Understanding Neurodiversity: What is a Neurodivergent Person?

Neurodivergent is a term used to describe an individual who has a less typical cognitive variation, such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, etc. This term was coined in the neurodiversity movement as opposed to neurotypical, which is the idea that it is normal and acceptable for people to have brains that work differently from one another. Neurodivergent individuals are defined as those whose neurological development and condition are atypical, generally considered abnormal or extreme. A neurotypical person is someone who thinks, perceives and behaves in ways that the general population considers to be the norm.

Institutions such as schools, sports leagues and workplaces are often designed to accommodate people who conform to these standards. The neurodiversity movement focuses on promoting the full inclusion of people with neurodiversity and their individual rights to be accepted as they are. The concept of neurodiversity recognizes that both brain function and behavioral traits are simply indicators of the diversity of the human population. There is no such thing as a “neurodiverse individual”; the correct term is “neurodivergent individual”.

Someone who is neurodivergent behaves, thinks and learns differently compared to those who are neurotypical. Judy Singer coined the word “neurodiversity” more than two decades ago, and Kassiane Asasumasu (formerly Kassiane Sibley) gave us the term “neurodivergent”. The neurodiversity paradigm rejects the pathologization of these forms of neurodivergence, and the Neurodiversity Movement opposes attempts to eliminate them. Neurodiversity cannot be used to mean “not neurotypical”, because neurotypical people, like all other human beings, are part of the spectrum of human neurodiversity.

The Neurodiversity Movement is not a single group or organization, it is not led by any group or organization and does not have a leader. Some use the term neurodiversity to refer to people who have traits and approaches to thinking and learning that are different from what is considered the norm. When an individual departs from the dominant social standards of “normal neurocognitive functioning”, they do not “have neurodiversity”, but are neurodivergent. Another important point for those who oppose neurodiversity is that differences in racial or sexual orientation do not functionally incapacitate a person, while neurological differences can. The concept of neurodiversity, as applied to autism, is criticized for being biased toward individuals on the high-functioning autism spectrum or those with milder forms of the condition.

For example, there are people who work to develop inclusive education strategies based on the neurodiversity paradigm, who do not identify themselves as activists for social justice or as part of the Neurodiversity Movement. I hope that this explanation will help people (especially those who identify themselves as advocates of the neurodiversity paradigm or who support the Neurodiversity Movement) to avoid this problematic misuse of the term neurodiversity in the future and, where possible, to correct that misuse when they encounter it.

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