Neurodiversity: An Introduction
As the terms “neurodiverse” and “neurodiversity” gain more mainstream attention and discussion outside of the field of psychology and medicine, this blog will offer a preliminary introduction to what neurodiversity means, examples of neurodivergence, what it means to be “neurodiversity-affirming,”, and how to find a neurodiversity-affirming therapist.
The concept of neurodiversity is gaining significant traction and attention not only in the mental health community but amongst society as a whole. But what does the term actually mean? As humans, we celebrate diversity, meaning we celebrate the differences between us while recognizing that these differences do not deviate us from our humanity, rather, they weave a tapestry of different colors, patterns, and textures as a whole. While the existence of neurological and cognitive diversity is not a new phenomenon, the term “neurodiversity” was first coined by autistic Australian sociologist Judy Singer in the 1990s; it was first published in her thesis and further gained publication with writers such as Harvey Blume in The Atlantic writing about its significance: “ Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of wiring will prove best at any given moment?”
What is Neurodiversity?
Neurodivergence is not a medical or psychological diagnosis, a trait that someone does or does not have, a political statement, or another word for autistic. Neurodiversity, at its most basic definition, is the diversity and variation in neurocognitive functioning; it is the differences in how our brains receive and process information and interact with our environments. These neurocognitive differences can encompass ways of learning, executive functioning, language and communication, social cognition and preferences, and how we perceive the world around us. Some examples of neurodivergence are innate and biological; others may be acquired after changes to the brain, such as with a traumatic brain injury or a stroke. Examples of neurodivergence include (but are not limited to):
- Autism Spectrum Disorder. This is the most well-known example of neurodivergence. Autistic people have unique ways of communicating, engaging socially, processing sensory information, and interacting with the world and with others.
- Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). ADHD is another common condition associated with neurodivergence. ADHD may affect focus, working memory, executive function, and impulse control.
- Dyslexia. Dyslexia affects skills associated with reading, writing, and information processing.
- Dyspraxia. Dyspraxia affects coordination, movement, and fine and gross motor skills.
- Dyscalculia. Dyscalculia affects abilities relating to mathematics and numbers, similar to what is seen with language and dyslexia.
- Dysgraphia. Dysgraphia affects one’s writing abilities (specifically with fine motor skills around handwriting) and converting thought into written language.
- Synesthesia. People with synesthesia experience sensory crossover, which is when activating one sensory or cognitive experience triggers the experience of a secondary sensory experience (e.g., perceiving letters and numbers as having a color, hearing music and seeing shapes).
- Tourette’s Syndrome. Tourette’s involves involuntary motor and/or vocal tics.
Affirming neurodiversity moves beyond acknowledging its existence and knowing how it may manifest. In her writings on neurodiversity, Dr. Nick Walker provides the basic principles of the neurodiversity paradigm:
1.) Neurodiversity is a natural and valuable form of human diversity.
2.) The idea that there is one “normal” or “healthy” type of brain or mind, or one “right” style of neurocognitive functioning, is a culturally constructed fiction, no more valid (and no more conducive to a healthy society or to the overall well-being of humanity) than the idea that there is one “normal” or “right” ethnicity, gender, or culture.
3.) "The social dynamics that manifest in regard to neurodiversity are similar to the social dynamics that manifest in regard to other forms of human diversity (e.g., diversity of ethnicity, gender, or culture). These dynamics include the dynamics of social power inequalities, and also the dynamics by which diversity, when embraced, acts as a source of creative potential.
Understanding the natural existence and prevalence of neurodiversity in this paradigm encourages us to embrace these differences rather than pathologizing or punishing them. Here are some key things to do and consider when working towards affirming neurodiversity:
- Education. Learn about different neurotypes and their impact on people’s abilities to function or interact in certain environments. Work on identifying and challenging internal biases you may have about neurodivergence, and work towards dispelling myths and untruths about neurodivergence.
- Listen to neurodivergent people. Actively listening to neurodivergent people in order to understand their experiences and perspectives. Within this, recognize their individuality, as diversity exists even within neurodivergence. No two people experience their world exactly the same, even if they share the same diagnoses. Neurodivergent people are the foremost experts on their lives, their experiences, and what is helpful or unhelpful for them.
- Avoid values-based labels. Referring to someone as either “high functioning” or “low functioning” is harmful. Often, these descriptors are based on the social construction of what is considered normal based on ideas such as productivity. Instead, focus on strengths and abilities rather than areas of difficulty. For example, an autistic person who is verbal is no more “high functioning” than a non-verbal autistic person.
- Avoid assumptions of incompetence. Just because someone does things differently or struggles with certain tasks does not mean they are incompetent or unintelligent. Neurodivergent individuals may have exceptional skills and talents in other areas, or innovative ways of engaging in tasks that differ from what may be expected.
- Provide flexible accommodations. A one-size-fits-all approach to work, education, social interactions, and relationships does not for everyone, especially not neurodivergent people. Work with individuals to find methods that work best for them.
Searching for a Neurodivergent-Affirming Therapist
If you’re neurodivergent and hoping to start therapy, here are some steps that may help you in how to find a neurodivergent-affirming therapist:
1. Ask for Recommendations
First, start with asking family, friends, or those in your community that you trust if they know any therapists whom they would recommend.
2. Utilize Online Directories
Many therapists are listed on online directories that may help you filter for practitioners not only by their location or whether they accept your insurance but also by their specialties. Some directories that allow searching based on these criteria include Psychology Today, Therapy Den, Inclusive Therapists, and Mental Health Match
3. Interview Potential Therapists
Many therapists may offer a free initial consultation prior to scheduling an appointment. Don’t hesitate to utilize this resource! During these consultations, ask therapists about their experiences working with neurodivergent people, any education and training they may have received, and their perspectives and approaches to working with neurodivergent people and any related challenges
4. Discuss Your Needs
Self-advocacy is crucial and so, so, so encouraged! Be open and honest about your identity and any specific goals or concerns you may have related to therapy. A neurodiversity-affirming therapist can and absolutely should be able to work with you collaboratively to meet your unique needs for therapy.
The Power of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain by Thomas Armstrong, PhD
Unmasking Autism: Discovering the New Faces of Neurodiversity by Devon Price, PhD
All material provided on this website is for informational purposes only. Direct consultation of a qualified provider should be sought for any specific questions or problems. Use of this website in no way constitutes professional service or advice.