- Neurodiversity describes variation in human minds and does not seek to define what is, and is not, “normal.”
- Using neurodivergence as a euphemism for conditions such as autism and ADHD perpetuates stigma.
- Neurodiversity is overwhelmingly positive when we engage meaningfully with the true spirit of the concept.
Neurodiversity first emerged as a concept in the 1990s, arising from discussions in an autistic-run online group (Dekker, 2020). While it has taken many years of advocacy to bring the notion to the fore, we are now seeing neurodiversity become common parlance. This is something to be celebrated, particularly by the autistic community, which has long championed the term. Neurodiversity is now being discussed in schools, workplaces, and homes, as well as in clinical and research sectors. But how well do we actually understand neurodiversity? This post will try to unpack some of the common myths and misunderstandings surrounding it.
1. Neurodiversity is beneficial.
Just as biodiversity encapsulates the immense variety of plants, animals, and microorganisms found on Earth, neurodiversity refers to the many different kinds of human minds. Similarly to cultural diversity and gender diversity, the neurodiversity movement acknowledges that variation is both natural in its occurrence and beneficial to the human species as a whole.
Humanity needs heterogeneity to thrive. For example, plumbers play an important role in the workforce, such that we may assume that a greater number of plumbers would be a good thing. But, imagine if everyone was a plumber: We’d all have excellent water pressure and drainage, but few people would have a job (or electricity, for that matter).
Diversity is critical to a successful society. This does not mean that each individual must somehow leverage their idiosyncratic profile to meet Western notions of a productive member of society, but rather recognises that individual differences in how we process and interact with the world, in and of itself, make the human race as a whole stronger and more resilient. Even traits that society doesn’t tend to value highly, like “difficult temperaments” in babies, have been shown in some contexts to increase chances of survival when a natural disaster strikes (de Vries, 1984).
2. Neurodiversity is inclusive of everyone.
Neurodiversity is simply a way of stating that there are infinite variations in minds across humankind. It does not exclude any minds, or seek to describe any minds as superior or inferior to others. Neurodiversity is most commonly discussed in reference to more readily recognised neurotypes, such as autism and ADHD. This may simply be because these communities were early to adopt the concept and take a leading role in developing the broader neurodiversity movement.
However, it is important that neurodiversity not be seen as an umbrella term for a roll call of diagnoses defined by the medical model, nor restricted to describing just a few diagnostic categories. Attempting to explain neurodiversity by cobbling together a list of medicalized conditions simultaneously overcomplicates and undermines the concept. Neurodiversity very simply describes diversity as it relates to human minds.
3. “Neurodiverse” and “neurodivergent” are not interchangeable terms.
Neurodiverse describes more than one mind when there is some apparent, or likely, diversity. For example, a classroom or workplace is very likely to be neurodiverse, and humankind as a whole is most definitely neurodiverse. Neurodivergent, on the other hand, can describe a single mind that diverges significantly from socio-culturally constructed norms in some way. This doesn’t mean that someone must meet certain diagnostic criteria or even identify as belonging to a discrete neurotype. It simply means that there is a substantial difference in at least one dimension of how the mind operates when compared to societal norms. This can be a difference that someone was born with or a difference acquired during their life.
So, saying that an individual is neurodiverse doesn’t really make sense when you consider an accurate definition of neurodiversity. A common error is to use “neurodiverse” to describe someone who identifies with more than one neurotype. In such a case, that person is more accurately described as “multiply neurodivergent.”
4. Neurodiversity is not a euphemism for autism and/or ADHD.
Neurodiversity is not a big label to stick over all the other labels to avoid what we perceive as pathologizing language. Professionals sometimes attempt to align their practice with neurodiversity-affirming approaches by adopting nonsense euphemisms such as “children with neurodiverse conditions.” This is not only a confusing and inaccurate use of terminology, but it perpetuates stigma by sending the message that it is not OK to use terms like autism and ADHD. Such use of language signals that a professional may be jumping on the neurodiversity bandwagon, rather than deeply understanding the concept and embodying it in their clinical practice.
5. Individual neurotypes are still important in practical terms.
Embracing neurodiversity, and seeing variation in minds as natural and beneficial, does not mitigate the need for individual accommodations. Some minds are more suited to day-to-day life within our current socio-cultural context than others, and some minds require supports, accommodations, and/or medication to increase functional capacity and well-being. We can accept that variation in minds is natural while also accepting that some minds require accommodations in this society. As such, defining individual neurotypes remains an important way of indicating our likely need for accommodations, and allows a framework that helps to communicate the ways in which we experience and interact with the world around us.
For many neurodivergent people, including this post’s authors, their neurotype becomes a keystone within the formation of their identity. While we are both neurodivergent, this term goes only a very short way to describe our experience of the world and ourselves. With neurodiversity being such a broad concept, two neurodivergent people may have no common ground at all. For the authors, embracing our neurotype of autism as being integral to who we are not only offers a descriptor but also has been foundational to our connection to community and each other.
That said, there is also diversity—including neurodiversity—within a neurotype, so sharing a neurotype also doesn’t guarantee connection and common ground. While identifying neurotypes remains important for communication and identity development, it is misleading to view neurotypes as representing a homogenous group of minds.
Neurodiversity existed as a phenomenon long before humans began to name and categorise psychiatric diagnoses. To fully grasp the concept, we must seek to separate it from our understanding of the medical model, refrain from describing it in terms of lists of diagnoses, and grossly simplify the way we approach this concept of a diversity of minds. Further, using the terms neurodiversity and neurodivergence as euphemisms for specific neurotypes, such as autism and ADHD, actually perpetuates stigma rather than reducing it. It also excludes other forms of neurodivergence from conversations about neurodiversity, which is at odds with the inherently inclusive nature of the concept.
There is no shame in using specific terms like autism and ADHD while also embracing the concepts of neurodiversity and neurodivergence to help us reframe our understanding of, and relationship with, differences in how minds operate. However, combining all these terms and using them interchangeably to alleviate the discomfort of genuinely confronting and accepting difference is unhelpful at best and harmful at worst.
de Vries, M. W. (1984). Temperament and infant mortality among the Masai of East Africa. American Journal of Psychiatry, 141(10), 1189–1194. https://doi.org/10.1176/ajp.141.10.1189
Dekker, M. (2020). From Exclusion to Acceptance: Independent Living on the Autistic Spectrum. In S. K. Kapp (Ed.), Autistic Community and the Neurodiversity Movement: Stories From the Frontline (pp. 41-49). Springer Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-8437-0_3