is a personal choice. If you have been diagnosed with autism, ADHD, or any of the other conditions previously listed, you may choose to identify as neurodivergent. Some experts include other mental illnesses on their list of neurodivergent conditions, such as anxiety or depression

Who Counts as Neurodivergent?

Since it is not an official diagnosis, there are no standards for who “counts” as neurodivergent and who does not. However, it’s important not to mislabel common human behaviors as “neurodivergent.” Forgetting things, making mistakes, misspeaking, not listening, feeling tired, wanting a break from socializing—these are all behaviors that everyone experiences from time to time. 

“Neurodivergent” is not a cool new label for people to add to their personal list, like “awkward” or “quirky.” It serves a specific purpose in normalizing different cognitive abilities for which people were previously underestimated, discriminated against, or shamed for having.

Neurodivergent Symptoms

Since neurodivergence refers to multiple different conditions, potential struggles and strengths vary from person to person. For example, a person with autism may have different strengths and limitations compared to a person with dyslexia. However, there are some struggles and strengths that are fairly common across multiple neurodivergent diagnoses.

Potential Struggles

  • Finds it difficult to concentrating
  • Lacks follow-through
  • Forgetful
  • Repeats words, phrases, or actions
  • Prone to sensory overload
  • Struggles with time management
  • Resistant to change in routine

Potential Strengths

  • Strong memory
  • Good communicator
  • Visual learner
  • Detail-oriented
  • Hardworking
  • Multitasker
  • Easily identifies patterns
  • Strong ability to focus
  • Process-oriented

What Is Neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is the idea that cognitive variations are a form of diversity, not a disease or disorder. It’s the mindset from which terms like “neurodivergent” and “neurotypical” emerge.

Individuals are considered either neurodivergent or neurotypical. Groups that include both neurotypical and neurodivergent people can be called neurodiverse. Individuals alone cannot be called neurodiverse because diversity implies two or more different experiences.

Neurotypical vs. Neurodivergent

A person who is neurotypical has levels and types of cognitive abilities that are similar to the average population.

Being neurotypical doesn’t mean a person cannot struggle cognitively. Neurotypical people can be late, forgetful, or overwhelmed by too much noise. It also doesn’t mean that only neurodivergent people have certain cognitive strengths.. Neurotypical people can easily find patterns, focus, and pay attention to process. Being neurotypical simply means that most of your cognitive abilities and experiences are shared at similar levels by most people.

Terms like “neurodivergent” and “neurotypical” are relative terms. At their essence, they assume an average default of human cognitive ability that a person either matches (neurotypical) or diverges from (neurodivergent). 

Who Came Up with Neurodiversity?

Sociologist Judy Singer1, who is on the autism spectrum, is credited with coining the term “neurodiversity” in the late 1990s. She saw the similarities between the diverse spectrum of autism and the diverse spectrum of experiences in gender, sexuality, race, and class. Such categories had similar histories of holding up a specific experience as superior or preferred, but had recently expanded to include, accept, and celebrate other experiences.

Why Is Neurodiversity Important?

Differences, Not Deficiencies

Neurodiversity changes the way we talk about variations in the brain. It moves away from viewing variations in cognitive abilities as deficiencies and moves toward viewing these as differences. This is similar to how we already view race, gender, sexuality, and class. 

Instead of viewing a person with ADHD as in need of a cure, for example, neurodiversity looks for ways to celebrate the strengths of ADHD, accommodate its limitations, and accept the person with the diagnosis.

Differences, Not Superpowers

In the past, the spectrum view of autism and other disabilities has placed “low-functioning” on one end and “high-functioning” on the other. This ableist, outdated language gave rise to “inspirational” views of “savants” or “geniuses,” while ignoring those whose disabilities have inhibited or limited their functioning. 

The neurodiversity view celebrates the strengths of people with mental health disorders or disabilities, but it doesn’t try to label all neurodivergent people as “savants” or “geniuses” in order to confer value to them. Instead, it is honest about both the strengths and struggles of neurodivergence. The goal is not to lift the neurodivergent above the neurotypical, but instead to get rid of ascribing value to certain cognitive variations entirely.

What About Disabilities?

Neurodiversity does not seek to erase disabilities. Understanding certain conditions as disabilities is important so people with disabilities can get the care, assistance, and support they need. A person with an intellectual disability, learning disability, or other mental health condition may choose to identify as neurodivergent, a person with a disability, or both. 

Neurodivergent Mental Healthcare

As terms like neurodivergent and neurotypical become more commonplace, more therapists are using the mindset of neurodiversity to inform their treatment of certain mental health conditions. View our directory to find a neurodiversity-informed therapist near you today.

About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.