What is neurodiversity?

Written in September 2022

What is neurodiversity? You may have heard the word a few times but not know what it really means and it's understandable that many people are unfamiliar with the term. A lot of the terms I use in my blogging and in neurodiversity awareness aren't recognised by the spellcheck dictionary. Alexithymia, interoception, proprioception, these are all underlined in squiggly red. We'll leave those terms aside for now (although they are the subject of some other posts) and focus on the theme of this post: neurodiversity. Hold tight, there are some more terms coming up.


Neurodiversity is a term to describe the range and variety of different neurotypes that occur in the population. Neurotype is the word we use to talk about the way a particular brain is built, wired, and continues to work. Our neurotypes aren't always set for life; although many of us are born this way people can develop conditions like Tourette's, dementia, Parkinson's and a whole host of other neurological conditions that make them neurodivergent.


We say “neurodivergent” as an opposite term to “neurotypical”, which describes someone whose brain is built, wired, and continues to work in the standard, typical way (which is not to say that all neurotypical people are, or think the same). A neurotypical person is just someone who doesn't live with any neurological conditions or impairments.


Neurodiversity has a few sub-categories, so under the neurodiversity umbrella you have autistic people and people who are non-autistic (or allistic, to use another term) but who are still neurodivergent in other ways. There are people with ADHD (or ADHDers, even AuDHDers as we often refer to ourselves when we are autistic with ADHD) and those without ADHD or autism who are still neurodivergent. Dyslexia, dyscalculia, synaesthesia, dyspraxia and even hyperlexia are all forms of neurodivergence which may be present alongside autism and/or ADHD. These are all types that are present from birth.

There's also a lot of crossover in how these different forms of neurodiversity present and what they mean for the individual, but some common traits (presented as challenges and strengths) are:


  • Needing longer to process information in some formats, but we may be faster at processing information presented in a different format. For example, it can take ages for me to process physical instructions (in fact I can't really process directions until I am actually doing them) but I can process written information super fast)
  • Difficulty filtering out sensory distractions that others don't notice, like light, temperature, noise, physical sensations such as tags in clothing, but excellent attention to detail and we recognise patterns and subtle changes that other people don't
  • Social challenges in understanding the unwritten rules and applying them appropriately, but on the flip side, a complete inability to bullshit and a tendency towards candour – we are honest!
  • Switching tasks can be difficult, as can multi-tasking or being interrupted in the middle of a task with a change to that task. This tendency to get fully engrossed in a task is great for sticking with tasks many people find tedious, so we can often get repetitive work done much more quickly than others, and without getting bored.
  • Physical problems like not being able to sit still, having to sit in what looks like awkward positions, difficulty telling left from right, falling over our own feet. Nope, I can't think of a positive counter to that one!


It sounds really complicated but the best way to look at it is that although all neurodivergent people are picking from the same set of ingredients, we all have our own flavour of neurodivergence. I'd say mine's a fusion of things that really shouldn't work, but for some reason they do. It's a bit like my pork, cheese, apple and garlic sausages, for which I won a bronze medal in my previous life as a butcher.


It's important to distinguish between neurodiversity and mental health; the two are not the same although there is some overlap. Generally speaking, a mental health condition can be treated and recovered from with therapy and/or medication, while neurodiversity can't be “therapied” out of someone. Neurodivergent people can have mental health conditions alongside, or as part of their neurodiversity, and in fact I don't know any autistic person who doesn't live with anxiety. This and depression are quite common mental health conditions and can be the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain or a perfectly normal reaction to stressful or upsetting life events, but we wouldn't necessarily define someone as neurodivergent on the basis of an anxiety or depression diagnosis alone.

Feel free to ask questions at Quora or on LinkedIn if you're seeing this post from there.

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