Just like fingerprints, human brains are unique. Although we have varied skills and preferences, we generally perceive the world in more or less the same way. Most people have universal similarities in how their brain functions.
In contrast, neurodivergent people exhibit fundamental differences in social understanding, sensory perception, and information processing. Any brain that deviates from the norms comes under the term of neurodiversity which is further divided into different types. In this article, you’ll get a detailed understanding of neurodivergence and the types of neurodiversity.
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What Are Neurodivergence and Neurodiversity?
Neurodivergence refers to the tendency of someone’s brain to analyze and react to specific information differently than an average or typical brain. Neurodiversity, on the other hand, is the concept of accepting or normalizing brains that function differently rather than stigmatizing or considering them as abnormalities.
The term “neurodiversity” was first coined by Judy Singer, an autistic sociologist, in the 1990s. She used the term to emphasize the strengths and abilities of autistic individuals in areas such as focus, pattern recognition, and factual memory. Her work shifted the prevailing perspective on various neurotypes, promoting a balanced view that appreciates the unique strengths and talents of neurodivergent individuals.
Neurodivergent vs Neurotypical
Humans’ brains are wired distinctively, and these subtle differences can directly impact thinking and learning patterns. These variations can sometimes reflect in the form of neurodivergent qualities, such as enhanced creativity. On the other hand, neurodivergence is also associated with a few medical conditions, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and other neurodivergent examples. However, the labeling of neurodivergence as a medical pathology itself is not based on scientific principles and instead reflects a cultural prejudice which can lead to societal oppression of those who are labeled as such.
In contrast, the term neurotypical refers to individuals who display typical cognitive and intellectual development. As social creatures, humans have created societal standards and established methods of imparting skills such as reading, mathematics, and social interaction to future generations. Neurotypical individuals acquire physical, verbal, intellectual, and social skills at an expected pace, meeting commonly accepted developmental milestones.
Neurodivergence: A Norm or a Disability?
It is estimated that nearly 15-20 percent of the world’s population is neurodivergent. This fact challenges the perception that diverse brain types are inherently flawed and require correction. Neurodivergent individuals may face difficulties due to variations in brain function and structure, but their intelligence remains unaffected.
The neurodiversity perspective recognizes that such differences are not deficits but a part of the norm. The notion that there is a single “normal” or “healthy” type of brain or mind, or a single “right” style of neurocognitive functioning, is as false as the notion that there is a single “normal” or “right” gender, race, or culture. Neurodiversity is an important aspect of human diversity.
The terms “diagnosis” and “disability” are not inherently negative in the case of neurodiversity. They can provide legal protection, special education, workplace accommodations, and research funding. It is crucial to acknowledge and understand both neurodiversity and disability as separate concepts that still can coexist. Learning about disability laws is essential for proper support and protection.
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Some of the common neurodivergence characteristics or traits are as follows:
- Sensory distinctions: varied responses to sensory input, ranging from seeking sensory stimulation to being extremely sensitive to sensory stimuli.
- Social differences: exhibiting unique patterns in social interactions and relationships.
- Executive functioning challenges: difficulties with planning, organization, and behavior regulation.
- Intense focus or special interests: the unique ability to concentrate intensely on specific subjects or tasks.
- Artistic creativity: expressing creativity through artistic endeavors.
- Varying aptitude in math and technology: demonstrating either exceptional abilities or difficulties in these areas.
- Empathy and justice-oriented mindset: strong empathy for others and a strong sense of fairness and social justice.
- Intense emotional experiences: experiencing powerful emotions in response to various stimuli.
- Language abilities: showing enhanced language learning skills or struggling with learning certain languages.
- Unique gender and sexual orientation experiences: differing relationships to gender identity and sexual orientation.
- Thinking outside the box: possessing a propensity for unconventional or innovative thinking.
- Memory variations: demonstrating either superior memory capabilities or difficulties with working memory.
- Pattern recognition and attention to detail: proficiency in recognizing patterns and noticing small details.
- Need for movement breaks: requiring breaks or physical movement to maintain focus and regulate energy levels.
- Stimming: engaging in self-stimulatory behaviors as a way to regulate sensory input and emotional states.
Note that these characteristics can manifest differently in individuals, and not all neurodivergent individuals will exhibit every trait mentioned.
Applied Neurodiversity and Its Types
Applied neurodiversity involves conditions present at birth which are more likely associated with gross motor control and learning difficulties. For example, challenges related to calculations and reading. The conditions involved in applied neurodiversity are explained below.
Dyslexia is a common learning difficulty that affects reading, writing, and spelling. It does not impact intelligence. Common signs include:
- slow reading and writing,
- challenges with organization and planning,
- letter reversals,
- trouble following written instructions,
- inconsistent spelling,
- a better understanding of verbal information.
The exact cause of dyslexia is unknown, but it often runs in families or is linked to genetic variations. It is typically identified during school years by dyslexia specialists or educational psychologists.
- understanding quantities and concepts,
- remembering numbers,
- connecting numerals with words,
- comprehending math logic,
- recalling math facts,
- estimating measurements.
Diagnosis is based on evaluation, using different tests for children and adults. The causes of dyscalculia remain unclear, but studies suggest a possible link to genetics or brain development deficits.
Dyspraxia, also known as
- disturbed coordination,
- difficulty with time management and organization,
- challenges in learning and memory,
- social interaction difficulties,
- struggles with daily living skills.
Physiotherapists or occupational therapists can provide tests and diagnoses. While dyspraxia can significantly impact daily functioning, support and management strategies can help mitigate symptoms.
Clinical Neurodiversity and Its Types
Clinical neurodiversity refers to the congenital neurological differences that are considered health conditions. This category of neurodiversity is related to difficulties in communication skills, social skills, behavior, and impulse control. Clinical neurodiversity involves several states, which we’ll describe in detail below.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
ADHD is a common neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by difficulties in attention and impulse control. It is typically identified in childhood and can persist into adulthood. Symptoms of ADHD include daydreaming, forgetfulness, fidgeting, excessive talking, impulsivity, low self-control, difficulty taking turns, and challenges in social interactions. ADHD is categorized into three types: predominantly inattentive, predominantly hyperactive-impulsive, and combined presentation, depending on the predominant symptoms. The expression of symptoms may vary over time.
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Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) encompasses a wide range of challenges related to social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication. It is a common neurodevelopmental disorder affecting approximately 1 in 44 children in the U.S. Common signs of autism include:
- lack of response to names,
- limited eye contact,
- literal interpretation of language,
- repetitive phrases,
- repetitive movements (e.g., hand-flapping),
- difficulty expressing emotions,
- intense interests,
- difficulty with friendships,
- sensitivity to certain tastes, smells, or sounds.
Symptoms typically emerge by ages 2-3 and may be influenced by various factors. ASD is often accompanied by sensory sensitivities, gastrointestinal disorders, seizures, sleep issues, and mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and attention problems.
ASD is a spectrum disorder, meaning individuals exhibit different strengths and challenges. Some may excel in learning and problem-solving, while others face significant difficulties in the same area. Support needs vary as well, ranging from extensive assistance to independent living.
Tourette syndrome is a neurological condition that causes involuntary tics—sudden twitches, movements or sounds that individuals repeatedly perform. Tics cannot be controlled and are comparable to hiccups. Motor tics involve body movements, while vocal tics are sounds produced by the voice.
Symptoms typically begin between 5 to 10 years of age, often starting with motor tics in the head and neck area. Tics tend to worsen in stressful or exciting situations but improve during calm activities or the ones requiring increased focus. The types and frequency of tics can change over time. Despite symptoms appearing, disappearing, and reappearing, Tourette syndrome is considered a chronic condition.
Intellectual disability refers to specific impairments of cognitive functioning and skills, including interpersonal skills and self-care. It leads to slower or different development and learning compared to typically developing individuals. Diagnosis requires an
It is unclear what exactly causes intellectual disability, but it may include brain injury, disease, or other abnormalities. In a fetus with congenital abnormalities such as Down syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, or Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, intellectual disability may start developing before birth. Infections such as measles or meningitis can also lead to intellectual disability. Some birth-related complications like birth asphyxia are also associated with its occurrence.
Acquired neurodiversity involves neurological differences that develop as a part of a health condition or injury. It can be resolved once an illness or injury heals, or the state can worsen as the condition deteriorates. The conditions that can be classified as acquired neurodiversity are described below.
Acquired Brain Injuries (ABI)
Acquired brain injuries (ABI) encompass brain injuries occurring after birth. They have varying effects on the neural system, causing both degenerative and temporary conditions. Types of ABI include traumatic brain injury (TBI), stroke, and encephalitis.
- TBI is caused by head trauma, and symptoms can range from mild to severe. Its signs include a loss of consciousness, memory loss, neurological deficits, and altered mental status.
- A stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is interrupted, resulting in symptoms such as difficulty speaking, paralysis or numbness, vision problems, and headaches.
- Encephalitis is inflammation of brain tissue due to infection or an autoimmune response. Symptoms include flu-like symptoms, altered mental state, cognitive impairment, fever, seizures, and headache.
Other illnesses and their treatments, such as Parkinson’s disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, and certain cancer treatments, can also lead to neurological conditions.
Mental Health Illnesses
Rather than being a separate category, mental illnesses also come under the category of acquired neurodiversity. These may include disorders like depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder that can be episodic and have temporary effects on a person’s cognition. The reasons behind these conditions are various, including side effects of medications, traumatic events, and exposure to certain substances. Some major mental illnesses under the umbrella of neurodiversity are described below.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by uncontrollable and unwanted thoughts (obsessions) that drive individuals to perform repetitive actions (compulsions). These obsessions and compulsions consume significant time and disrupt social and personal life. Symptoms vary based on specific obsessive thoughts, such as fear of contamination or the need for order. Rituals such as repeatedly washing hands and arranging things in a specific pattern are performed to alleviate anxious feelings.
- Bipolar disorder causes mood changes and affects energy and functioning. Manic episodes involve heightened activity, racing thoughts, and euphoria, while depressive episodes feature sadness, restlessness, and loss of interest.
- Schizophrenia is a severe mental health disorder characterized by a loss of touch with reality. Symptoms fall into three categories: positive (hallucinations, paranoia), negative (loss of ability and emotion), and disorganized (confused thinking and behavior). Schizophrenia affects a
small percentage of the population [4*]and is distinct from split personality or multiple personality disorder.
Neurodiversity is still poorly accepted, even though a relatively noticeable part of the population has neurodiverse conditions, and many more people are overlooked or misdiagnosed. It is important to recognize these differences as not “mental deficits” but potential strengths. For example, neurodivergent employees can bring unique skills and qualities to the team, resulting in new perspectives on processes and solutions. In daily communication with neurodivergent people, we can improve empathy, acceptance, and adaptability.
By fostering an inclusive and supportive environment, we can help neurodivergent people unveil their full potential. These are the simple things we can do:
- Avoid negative stereotypes. Challenge misconceptions and recognize the unique strengths and abilities that neurodivergent individuals bring. Avoid biased assumptions and judgments.
- Show empathy. Have open and empathetic conversations with those who may have difficulties because of neurodivergence or face stigma. Frame challenges as opportunities for growth and support, rather than weaknesses or problems.
- Play to strengths. Acknowledge and leverage the strengths of neurodiverse individuals. Encourage collaboration and support, allowing them to use their unique skills and abilities to their advantage.
Accepting and understanding neurodiversity can be a game-changer. It is important to accept the fact that it’s standard for brains to work differently. Increasing awareness, challenging stereotypes, and creating a compassionate environment can help people learn, function, and thrive in society in ways that work best for them.
Neurodiversity does not inherently qualify as a disability. While some neurodivergent individuals may face challenges or disabilities in certain contexts, neurodiversity as a concept emphasizes that these differences should be accepted, respected, and accommodated rather than stigmatized. However, in some cases, neurodiversity can be linked to disability or mental illness.
Yes, neurodiversity is influenced by genes. While genetics play a role in different types of neurodivergent disorders, it is important to consider that other factors, such as environmental influences, also contribute to the diversity of neurological functioning in individuals. The interplay between genetics and environment shapes the range of neurological differences observed in neurodiversity.
There is no standardized test for neurodiversity. There are many online tests available for different neurodivergences but they only give a general idea about the symptoms and cannot be substituted for a professional assessment from a medical expert. For accurate evaluation and diagnosis, always consult a healthcare professional.
Neurodiversity is not a medical condition but rather a concept that acknowledges and embraces the natural variation in neurological functioning among individuals. Conditions such as ADHD and autism fall under the neurodiversity spectrum. While there is no definitive cure for these conditions, they can be effectively managed through appropriate treatment strategies. It is important to focus on providing support and accommodations that help individuals with neurodivergent conditions thrive and lead fulfilling lives.
Many conditions fall under the umbrella of neurodiversity. Neurodivergent list of medical conditions includes:
- Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Tourette syndrome
- Dysgraphia (issues with writing)
- Intellectual disabilities
- Bipolar disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Sensory processing disorder
- Down syndrome
Williams syndrome [5*]
These are some of the common examples of neurodiverse conditions. Different forms of neurodivergence may be present in other medical conditions as well.