In recent years, there has been a much-needed spotlight on neurodiversity – or the acknowledgement that there are natural variations in the human brain. Neurological diversity is not a model of disability, instead the concept of neurodiversity explains a natural difference in how someone processes information and the world around them. People are neurodivergent and those apart of the neurodiverse movement strive to create a world that is equitable, respectful, and accepting of neurocognitive differences.
Neurodivergent and Neurotypical: What is the Difference?
Neurodivergent refers to individuals who experience various conditions related to cognition and social ability. Some of these common conditions include Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Dyscalculia, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Tourette’s Syndrome, and Asperger’s Syndrome to name a few. People of all genders, races, and ages can be neurodiverse.
Neurodiverse people have always existed but having a name to identify neurodivergence in individuals is relatively new. The term neurodiversity was coined by sociologist Judy Singer in 1998. Singer realized there was a large gap in research around understanding neurodiverse individuals and a lack of support for their specific needs in society that differ from those who are neurotypical.
Someone who is neurotypical displays cognitive, developmental, and social abilities that are considered, as the name suggests, typical. Someone who is neurotypical tends to function cognitively and socially in a way that is societally expected. For example, let’s say a person with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is talking with a person who is neurotypical. The neurotypical person notices the person with ASD is not making eye contact with them and thinks the person is rude because consistent eye contact is something that has been established as a social norm, at least in the United States.
To the person with ASD, they are not avoiding eye contact because they are disinterested in what the other person is saying. Social situations can often be difficult for neurodiverse people because some conditions make what seem to neurotypical people as “normal social interactions” difficult. A neurodiverse brain functions differently than neurotypicals’ brains. That is not to say there is anything wrong with a neurodiverse brain, it simply processes information and functions differently than neurotypicals’ brains.
Barriers to Diagnosis
For many neurodiverse people, the realization that a condition might be present tends to happen during early school years when children enter social and learning environments more regularly. Teachers will often notice common symptoms of neurodiversity and recommend the parent(s) schedule an assessment to confirm a diagnosis. While this is a common situation in which a neurodiverse diagnosis is discovered, unfortunately, many children don’t receive a diagnosis until much later in life when they are adults.
In fact, girls tend to be overlooked more than boys when it comes to recognizing signs of conditions such as ADHD and Autism. In some situations, schools do not have the funding, knowledge, and training to know what signs educators should be assessing in children and what to do when a child is learning and behaving differently than their peers.
Overlooking cognitive and behavioral differences also occur with learning disabilities such as dyslexia and dyscalculia. It’s not uncommon for children to struggle with understanding and completing their assignments and being labeled as “slow learners” or “less skilled at math” as opposed to what it really is, a difference in how their brain operates compared to other children’s’ that requires more specialized attention. Unfortunately, children in these situations tend to grow up thinking something is “wrong” with them if they are not accommodated for their neurodiversity in a way that is empathetic and normalizing.
Neurodivergence and Mental Health
It’s an important distinction to make that neurodivergence is different from other psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD. That being said, it’s extremely common for symptoms of neurodivergent conditions and symptoms of mental illness to overlap. For example, people with ADHD are often misdiagnosed with depression or anxiety and treated for those conditions, instead of the legitimate diagnosis. However, it’s not uncommon for people who have ADHD to experience depression and anxiety as difficulty with executive functioning in the brain can trigger those symptoms.
Mental health challenges can impact anyone, but there is research to suggest that neurodiverse people have high rates of mental illness as a product of not fitting in with a neurotypical society. The neurodiverse brain is often not naturally accommodated in many academic institutions and work environments, leaving many neurodivergent people to constantly “mask” their condition(s).
Masking is a popular term in the neurodiverse community that refers to minimizing or completely hiding symptoms to fit in with societal norms. Many neurodiverse people learn to mask as it often feels more comfortable to appear neurotypical. Masking can include suppressing symptoms and needs, mimicking behaviors someone who is neurotypical engages in, having go-to scripts for social interactions, and anything else that helps them camouflage within society.
Supporting the Neurodiverse Movement
A few small things you can do to support the neurodiverse movement include educating yourself on the various conditions, learning about how you can be a supportive loved one, co-worker, employer, etc., and calling out problematic messaging and behavior regarding misunderstanding and maligning the community.
It’s important for neurotypical people to understand neurodiversity and the way neurological conditions and symptoms present themselves. The more society learns about what neurodiversity looks like and how to be empathetic, respectful, and normalizing, the better chance we have at creating a society that is welcoming and accessible for people of all varying types of abilities.