- The word "neurodiversity" was invented in the context of autism, but its usage today is more broad.
- Neurodiversity should take into account race, gender, class, sexual/gender identity, and more.
- How we talk about neurodiversity affects how we treat neurodivergent people.
Recently, I was explaining my work as an advocate for neurodivergent people, and a member of my audience asked me, “What does neurodivergent mean?”
She added, “I think I know what it means. But I’m not sure.”
I’m glad that she was brave enough to ask the question, giving me the chance to help her become more comfortable with the word. Many neurotypical (and even neurodivergent) people are afraid of misusing it.
Dictionaries typically define “neurodiversity” like this: the range of differences in brain function and behavior that are part of the normal variation in the human population.
Among all living things, variations are normal. In people, we see variations in height, hair color, and athletic ability.
The term “neurodiversity” is a portmanteau coined by Australian sociologist Judy Singer in 1998. She put together the words “neurological diversity” and “neurodiversity” was born.
Although Singer invented the word in the context of autism, it has grown to include far more than just autism.
In my work, people have told me that they’re not sure how broad or narrow the word is. Does neurodiversity refer only to autism? Does it refer to autism and other developmental disorders such as attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)?
There is no perfect consensus about its meaning, and you'll find some debate about how the word should be used.
However, neurodiversity does and should refer not only to developmental disorders (autism, ADHD) but also to psychiatric disabilities like anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder and to any other acquired mental disability such as brain fog or PTSD.
Neurodiversity, neurodiverse, neurodivergent, neurotypical…?
Lots of words derive from the word neurodiversity, such as the noun “neurodivergence” and the adjective “neurodivergent”—which refers to people.
A neurodivergent person has a brain the functions differently than a "normal" brain. They might have a developmental disorder, a psychiatric disability, or an acquired mental disability—or, like me, all three. I am autistic and I have bipolar disorder and PTSD.
Why did my audience member express discomfort with the word "neurodiversity"? Because words are always more than just words. They have a real-life effect on people.
The word neurodivergent represents real people like me who face real struggles in our society, a society that makes life harder for people like us. Neurodivergent people face barriers in school, the workplace, and more.
So we must keep in mind that how we talk about neurodiversity affects how we treat neurodivergent people.
You also get another adjective, “neurodiverse,” which describes a group of people. An individual can’t be “neurodiverse.” Try it in a sentence: “She is really diverse!” Sounds weird, right?
To get another perspective on the word neurodiversity, I interviewed Jessie Mewshaw, a late-diagnosed ADHDer (a word that people with ADHD use to refer to themselves) and a pediatric speech-language therapist. Her life's work is helping neurodivergent kids and advocating for neurodivergent people.
Mewshaw gave me this explanation of the word neurodiverse: “A group including an autistic person, a bipolar person, a neurotypical person, and an ADHDer with a tic disorder would be a neurodiverse group—a group of widely diverse brains.”
As Mewshaw told me, “Neurodiversity should be recognized as a valued form of diversity amongst people."
"But," she explained, "it should also be recognized that those with a neurotypical [normal by societal standards] brain are currently seen as the majority and the norm and are thus privileged in our culture.”
What counts as neurodivergent? More than you think.
Over the years, I have frequently used the word neurodivergent as an umbrella to refer to my own mental disabilities, because my disabilities span mental illnesses (bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders), a developmental disorder (autism), and an acquired disorder (PTSD).
The word is generous enough to refer to all of these types of neurological differences.
Mewshaw explained to me the importance of this generous definition: “We need to keep the definition of neurodivergence wide so that we can understand the many ways a person can diverge from neurotypical."
Mewshaw also emphasized intersectionality: "Neurodivergence can intersect with race, culture, gender, sexual identity, age, and so on, and one type of neurodivergence can intersect with another form of neurodivergence.”
Neurodiversity can also include those who have been self-diagnosed. The diagnosis process is often challenging, either because of economic barriers, geographic barriers, or cultural barriers.
If you think you’re neurodivergent, then you probably are.
Talking about neurodiversity makes the world a better place.
Talking about neurodiversity helps us, as a society, recognize the struggles that neurodivergent people face.
When we, as a society, recognize these struggles, we can do something about them.
As Mewshaw told me, “The Neurodiversity Movement seeks to educate mainstream culture about the value and need for neurodivergent brains and to promote awareness, understanding, inclusion of neurodivergent people.”
In the end, she notes, “Destigmatizing neurodivergence benefits everyone.”
Note: The information in this post is not legal or medical advice.
Judy Singer, “‘Why Can’t You Be Normal for Once in Your Life?’: From a ‘Problem with No Name’ to the Emergence of a New Category of Difference,” in Disability Discourse, ed. Mairian Corker and Sally French (Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press, 1999), 64.