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What Is Neurodiversity, Exactly?

A close look at the term "neurodiversity" and the aims of the movement behind it.

With so much hatred in the world for marginalized people, families are focusing more and more on teaching their kids about diversity. Many parents have an ongoing dialogue with their children about race, sexuality, and genders. But one crucial aspect of diversity is often left out of the conversation: neurodiversity. So, what is neurodiversity, and what does it mean to be neurodivergent?

Judy Singer, an autistic sociologist, coined the term in the late 1990s. She used it to frame brain differences, such as those found in autistic people, as something to be embraced as part of natural human diversity rather than something to be cured. In this view, people who are neurodivergent — those with ADHD, autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and other developmental disorders — are a valuable part of society, and they should be recognized as such.

What is Neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity paints conditions such as autism and ADHD not in terms of deficits but differences. In other words, there’s no such thing as one type of “normal” or “right” brain, just like there’s not one “right” race or sexuality or gender. Cognitive differences are normal and natural. And, like with all forms of human diversity, they lead people to contribute unique strengths to society.

“Neurodiversity advocates propose that instead of viewing this gift as an error of nature—a puzzle to be solved and eliminated with techniques like prenatal testing and selective abortion—society should regard it as a valuable part of humanity’s genetic legacy while ameliorating aspects of autism that can be profoundly disabling without adequate forms of support,” science writer Steve Silberman wrote in his book Neuro-Tribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity.

Most people have a similar style of cognitive functioning; these people are referred to as neurotypical. People who aren’t neurotypical are called neurodivergent. However, there’s not a strict definition for who this includes. It’s not a scientific term, so some people identify as neurodivergent if they have Tourette’s, depression, epilepsy, or other conditions that can change how the brain functions.

The Strengths of Neurodivergent People

The neurodiversity movement aims to reduce the stigma that neurodivergent people face. Society usually focuses on the challenges associated with these disorders. For example, autistic people may have trouble communicating, and people with ADHD may find it difficult to concentrate. But neurodivergent people have a lot to offer, especially when given a chance to use their unique brains in the way that suits them best.

People with ADHD, for example, often have non-linear thinking, allowing them to come to creative solutions. “Even their impulsivity can be an advantage,” Sarah Cussler, assistant director of Undergraduate Writing and Academic Strategies at Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, told WebMD. “Because they’ll say things other people are afraid to say.”

Autistic people may have a great memory, and some pay attention to complicated details that neurotypical people may overlook. People with dyslexia are frequently better at visual tasks, according to WebMD. And those with dyspraxia are often particularly creative and artistic.

“[Neurodivergent] students are wonderful students,” Cussler said. “They can be really creative, big-picture, out-of-the box thinkers. But with some classic kinds of assessments, they have more difficulty.” They may need different kinds of evaluations and accommodations at work or school. But with these adjustments, their strengths can shine through.