What Does It Mean to Be Neurodivergent?
Recently, there's been a growing movement to better understand mental health as a culture and as individuals. Along with this is a push to reexamine thought patterns and behaviors previously considered atypical, "bad," or "less than" in some way simply because they skewed from what was considered the norm. This is where the term neurodivergent (or neurodiversity depending on the use case) comes into play — a word that may sound familiar to you.
There's a lot to understand about neurodiversity, but having some grasp on what the following terms mean can help you better understand how varied mental health can be and why it's a great thing to reconsider what's considered "normal". Here's what you need to know.
What Is Neurodiversity?
Originally coined by sociologist Judy Singer in the late '90s, neurodiversity is the acknowledgment that there's a range of ways in which people's brains can function, explains David Mandell, Sc.D., professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and associate director of the Penn Center for Mental Health. Under neurodiversity, all manners of thinking, behaving, and processing are considered normal, says Mandell. 👏 And, as such, there is no one "right" way to experience and interact with the world around you. 🙌
Prior to the neurodiversity movement's emergence in the '90s, however, practitioners often viewed such differences in thinking and processing as abnormal or a "problem." But as the push for equality and inclusion of "neurological minorities" gained traction, it allowed for more neurodiversity research and education — both of which now play important roles in how clinicians view and address certain neurological conditions and disabilities, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
"People tend to think of psychiatric disorders as dichotomous: You either meet criteria for a disorder or you don't," says Mandell. "The neurodiversity movement [is driven by] the idea that this is not necessarily the most useful way to think about the ways in which people differ from normative functioning." (Related: Simple Strategies to Improve Brain Health)
Today, neurodiversity is understood as a concept that regards individuals with differences in brain function and behavioral traits as "part of the normal variation of the human population," according to the Stanford Neurodiversity Project. In general, there are those who are neurodivergent and those who are neurotypical. Below, dive deeper into what it means to be neurotypical vs neurodivergent.
Being neurotypical means that you think, process information, and behave in ways that are considered "normal" or "average" by the overall population, according to Mandell. People who are neurotypical don't necessarily think of themselves that way, but they usually recognize that day-to-day tasks and systems aren't something that they struggle with, he explains.
Neurodivergent is quite simply the opposite of neurotypical: It describes someone who thinks, behaves, and learns differently than what's considered typical. Specifically, neurodivergence is a term for when someone's brain processes, learns, and/or behaves differently than what's considered "normal" or, in technical terms, "neurotypical," says Mandell. It can be used to describe a wide spectrum of attributes, from the varying ways you and your partner approach a problem to certain neurological conditions or clinical mental health diagnoses. The goal of the term is to look at these neurological differences impartially, instead of viewing them as a "bad" thing or a "deficit," says Mandell.
It's important to note that being neurodivergent is not an official medical diagnosis recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, the catalog of psychological conditions widely used by clinicians. (BTW, the same is true for high-functioning anxiety — you also won't find it in the DSM.) Rather the neurodivergent meaning is more fluid, says Mandell. It's a loosely defined word that's used by practitioners in the mental health space and those who are impacted by mental illness (e.g. anxiety, depression, just to name two).
Being neurodivergent can mean that things may be a little more difficult for you to navigate from a cognitive standpoint, says David Caudel, Ph.D., director of the Frist Center for Autism and Innovation at Vanderbilt. "For those who are neurodivergent, differences are often sufficient [enough] to cause difficulties in communication with the neuromajority [aka those whose way of thinking and perceiving the world is aligned with the majority of society], and systems designed for the masses sometimes do not work well," explains Caudel, who refers to himself as neurodivergent, as well. "Some may even be harmful."
For example, someone who is neurodivergent might be viewed as less productive than their coworkers because certain processes in place could act as large mental hurdles for them. Something such as the need for regular in-person meetings or presentations may make a neurodivergent person feel incredibly uncomfortable. Or they may feel ashamed because they don't have the same emotional responses to certain things as other folks (e.g. knowing to laugh at key social moments or making eye contact during conversations).
"In short, those of us born neurodivergent find ourselves in a world not optimized for us, but rather optimized for the masses. We often struggle to find ways to fit our 'weirdness' into the norm," says Caudel.
Types of Neurodivergence
There are many neurodivergent examples or types of neurodivergence, but if you're especially wondering "what is considered neurodivergent," these are some of the most common or familiar ways it manifests, according to Mandell.
Autism: Also known as the autism spectrum disorder, autism is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges for people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There is a wide range of symptoms with autism, but patients may have trouble with eye contact, dislike physical contact, and have trouble expressing their needs, among other things.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): At its most basic, ADHD is an executive function disorder, meaning those with the mental health condition may have difficulties thinking abstractly, solving problems, planning or organizing, and synthesizing information. They might also find paying attention, controlling impulses, and sitting still challenging, according to the CDC. (Related: What Is Executive Dysfunction?)
Dyslexia: This is a learning disorder that involves difficulty reading due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words, according to the Mayo Clinic. Also called a reading disability, dyslexia impacts areas of the brain that processes language, and can lead to trouble reading, spelling, and memorizing.
Dyspraxia: Essentially a condition that affects physical coordination, dyspraxia is a developmental disorder that causes a child to perform "less well" in daily activities compared to others of their age, according to the U.K.'s National Health Service. Children with this condition often seem clumsy and have difficulty writing, drawing, and picking up new skills.
Tourette Syndrome: A nervous system disorder, Tourette Syndrome causes people to have tics, which are sudden twitches, movements, or sounds that are done repeatedly, according to the CDC.
Just know that the term "neurodivergence" is broad and can be applied to more people and situations than you may initially realize. After all, other neurodivergent examples include (but are not limited to) synesthesia (a neurological condition that causes certain stimuli to trigger more than one sense, e.g. hearing music and seeing the sounds as colors), epilepsy, and chronic mental health illnesses such as bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and depression. "When you look in a population, you can look at the average brain, and finding someone who is exactly on that point is quite rare," says Mandell. "What we tend to see are people who differ in a lot of different ways. We should view that as typical."
How to Know If You're Neurodivergent
Again, if you're wondering 'am I neurodivergent?' there are no cut-and-dry criteria for what counts as neurodivergent. "Any individual who feels their brain works differently enough from the masses is welcome to consider themselves neurodivergent," says Caudel. But people with clinical diagnoses such as autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, Tourette Syndrome, and ADHD do clearly fall under that umbrella term of neurodivergent because their conditions impact the way their brains process information, he explains "By that definition, roughly a third of the population is neurodivergent."
That said, many adults, especially those with autism spectrum disorder, are undiagnosed and may not even realize they're neurodivergent, points out Caudel. "A good rule of thumb is, if you have difficulty relating to others, understanding other people, and/or find people often misunderstand you, those are good signs that you may be neurodivergent." Take Caudel, who is neurodivergent, for example: "I always knew I was weird, knew I struggled with things that other people found so easy they couldn't believe I was struggling, but it wasn't until my 30s that the question of my own autism arose," he says. (Related: Why Everyone Should Try Therapy at Least Once)
How to Navigate Neurodiversity Respectfully
"Being neurodivergent doesn't mean that you have a disability," says Mandell. "We tend to think about people in terms of what is 'wrong' with them, but people who are neurodivergent simply engage and interact with the world differently."
If someone says they're neurodivergent, then it's typically okay to ask them if they'd be open to talking about it, but you should never make assumptions about their mental health or use of the label, notes Caudel. "If they've disclosed their neurodivergence, ask them questions about their perspective and what navigating life is like," he says. "You have a golden opportunity to peer past the mask and see the real person inside." This may help you to better understand how to communicate with them in the future. (See also: How to Be an Authentic and Useful Ally)
If you notice that someone who you know to be neurodivergent seems to be stressed or struggling to understand what you're trying to say, Mandell recommends offering your support. "It can be really helpful to ask, 'What's the best way for you to receive this information?' or 'What's the best circumstances for us to communicate?'" he explains.
And it's especially important to try to create a safe space for someone who is neurodivergent to be themselves. "They don't often show that person for fear of being rejected and excluded, but there are a lot of wonderful, talented people out there who are excluded because they're 'weird' or 'different,'" says Caudel. "The better you understand someone, the better you can communicate."