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What Does Neurodivergent Actually Mean?

Neurodivergent disorders encompass a range of conditions including autism, ADHD and dyslexia. But definitions stir up controversy among medical experts.

By Carina Woudenberg
Apr 24, 2023 4:00 PM
Child with noise-canceling headphones
(Credit: SeventyFour/Shutterstock)


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As science uncovers the more fine-tuned and unique ways that human brains operate, the terms neurodivergence and neurodiversity are becoming more popular.

The word neurodiversity only emerged in the late 1990s, thanks to Australian sociologist Judy Singer.

What Does Neurodivergent Mean?

Neurodivergent is a non-medical umbrella term that refers to a wide range of conditions including autism, dyslexia and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). And it is now appearing more frequently in everyday life and medical settings alike. 

“It is exciting that we are in a time with so much focus on diversity,” says Benjamin Powers, who works with students with dyslexia and ADHD at The Southport School in Connecticut, where he is the executive director.

Neurodiversity or Cerebrodiversity?

As a researcher and advocate of neurodivergence as well as someone living with a diagnosis of a form of ADHD, Powers prefers a slightly different term.

Rather than neurodiversity, he favors “cerebrodiversity,” which he says was coined by Dyslexia Laboratory director Gordon Sherman. Similar to neurodiversity, both concepts emphasize the fact that brains operate in unique ways with various strengths in different settings.

Powers says that the “cerebro” portion of the classification relates more specifically to the brain, compared to “neuro” which includes the entire nervous system. He also views “diversity” as a more community-oriented word choice over “divergent.”

“Anything that can generate informed conversation about the heterogeneity of our species, especially differences that are less visible to the human eye or may be more difficult to understand, is helpful,” he says.

Neurodivergence in the Medical Community

Since the term neurodivergence has gained popularity, though not without controversy, healthcare providers have had to grapple with its application and nuanced interpretation.

For starters, the category can help doctors and mental health providers identify support and services for patients with particular conditions under the neurodivergent umbrella, according to Erica Musser, research director of the Emotion Regulation in Children and Adolescents Lab at Florida International University.

On the other hand, Musser adds: “It is important to consider what is gained from a label and what are the negatives associated with a label.”

Ashleigh Evans, a board certified behavior analyst at Blue ABA — an applied behavior analysis therapy center based in Indiana — agrees that it’s helpful for doctors and medical staff to know a patient is neurodivergent before treating that person.

But that’s only a first step because the general term applies to so many different conditions.

Diagnosing Neurodivergent Conditions

To treat neurodivergent conditions, medical professionals will typically need to know of a patient’s specific diagnoses that fall under the neurodivergent category.

“People who have ADHD, autism, dyslexia, dysgraphia, and Tourette's syndrome, just to name a few, would be considered neurodivergent,” Evans says. “Each of these comes with different challenges and unique needs.”

Read More: 4 Things You Didn’t Know About Dyslexia

Diminishing Stigma for Neurodivergence

Evans adds that the stigma associated with mental health and neurodevelopmental conditions has decreased in recent years.

In this sense, seeking a diagnosis generally serves to benefit the person seeking it.

“Even if the individual doesn’t have significant deficits and doesn’t require intensive support, oftentimes a diagnosis is simply validating for them,” Evans says. “It helps them understand why they do certain things or why they need extra help in certain situations.”

Read More: Unpacking The Stigma Around Adult ADHD

Supporting Neurodivergent Disorders

That sentiment rings true for Powers who received his ADHD diagnosis later in life, following challenging years as a student.

“It was difficult for me to understand why I struggled in school relative to my classmates,” he says. “The lack of a diagnosis also meant no accommodations were available to me.”

Receiving a diagnosis, he adds, brought a sense of relief about the challenges he felt with assignments and other tasks: “It allowed me to identify tools to improve my professional and personal life.”

Read More: Everything Worth Knowing About ... Autism Spectrum Disorder

What Is Neurotypical?

Alongside the term neurodiversity, you may have also started to hear the word neurotypical.

As you might expect, this term generally applies to anyone who does not have any of the conditions that fall within the neurotypical umbrella. In other words, it describes a brain condition that is more usual in the context of historical neuroscience research.

Interestingly, however, as researchers gain an understanding of the dynamic conditions that fall within the neurodiversity umbrella, autism diagnoses have been on the rise, for children and adults alike.

In this sense, the neurodiverse brain just might be more common than we previously thought. And even the neurotypical brain has its own spectrum of quirks.

“All individuals have strengths and weaknesses when it comes to neurodevelopmental processes,” Musser says. “The different behavioral, cognitive and emotional processes that are part of neurodiversity all occur on a spectrum or continuum.”

Read More: Is ADHD Really on the Rise?

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