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What Does It Mean to Be Neurodivergent?

In the 1990s, the neurodiversity movement emerged — with the goal of embracing neurological differences between people. 

Neurodiverse (or neurodivergent) individuals form a large share of our global society. A 2020 study estimated about 15-20% of the population worldwide is neurodiverse. That population is composed of people with autism, dyslexia, Tourette’s syndrome, ADD/ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and other conditions. Those without such diagnoses are known as neurotypical.

Below, read what it means to be neurodivergent or neurotypical. You’ll come to understand how the neurodiversity framework can change our understanding of ourselves, our complex brains and the ways we perceive the world. 

What is means to be neurodivergent

“There is no one single correct way for a brain to be,” explains Adrian Kunemund, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in Atlanta, Georgia. Neurodivergent people have a wide range of neurological differences, and the term covers multiple diagnoses. 

The broadest of these is autism spectrum disorder (ASD), an umbrella term for a variety of lifelong neurodevelopmental conditions. Autism affects an estimated 1.6% of the global population, and may impact an individual’s language or movement skills, cognitive development, and sensory experiences. 

Some other neurodivergent conditions include:

  • Dyslexia, which affects the working memory and impacts verbal and written communications.
  • ADD/ADHD, which can cause inattentiveness, impulsivity, and – in the case of ADHD – hyperactive behavior.
  • Development Coordination Disorder (DCD), known as dyspraxia, which can affect fine motor or gross motor coordination in children and adults, making it difficult to do everyday activities such as riding a bike or driving.

In recent years, some researchers and disability advocates have articulated a more expansive view of neurodiversity, to include individuals with mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, general learning disabilities, neurological tic disorders like Tourette’s, and acquired brain injuries that cause neurological changes. 

The challenges of neurodiversity

Neural differences can make people act, sound, talk, or behave in ways that diverge from neurotypical people, presenting challenges for neurodiverse people who are often misunderstood or mistreated as a result of their condition. The challenges faced by neurodiverse adults have led to alarming outcomes. A 2020 British study found that only 21.7% of autistic people in the UK are employed, and a 2017 American study found that individuals with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) had lower life expectancy compared to the general population. 

Neurodiverse children are frequently bullied by their peers, and schools, lacking adequate training and resources for serving neurodiverse students, often fail to provide quality education for these students. 

Dr. Christina Nicolaidis has a son with autism; understanding his diagnosis through the framework of neurodiversity helped her relearn ideas about neurology that impact her work as a doctor and as a parent. In an article for the AMA Journal of Ethics, she writes, “Communicating a strengths-based approach to autism may not only afford autistic patients the respect and dignity they deserve, but may also help family members better understand and support their loved ones.”

Neurodivergent vs. Neurotypical: What’s the Difference?

Neurotypical, a term that emerged in tandem with neurodiversity, describes people who don’t have any of the neural conditions clustered under neurodivergence. “This refers to people whose brains function in a way that the dominant culture is used to seeing and understanding,” Dr. Kunemund explains. 

Neurotypical doesn’t equate to “normal,” however: our brains are as unique as our fingerprints, and much of what we think of as normal is in fact the social conditioning that makes one behavior seem more expected than another. For instance, one student may prefer to sit still while listening to a lecture, while another processes the lecture better while pacing the room. 

Neurodiversity reinforces the notion that both behaviors are acceptable – and both can be accommodated to make spaces more welcoming and inclusive for all people.

“Brains are different,” says Dr. Kunemund. “They vary in terms of structure, function, neurochemistry. Neurodiversity acknowledges that those differences are not deficits.” 

Importance of understanding neurodiversity

Neurodiversity is not a diagnosis; it is a way of thinking about diagnoses, and in doing so, helps us to broaden our understanding of human diversity. 

The neurodiversity model dovetails with the larger disability rights movement, which has empowered individuals with disabilities to advocate for equal treatment, respect, and accommodation, and to be included in research and policy regarding the conditions and issues that affect them, as reflected in the mantra “nothing about us without us.”

Dr. Kunemund stresses the importance of asking people, “How can we help make our spaces inclusive so you can thrive?” 

In medical settings, offering patients a wide range of accommodations can make a huge difference in improving care for neurodivergent individuals. 

Inspired by her own journey with her autistic son, Dr. Nicolaidis co-founded AASPIRE, a community-based participatory research organization that seeks to improve the healthcare experiences(LINK HERE) of neurodivergent adults. As doctors, she writes, “I believe it is our responsibility to try to understand our patients as well as possible…(and) to recognize their strengths and the richness of their existence.” 

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