A personal perspective on neurodivergence
How would you react if I said you’re neurodiverse?
Collectively, you as readers are! As a population with different brains and immune systems, there is inherent diversity, much like biodiversity in an ecosystem. But what about neurodivergence specifically? As a young, white, professional female in higher education, do I need to write a blog about neurodiversity and neurodivergence? For the first two decades of my life, I wasn’t aware that I could be considered neurodivergent. Instead, I was chronically burning out, likely in part because of masking my undetected dyslexia. My misconceptions about dyslexia meant I hadn’t recognised the characteristics I had always displayed, but instead I validated my misunderstanding with the fact that I could read and write well enough. Plus, dyslexia hadn’t been suggested to me at school, where my compensatory efforts and perfectionist tendencies fooled both me and my teachers, and my slow writing was overlooked because of my academic performance at the time. I interpreted the difficulties that I faced then as my inherent stupidity, a persistent lack of effort and generally, yet more evidence of being a failure. Since receiving my diagnosis, my mental health challenges haven’t disappeared, but I can understand some of my anxiety and obsessive traits that I experience, and start to remove the self-blame I attributed to my undetected dyslexic challenges. Of course, the story is more complex than that, but you can read a little of my experience with my mental health so far in my first blog ‘Recognising good mental health.’
My story of being neurodivergent is one of many thousands of others. I do have to acknowledge the privilege of being in the position to have my dyslexia spotted in my final undergraduate year, the resources to have a diagnostic assessment, and the encouragement of friends and family to help me respond to indirect discrimination I experience today.
To help us understand the various stories, social media posts, news articles and research you may come across, I’ve attempted to differentiate between the terms we see surrounding neurodivergence — neurodiversity, neurodivergent and neurodivergence.
Neurodiversity was first defined by Judy Singer in her sociology thesis in 1998 to describe the presence of neurological differences that exist in a population. This is much like the term biodiversity, in fact could even be considered a subset of biodiversity, which describing the biological variance that naturally exists in an environment. Originally, neurodiversity was created as a political and socially empowering term, rather than a purely scientific one, to inclusively group and give voice to neurological minorities. Therefore, neurodiversity is true of any given population or group of individuals, since we are not exact clones of one another. As Singer explains “every human has a unique nervous system with a unique combination of abilities and needs.”
Being dyslexic, I don’t always find words easy. One way I use to remember the difference between neurodiversity and neurodivergent is by linking it back to Singer’s thought process. By remembering that neurodiversity is neurological diversity, a subset of biodiversity, I can then associate it with a whole population.
The term neurodivergent (ND) was defined by Kassiane Asasumasu to refer to someone who is neurologically divergent (moved away) from typical neurological (neurotypical NT) functioning. This encompasses people who are autistic, dyslexic, or have ADHD, learning disabilities, mental health conditions and more. Neurodivergent is an inclusive umbrella term to capture all those who, in basic words, think, process or relate differently to the NT norm. Neurodivergence describes the various types of these ‘atypical’ neurological functioning and processing, so describes autism, ADHD, dyslexia etc.
Note: Often, the terms neurodiversity and neurodivergence are used interchangeably in research, clinical settings and in the media. The sociological drift of using both these words to describe ND people may not be reversible, despite the loss of original intent and distinct original definitions. Both ND and NT individuals may use the term neurodiversity when describing mostly neurodivergence and ND individuals.
Below is a great illustration by Sonny, autistic trainer, consultant, and therapist, showing the difference and use of these terms.
So why celebrate and advocate for neurodiversity? For too long, the question in research has been “What is wrong with this individual or group in relation to those who are normal?” [and it is being replaced by] “How can we understand the strengths, limitations, struggles, or potential of this group or individual in the wider social context?”. Whilst empathetically acknowledging that neurodivergence can be disabling, we can learn to recognise the individual and societal advantages of neurodivergence, that exist alongside the hardships. This acknowledgement is the opposite of ‘toxic positivity’, where for example, with ADHD, hyperfocus may be misunderstood as a malleable tool for universal productivity when desired. If the environment we are in favours neurotypical attributes, at the expense of, or by not also favouring, neurodivergent attributes, then neurodivergence will confer a disadvantage, due to the environmental context. However, both acknowledging neurodivergent advantageous traits and providing support to level the playing field (eg. assistive technology, a communication plan, even simple non-specific modifications like sending emails in an easier-to-read font type) can start to create more equal opportunities for neurodivergent individuals. For example, elsewhere on the blog site, you can read Tse-Yi Li’s piece about creating a dance class, specifically accessible for neurodivergent people, which resulted in the classes having a positive impact on the attendees’ wellbeing. Research has shown that dyslexia can lead to greater creativity and enhanced pattern recognition compared to neurotypicals. Broadly, neurodivergent individuals can find ways to help adapt to the neurotypical environments, as well as uniquely displaying high levels of creativity, innovation and problem solving. Traditionally, society, especially the corporate world, has indirectly asked individuals to fit into a uniform model, thus suppressing or excluding the benefit the increased neurodiversity brings. Anna Wittenberg, an economist and former Chief Diversity and Inclusion Lead (SAP), notes that “Innovation is most likely to come from parts of us that we don’t all share.” There are many important conversations and topics that follow on from this blog, such as the perceived connotations of not being neurotypical, the mental health impacts of neurodivergence from pre- to post-diagnosis in our societal context, the mismatch between legal equality rights, actual provision and failings leading to indirect discrimination. I wish I’d learnt more about the misconceptions and facts of neurodivergence in societal functioning before my diagnosis — not so much for me, but so I could have better understood and related to the 15% of our population who think and process in a more unique way.