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What Does It Mean to Be Neurodivergent?

Neurodivergence is an umbrella term that includes conditions like autism, ADHD, and dyslexia. This perspective differs from the traditional medical model that views these conditions as pathological and instead sees them as natural variations of human neurological development, with barriers and challenges being created by society rather than inherent to the individual.

Key takeaways:

Everyone's brain develops differently, affecting how they interact, socialize, and learn. However, just because someone thinks or processes the world differently doesn't make it "wrong."

What is neurodivergence?

Neurodivergence refers to people whose neurological development differs from what’s thought of as “typical” development. This can include people whose brains perceive and process information differently, including people with autism, ADHD, and sensory processing disorders.

The term “neurodiversity” was coined by Dr. Judy Singer in 1998 as an alternative to traditional medical models that pathologize neurodivergence as disordered or pathological. Instead of viewing certain neurological differences as deficits, neurodiversity recognizes them as a part of the natural human spectrum, much like the human race’s biological diversity in height, skin color, and body size.

From a neurodiverse perspective, neurodivergence is not inherently negative or pathological. While neurodivergent people may face challenges in a society often designed by and for neurotypical people, these challenges are often the result of societal barriers that create discrimination and disparity rather than any inherent deficits in neurodivergent people themselves.

Common neurodivergent traits

Although a wide variety of conditions fall under the neurodivergent umbrella, there are some common characteristics that many neurodivergent people share.

Communication challenges

Neurodivergent people may struggle with specific aspects of social communication, including understanding nonverbal cues, taking turns in conversation, or interpreting sarcasm or irony. Neurodivergent people may also have a hard time engaging in “small talk” or understanding direct communication.

Sensory sensitivities

Many neurodivergent people perceive sensory input differently, which can make certain environments or experiences feel overwhelming or uncomfortable. For example, some neurodivergent people may become easily overwhelmed in large crowds or environments with a lot of auditory and/or visual stimulation. Other neurodivergent people may struggle with specific textures, which can lead to discomfort with particular fabrics, clothing, or food.

Executive function difficulties

Executive function refers to the cognitive processes that allow us to plan, organize, and complete tasks. Unfortunately, many neurodivergent individuals experience executive dysfunction, making it harder to do things like shift attention from one task to another or remember things that are important. These difficulties can subsequently affect their ability to complete tasks and manage time.

Unique interests

Neurodivergent people sometimes have unique interests and strengths outside the mainstream. For example, some individuals may have a deep knowledge of a particular subject. In contrast, others may have exceptional artistic or creative abilities. Many neurodivergent people also have the ability to hyperfocus on tasks that interest them, meaning they can spend time engaged in periods of intense concentration and absorption in a particular task or activity.

Specific neurodivergent conditions

Many different neurodivergent conditions fall under the umbrella of neurodiversity. However, some of the most common are ADHD, autism, and dyslexia.


Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, which often interferes with daily functioning. Though ADHD is often diagnosed in childhood, it can also be diagnosed well into adulthood. Symptoms of ADHD can include difficulty with attention and focus, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

While ADHD can present significant challenges, people with ADHD also have unique strengths and abilities, including creativity, resourcefulness, and the ability to multitask.


Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by difficulties with social communication, as well as restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior or interests. Because it’s considered a spectrum disorder, autism can range from mild to severe and affect individuals differently.

While people with autism may face challenges in social communication and understanding social cues, they also have unique strengths and abilities, including attention to detail, a strong sense of logic, and the ability to think outside the box.


Dyslexia is a learning disability affecting an individual's reading, writing, and spelling abilities. Dyslexia is often characterized by difficulties with phonological processing or the ability to identify and manipulate the sounds of language.

While dyslexia can present significant challenges in academic and professional settings. However, people with dyslexia have unique strengths and abilities, including strong problem-solving skills, creativity, and strong visual thinking.

Strengths of neurodivergence

Our society is built for neurotypical people, which can make life more challenging for people with neurodivergent conditions. However, a neurodiverse perspective can help us recognize the unique skills and contributions many neurodivergent people have.

Creativity and innovation

Neurodivergent people often have a different way of looking at the world, which can lead to innovative and creative solutions to problems. For example, neurodivergent people tend to think outside the box, which can help them develop novel ideas and make unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated concepts.

Attention to detail

Many neurodivergent people have a keen eye for detail and may be able to notice things that others miss. Their ability to notice small details and patterns that others may overlook can lead to insights and solutions that are not immediately apparent to neurotypical people.

Persistence and focus

As mentioned in the previous section, many neurodivergent people can hyper-focus on specific tasks that interest them. This can allow them to persist with a task for long periods, working through challenges and setbacks until they achieve their goals.

Neurodiversity is an important aspect of human variation that should be embraced and celebrated. While society has traditionally focused on the challenges associated with neurodivergent conditions, it is equally important to recognize the strengths and unique perspectives that neurodivergent people have. By recognizing and valuing these strengths, we can create a more diverse, innovative, and equitable world.

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