If you’ve explored the twenty-first-century mental health landscape you’ve probably come across the terms “neurodiverse” or “neurodiversity” and wondered what they mean. So let’s get into it, what exactly is neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity, short for neurological diversity, is the concept that there is natural variation in the human brain that leads to differences in how we think, behave, and experience the world. The term was first coined by Australian sociologist Judy Singer to argue that neurological differences are just that, differences. Neurodiversity exists just like diversity exists within ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. Singer coined the term neurodiversity to promote equality and inclusion of “neurological minorities.” It’s an emphasis on brain differences, not deficits.
Brains in each group have a diverse spectrum of abilities. Individuals with ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, Tourette’s syndrome, and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) learn, work, and experience the world differently than what is regarded as neurotypical. Trying to mask the differences, or pretend they don’t exist, often comes at a high cost to an individual’s sense of self and mental well-being. Masking can put the brain’s operating system at risk for depression and/or anxiety.
While society is becoming more aware and accepting of neurodiversity, many people continue to face challenges in their workplace, schools, or social spheres. This has sparked a social movement to educate and normalize neurodiversity. Spreading awareness eventually leads to popular media outlets sharing stories of people on the autism spectrum in a way that normalizes neurodiverse experiences, such as Netflix’s “Love on the Spectrum”. Those leading the movement advocate for Autism Spectrum Disorder to be thought of as reflecting natural variances in the human brain rather than a diagnosis that needs to be cured.
Here are a few key aspects of the movement:
- Neurodiversity exists: All brains work differently. Neurotypical or neurodiverse, we all have different strengths and weaknesses.
- Neurodiversity is valuable: the differences in how our brains work allow us to take different approaches and solve problems from many perspectives. Differences in thinking lead to unique skill sets, giving humanity the potential to solve more diverse problems.
- The social model of diversity: the challenges that neurodivergent folks face aren’t necessarily inherited by the brain’s differences but instead are often a result of the social and cultural environments that exist within society.
Neurodiversity advocates suggest there’s too much focus placed on the impairments experienced by individuals with ADHD, dyslexia, and those on the autism spectrum. Instead, they recommend an approach that focuses on the strengths of neurodiversity, not what people appear to “lack.” The hope is to expand the way we think about developmental disabilities and neurotypicality in a way that would change systems around education and the workplace. Acceptance of the brain’s differences and support for the challenges one may face are not mutually exclusive, as both can work toward the same goals: a better quality of life and a stronger society.