Neurodiversity: What it means and why it matters
Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger, PhD
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 11/28/2023
What we know about the human brain continues to grow and change with research—and how we talk about the brain is changing just as quickly.
Terms like “neurodivergent,” “neurodiversity,” and “neurotypical” are shifting the way we think about the mind and certain mental health conditions. Viewing differences through the lens of diversity promotes inclusion and helps us avoid treating cognitive differences as deficits.
What is neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity is the idea that the world is full of different ways of thinking and that these differences should be destigmatized, embraced, and accommodated. Judy Singer, a sociologist who has autism, is credited with coining the term in the late 1990s.1
In the context of neurodiversity, people are considered either “neurodivergent” or “neurotypical.” A group that includes neurotypical and neurodivergent people would be called “neurodiverse.” However, an individual shouldn’t be called “neurodiverse” because the term “diversity” implies two or more different experiences.
What does it mean to be neurodivergent?
A person who is neurodivergent has differences in how their brain functions, meaning they process the world differently than a neurotypical person would.
Historically, these differences were viewed as diseases or disorders. Neurotypical ways of thinking, with their specific set of strengths and challenges, were valued more highly.
Today, the term “neurodivergent” gives us a value-neutral way to talk about differences in cognition. As an identity, it can help people celebrate their strengths, acknowledge their struggles, and accept their differences.
Examples of neurodivergent conditions
Neurodivergence isn’t a diagnosis. It’s a way of thinking about particular conditions, including:
- Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Dyslexia and other learning disabilities
- Intellectual disabilities
- Tourette syndrome
How to recognize neurodivergence
If you’ve been diagnosed with ASD, ADHD, or any of the other conditions listed above, you may or may not wish to identify as neurodivergent. It’s a personal choice.
Because neurodivergence isn’t a diagnosis, there aren’t official standards for who does or doesn’t fit into this category. Especially recently, many common behaviors (such as forgetfulness, difficulty paying attention, or wanting a break from socializing) have come to be thought of as neurodivergent traits. But actions aren’t neurodivergent in and of themselves, and these are experiences everyone has from time to time.
The term “neurodivergent” serves a specific purpose: to normalize and support cognitive differences that people have been discriminated against, shamed, or underestimated for having.
What does it mean to be neurotypical?
If you’re neurotypical, your brain operates similarly to most of the general population.
To be clear, a neurotypical person can still struggle cognitively (they can be late, forgetful, or overwhelmed), and they can still have certain cognitive strengths (such as finding patterns easily, focusing, or paying attention to processes). Being neurotypical simply means that most of your cognitive processes and experiences are similar to most people’s.
“Neurodivergent” and “neurotypical” are relative terms. They assume a default way of thinking that you either match (if you’re neurotypical) or diverge from (if you’re neurodivergent).
Signs of neurodivergence
Since neurodivergence encompasses multiple conditions, struggles and strengths vary from person to person. For example, someone with autism may have different strengths and limitations compared to someone with dyslexia. That said, some of the following qualities are shared across multiple neurodivergent diagnoses.
- Difficulty concentrating
- Trouble following through
- Repeating words, phrases, or actions
- Being easily overwhelmed
- Struggling with time management
- Resisting changes in routine
- Having a strong memory
- Communicating well
- Learning visually
- Being detail oriented
- Working hard
- Identifying patterns easily
- Having a strong ability to focus on certain tasks
- Being process oriented
Why is neurodiversity important?
Neurodiversity changes the way we talk about variations in the brain. It moves us away from seeing variations as either deficiencies or superpowers, and instead just acknowledges them as differences.
For example, instead of looking at ADHD as a problem that needs solving, neurodiversity helps us celebrate the strengths of people with ADHD, accommodate them when it makes certain tasks difficult, and generally support the person with the diagnosis.
A neurodiversity framework celebrates the gifts of people with mental health disorders or disabilities, but doesn’t try to label them as “savants” or “geniuses.” Instead, it opens up conversations about the benefits and challenges of neurodivergence, while encouraging people to create environments that draw on people’s skills while accommodating their needs and differences.
What about disabilities?
Understanding certain conditions as disabilities is important so that people with disabilities can get the assistance and support they need. A person with an intellectual disability, learning disability, or mental health condition may choose to identify as neurodivergent, as a person with a disability, or both.
Neurodivergence and mental health care
As terms like “neurodivergent” and “neurotypical” become more common, more therapists are using the concept of neurodiversity to inform their treatment of certain mental health conditions. Browse our directory to find a neurodiversity-informed therapist in your area.
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.
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