A user friendly guide to helping you understand the difference between neurodivergent, neurodiversity and neurotypical.
What is Neurodiversity?
Neurodiverse, neurodivergent, neurotypical? What is neurodiverse? Alot of neuros!!
‘I can’t tell them they can’t be neurodiverse’…. ‘I mean who do I think I am??’
I have heard people say in group conversation ‘I am neurodiverse’. Then I watch the people around them tilt their heads. Then I think ‘hang on…you can’t be neurodiverse….’ The head tilters are trying to recall a time when they heard the word neurodiverse before. ‘Sounds sciencey’, they think to themselves. And a wave of mild affect occupies their face. The tilt turns to an understanding nod.
‘I can’t tell them they can’t be neurodiverse’…. ‘I mean who do I think I am??’ But there it is and I sit twitching. Truth is, I used to say I was neurodiverse. Then a student of mine politely asked me if he could provide me with some feedback. ‘Sure’ I replied. He went on to explain, in a matter of fact way, how one person could actually be neurodivergent, not neurodiverse. Neurodivergent refers to the individual. Not neurodiversity; this refers to the general population.
You see; society is neurodiverse, a group of people can be neurodiverse. One person is not. Some folk are neurotypical and others are neurodivergent, together we form part of a neurodiverse society. The diversity part of that label is referring to exactly that. Diversity. (I know we all hate labels, and yet (sometimes, when appropriate), they still provide us with tiny road signs from which we can navigate some kind of route through life). But those labels can come with assumptions. Assumptions that fill gaps in a persons mind. It was one of the many driving forces behind Eric.
What is Neurodivergent?
…it is not someone’s diagnosis or condition that disables them; it is their environment
I love the word neurodivergent. It covers a plethora of conditions, disabilities, quirks, beautiful flaws and sheer amazingness. I love to step away from the medical model which looks at people as having disorders and impairments which in essence require ‘fixing’. Thankfully the term ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) is becoming phased out. Wonderful.
The best way I can describe what being neurodivergent is, is by listing the things it covers (there may well be other conditions that are not included in here, so bear with). I love a good bullet point list, my neurodivergent brain can cope with bullet points. So here we go:
- Tourettes syndrome, these guys have a brilliant website
- Long standing mental health conditions
- Acquired brain injury (ABI) brain injury acquired through organic reasons such as stroke, or tumour
- Traumatic brain injury (TBI) brain injury acquired through traumatic reasons such as impact
- Neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinsons Disease and Dementia
You may not find those last two on other lists, however as an autistic occupational therapist with over 20 years experience and someone who has had a TBI , I would like to point out; there are many similarities between how someone who is autistic and someone with a certain kind of head injury can present. There is a lot of overlap between the different conditions detailed in the list above, and the ways in which they cause differences in the way the brain works. I would like to state my case that ABI and TBI belong on that list. I also believe that neurodegenerative conditions belong on that list too. These conditions help form our diversity. And, as a society stigma around such things requires addressing.
The social model of what now…?
Don’t worry, this wont take long! The social model of disability, is again something I love, and what in essence Eric has been built on. The social model of disability is the science of understanding it is not someone’s diagnosis or condition that disables them; it is their environment. Be it buildings or systems or people or the ground we tread. When not thought out properly the environment/attitudes of those around us disable us far more than our diagnoses.
The most obvious way I can describe the social model of disability is by describing potential scenarios to build a narrative around a concept. If someone uses a wheelchair, and you want them to access the 1st floor, you wouldn’t stand and scream at them ‘get up and walk!!’ . You would of course politely direct them to the lift if it wasn’t glaringly obvious. Assuming there is a lift of course. And therein lies my point. Its not someone’s spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis (MS) or bilateral complex spiral tibial fractures (I’m embellishing but hopefully you get the picture)….that DIS-ables them. It’s the fact there is not an alternative method to get the 1st floor.
‘Look at me when I am talking to you!’
Neurodiverse, neurodivergent, neurotypical? Someone who us autistic is neurodivergent. Many autistic people need to be aware of their environment and potential stressors as this can be one of the most detrimental things to an autistic persons life. A wonderful example, written by someone who experiences sensory processing problems can be found here.
If I work with an autistic child, I always reassure them; ‘You don’t need to look at me, and you can stim as much as you would like, please don’t feel you can’t’. Why? Because eye contact can actually be painful for some autistic people and stimming is an extremely valuable part of self regulation, which directly impact emotions and mental health.
It took me a long time to start to say the words ‘I think I am autistic’ out loud.
What is neurotypical? Turns out it’s not me! Truth is, I have plenty of other things that affect my executive functioning. I have traits of ADHD, and traumatic brain injury (TBI) too.
Realising I am neurodivergent, has allowed me to forgive so many time in the past where I became overwhelmed or overloaded and my cognitive abilities either shut down or did something completely different. It has allowed me to understand myself, and allowed me to make pre-emptively Ella-friendly decisions. However I would like to add I am woeful at making any kind of decision.
I have heard and read that executive functioning is like the air-traffic control system to the brain. I like this analogy as historically I have always found trying to get my head around the definition of executive functioning really quite tricky. (Does anyone else see the irony here??) I love things that make understanding all this stuff easier.
What is neurodiverse? Turns out that’s not me either! Neurodiversity is the diversity found between all of us. I would say my family is neurodiverse, at least 4 of us are autistic, there are at least 2 of us with a good set of ADHD traits too.
So neurotypical would be……
What is neurotypical? There are many definitions, they all centre around a similar theme and thought process; Someone who’s brain is deemed to operate within the statistical and scientifically set out ‘norms’ of society. I’m surprised they didn’t call it ‘neuro-normal’. If you are not neurodivergent, then I guess you must be…..neurotypical.
Controversial isn’t it?
Absolutely! I did not encounter one website (that google ranks top of the search engine results I might add….because the information therein is of high quality) that I wholeheartedly agreed with. Nowhere did I encounter a balanced and understanding definition of being neurodivergent. It saddens me in some ways as I feel it has the potential to leave the world very confused, and let’s face it, there is a lot of scope for that here.
How was this blog for you? I know I won’t have covered everything. It quite simply is not possible. But did this resonate with you? Or were you screaming ‘no!’ at certain parts? Drop us some comment below.