What is Neurodivergent?

“It’s wondering…always wondering and never understanding: how can I be so smart and still feel so stupid?”

Jennifer O'Toole

Author, Autism in Heels: The Untold Story of a Female Life on the Spectrum

to understand neurodivergence, we start with...NEURODIVERSITY

Neurodiversity is the idea that, like anything else in nature, humans are diverse! Not only do we have variety with skin color, hair color, body size, etc, but we also have variety when it comes to brains. Therefore, it is normal and expected that our brains are different, and no brain is "better" or more "normal" than another. Is a rose more "normal" than a sunflower? Is a Great Dane the "standard" versus a Corgi? We should celebrate, acknowledge, and normalize brain diversity, instead of labeling some brains as "abnormal"/ "disordered" and others as "normal".

But our society is not there yet. We still live in a world that is built on neurotypical standards. We are expected to greet others with a handshake when we meet someone new, and we are expected to be quiet in a movie theater.

      Neurotypical describes someone who has the brain functions, behaviors, & processing considered standard or typical. People with neurotypical brains usually don't wonder if their brains function in the same way as others.

      Neurodivergence describes individuals whose brains function differently in one or more ways than what is considered "typical". This is due to our society labeling some behaviors as expected, and others as unexpected.

      Most perceived "mental disorders" reflect the values of a given social & historical period.
      • There was a time when being LGBTQ+ was considered mentally ill.
      • In ancient cultures, it might have been the schizophrenics (who heard the voices of gods) who were the gifted ones.
      • Before the Civil War, a physician published an article about a new "mental disorder" that impacted all runaway slaves. At that time, wanting your freedom was considered a sign of mental illness.
      • When we were an agrarian (farming) society, there was no such thing as "disorders" such as dyslexia or ADHD, since individuals were not expected to sit at a desk all day or read.
      • Many "disorders" violate specific contemporary values or virtues, such as autism (sociability), depression (happiness), anxiety (tranquility), developmental disabilities (intelligence), and schizophrenia (rationality).
      Neurodivergent brains have challenges in the areas of:

      It takes a lot of knowledge to navigate this world. No matter your age, the world is full of rules and social norms, and you are expected to follow them. Sometimes these social rules are taught to you, but sometimes social norms are not communicated at all, and are supposed to be understood through experience & observation alone. Some people have an easy time with this, but others miss social cues and need to be taught these rules directly. And some are completely aware of the rules/social norms, but for their own unique needs & reasons, struggle to keep up and have to “mask”. 

      Masking refers to an unconscious or conscious effort to hide and cover one’s own self from the world, as an attempt to accommodate others and coexist. Research and anecdotal evidence show that an extensive amount of masking and “passing” is going on among women and girls, primarily because of the way women are socialized….[they] are taught from an early age to “blend in”.

      Jenara Nerenberg
      Author, Divergent Mind: Thriving in a World That Wasn’t Designed for You


      Ariane. “What Is Neurodivergence and What Does It Mean to Be Neurodivergent?” Verywell Mind, Verywell Mind, 18 Aug. 2021, https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-neurodivergence-and-what-does-it-mean-to-be-neurodivergent-5196627.

      Armstrong, Thomas. Neurodiversity. Da Capo Press, 2010.

      Nerenberg, Jenara. Divergent Mind. HarperCollins, 2020.