What Is Neurodiversity? Meaning & Examples


Normality is an agreed consensus. Perhaps that consensus has come from the tendencies of the majority, or imposed beliefs about what normal means by those in influential positions. 

Either way, normal is subjective. It’s defined by a society or culture and changes with the times. Behaviors that were once viewed as normal change and evolve. When it comes to people, attempting to place cookie-cutter moulds of normality is impossible. 

While there are shared traits across humanity, and while there are ways of being that are much more common than others, we’re fortunate enough to live in a world with a huge, diverse cross-section of minds, hearts, and personalities. It’s part of the colour of life.

Normal and Abnormal

One of the biggest issues with defining normal is that you create its opposite — abnormal. When it comes to understanding the brain, and how it affects human behaviour, there has been a strong push to accept that diversity is normal. To better understand differences, some find, it’s more effective to view diversity as a spectrum, rather than rigid labels or normal or abnormal.

This movement comes under the term neurodiversity. This covers the rich variety of brain structures and human individuality, in a way that empowers everyone to fulfil their full potential, without being compared to typical behaviour. 

Do you ever feel like you don’t fully fit in with standards of normal? In this article, we’ll cover different aspects of neurodiversity, to give you an understanding of the full spectrum of human brains.

What is Neurodiversity?

The word neurodiversity was coined by sociologist Judy Singer in 1998, as part of the movement to create a Neurodiverse Paradigm for understanding neurological differences. Neurodiversity centers around neurologically atypical patterns of thought or behavior. It’s based in neurology, the branch of science that studies the nervous system and brain differences.

No common standard

There is still confusion around the language used, with no common standard, even across activists and academics. 

The term diversity covers “variety across a group” but doesn’t quite capture neurological difference in all its glory. The University of Edinburgh uses the metaphor of a spice cupboard. “You only have a diverse range of herbs in your cupboard if you have lots of different ones. Lovage is not ‘diverse’ while parsley is ‘typical’.  ‘Diverse’ is not a synonym for ‘rare’. Rather, lovage, basil, thyme and parsley make up a diverse group of herbs.”

The neurodiversity movement

The purpose of the Neurodiversity Movement (which is also part of the Disability Rights Movement) promotes equal rights for people who have rare, or neurodivergent, traits and challenges the approach that views one particular way as healthy. 

A quote by Einstein summarises the ethos well: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” 

Neurodiversity recognizes that variety is the spice of life, but respects that some people have disabilities that require special attention, like for certain disabled people, autistic people, etc. The Neurodiversity Movement opposes attempts to view differences as pathological or attempt to fix or cure them to align with common standards. Instead, there is a desire to find ways to support individuals to fully express their unique traits — particularly for informational and educational purposes.

Although the difference between neurotypical and neurodivergent appears to be simply grammar, the above explanation hopefully demonstrates why neurodiversity advocates think it’s important to find consistency in the language used. Planet Neurodivergent offers a clear explanation of the meaning behind these definitions:

“There is no such thing as a ‘neurodiverse individual.’ The correct term is ‘neurodivergent individual.’ An individual can diverge, but an individual cannot be diverse. Diversity is a property of groups, not of individuals. That’s intrinsic to the meaning and proper usage of the term diverse. Groups are diverse; individuals diverge. In addition, neurodiverse does not mean ‘non-neurotypical.’ The opposite of neurotypical is neurodivergent, not neurodiverse.”

Neurotypical vs. Neurodivergent

Neurotypical is the term given to people who have “typical” neurological development and brain functions. Neurodivergent people, from young adults to the elderly,  diverge from conventional standards or stereotypes around mood, learning ability, social ability, or attention. The “neuro” element explains how neurodivergent people’s brains process information in different ways than neurotypical people.

ADHD Aware estimates that between 30 or 40 percent of people classify as neurodivergent, with many remaining undiagnosed, especially those who are “high functioning” and able to adapt to common challenges of society. 

When you think about it, that’s a significant number of the population who don’t fit conventional standards, which in itself shatters the illusion of normality. 

Types of Neurodiversity

Neurodiversity advocacy began within the Autism Movement. Singer, who coined the term, referred to herself as “likely somewhere on the autistic spectrum”  before expanding to other types of neurodiversity. 

The Neurodiverse Movement no longer focuses exclusively on autism, and now covers a wide range of neurodiverse conditions. Below are some of the most commonly recognized types of neurodiversity:

Autism

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), has a broader definition, and covers a wide range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication.

The “spectrum” in ASD is because the symptoms of autism range from mild to severe, with many subtypes that affect individuals differently. It’s believed there are many factors involved in the development of autism, rather than one concrete cause.

In America, 1 in 54 children is estimated to have autism spectrum disorders. Common symptoms include variation in developmental milestones throughout childhood, delayed language development, difficulty understanding others’ feelings, trouble maintaining eye contact, difficulty with changes in routine and surroundings.

ADHD

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common forms of neurodiversity in children. ADHD often appears in conjunction with other neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism or dyslexia. 

People with ADHD struggle with attention and organization, as it impacts parts of the brain that control planning, focus, and execution. In addition, people with ADHD might experience hyperfocus, hyperactivity, and excessive emotions. People with ADHD also have high levels of creativity and unconventional ways of viewing problems.

Down syndrome

neurodivergent examples
(Jessie Casson / Getty)

Down syndrome is a genetic condition where someone has an extra chromosome, the “packages” of genes found in the human body. 

Most people have 46 chromosomes, but babies with down syndrome are born with an extra copy of chromosome 21. This causes developmental differences in both the body and the brain — making it a type of neurodiversity.

It’s common for those with down syndrome to also have mild to moderate intellectual disabilities. The average IQ of an adult with down syndrome is 50, which is around the same level as an eight or nine-year-old child. 

In addition to physical symptoms, people with down syndrome can struggle with the ability to speak, developing stutters or speech impediments, which adds to their competitive advantage deficit.

Dyslexia

Dyslexia is a type of neurodiversity affecting speech, writing, and reading. One definition of dyslexia is “a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling.” 

Like autism, it’s also viewed on a continuum and is seen in people with a wide range of intellectual capabilities. People with dyslexia may confuse the order or structure of words. They may take a while to read and write, and have trouble recollecting or pronouncing different words.

Dyscalculia

Dyscalculia is similar to dyslexia, but people with this condition struggle with math, instead of language. Dyscalculia causes people to struggle with basic maths problems, complex, abstract ideas, and conceptualizing things like bigger vs. smaller. 

People with dyscalculia struggle with tasks that include basic math skills, or “number sense,” including cooking, time management, and grocery shopping. Although less well known, it’s estimated to affect the same amount of people as dyslexia — around 10 percent of the population.

Hyperlexia

Hyperlexia is an advanced reading ability combined with an intense fascination with words or numbers. 

Children with hyperlexia might demonstrate a strong connection to reading from a younger age, far exceeding usual developmental markers. Hyper means “beyond,” and Lexia refers to “language and reading” (hence its use in dyslexia). 

There has been some recognition hyperlexia is a superability, due to it far exceeding expected norms. However, it’s important to keep in mind the early development of hyperlexia in the 1960s included an additional neurodevelopmental disorder and is often associated with autism spectrum disorder.

Other forms of neurodiversity

Other forms of neurodiversity include Tourette’s syndrome, synesthesia (where several senses are stimulated simultaneously, such as associating numbers with color), and epilepsy

Chronic mental health illnesses, from OCD, depression, and bipolar disorder, are forms of neurodiversity, too. As is handedness — in fact, the brains of left-handed people differ so much from right-handed people that they’re not used in brain studies due to problems with data.

The benefits of neurodiversity

The Neurodiversity Movement attempts to celebrate difference as key to moving humanity forward and contributing to growth across wider groups of people. 

Far from being outcasts of society, neurodivergent people offer valuable insights. Author and neurodiversity advocate John Elder Robinson, who himself had undiagnosed Asperger syndrome, wrote for Psychology Today:

“If 99 neurologically identical people fail to solve a problem, it’s often the 1 percent fellow who’s different who holds the key. Yet that person may be disabled or disadvantaged most or all of the time. To neurodiversity proponents, people are disabled because they are at the edges of the bell curve, not because they are sick or broken.”

A different type of one percent

Robin’s approach to championing the 1 percent is demonstrated by savant syndrome

This is the term given to those whose neurodiversity causes them to far exceed averages in other areas — like those with hyperlexia who have exceptional skills with language. It is estimated around half of people with autism, for example, are “autistic savants,” who demonstrate exceptional abilities in other areas.

Savant skills are typically associated with five key areas: art, memory, arithmetic, musical abilities, and spatial skills. When thinking of savants, most people might recollect the 1988 movie, Rain Man. The movie was inspired by Kim Peek, a neurodivergent individual who had exceptional memory abilities; during his life, he memorized over 12,000 books. 

However, it’s not only in extremes that benefits are found, as savants still represent a small number of neurodivergent people. Most of us can acknowledge that there is much, much room for improvement in the world as a whole. To make progress, we must come up with original ideas, and new ways of thinking. Neurodiversity is one cause of new ideas and new approaches that can benefit all areas of life.

In recent times, a big benefit of the neurodiversity movement is that businesses are being more considerate of hiring a neurodiverse workforce. Not viewing a person for how well they fit into conventional norms allows their natural talents to excel. 

Think of someone who lacks social skills to network, but is exceptionally talented at writing code or analyzing data. Technology giant Microsoft has an autism hire program in their own company, and they create jobs that focus exclusively on candidates’ technical skills. It creates a different form of psychological safety in the workplace. 

Criticism of the neurodiversity movement

Although started with good intentions, there are opponents to the Neurodiversity Movement. Moheb Costandiis, a molecular and developmental neurobiologist, highlights a number of critiques. 

The movement itself has at times been likened to surpassing its original intent and becoming more an ideology. Other critiques include favoring high-functioning neurodiverse people, in addition to romanticizing conditions. 

As a result, the Neurodiversity Movement, which has become increasingly popular since Singer’s early exploration, can minimize the struggles people face by outright rejecting medical models. 

Minimizing struggles

For those with extreme conditions, medical assistance might be necessary to function. In an essay for Aeon, Costandiis offers a new approach to neurodiversity in general: 

“It is, therefore, time to start thinking differently about neurodiversity, and to recognize the importance of free speech in the public discourse on autism, because if neurodiversity means anything, it means accepting that we all think differently, and that not everyone takes pride in being autistic.”

I’m a big believer in the Buddhist philosophy of the Middle Way, of attempting to find a path of balance throughout life. Perhaps with neurodiversity, this is finding a balance between celebrating, accepting, and seeking to understand unique challenges, without overly romanticizing or pedestalling conditions that can lead to a lot of hardship and struggle.

Do you share any neurodivergent traits?

Many neurodivergent people spend most of their lives undiagnosed. 

That’s partly due to a lack of information, partly because there is such a variety of different experiences, it’s difficult to identify when someone isn’t neurotypical. 

It’s much easier to diagnose children than it is with adults. Awareness is key — due to the increase of information on autism, for example, diagnosis has seen a ninefold increase over the past 20 years.

The path to being diagnosed or understanding if you have neurodivergent traits is initially through your own experience — there might be certain areas of life where you intuitively feel different or notice you struggle to keep up with certain standards of reading, writing, socializing, or using your communication skills.

Far from me to say what your best process is, it’s worth keeping in mind that the ethos of the Neurodiversity Movement is to celebrate and accept neurodivergent traits. Having a label or diagnosis doesn’t have to define you, but it can be a powerful catalyst in self-acceptance, and allow you to find tools that can maximize your potential. For people who have felt harshly judged — the fish told to climb trees — this type of validation can be significant.

Not only can it help you understand yourself, and the reasons behind your approach to life, it can be useful in allowing others to better understand you. That includes friends, family, as well as employees. So if you suspect you may have neurodiverse traits, it pays to do research into different types, and then consider seeking the help of a professional. 

The world may have tried to place you in a box, but that’s the world’s fault. Always remember that you are you, that variety is the spice of life, and it’s your uniqueness, not your conformity, that is your greatest gift.



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