The past few years have brought attention to the neurodiversity movement. While this discussion may sound new, it’s been happening since the 1990s. This guide outlines some important points about neurodiversity to help you better understand the movement and its goals. We’ll also provide examples of how to encourage and accommodate neurodiversity in everyday settings.
A Brief Look at the Neurodiversity Movement
What Is Neurodiversity?
Coined in the late 1990s by sociologist Judy Singer, neurodiversity refers to the varied ways that human brains work, both within and outside of what has been considered medically “normal” over the last few decades. The term neurodiversity is meant to draw a parallel to biodiversity to highlight how acceptance of different types of brains benefits society. According to Singer and other advocates, neurodiversity strengthens a community, much like biodiversity strengthens an ecosystem.
Neurodiversity includes the full range of ways human brains develop and behave. Under this model, conditions like ADHD, autism, PTSD, and dyslexia (among many others) are viewed as natural variations of human development rather than as disabilities or atypical occurrences.
What Does “Neurodivergent” Mean?
“Neurodivergent” is a related term that refers to people, conditions, and behaviors that have not always been considered medically “normal.” A person may describe themself as neurodivergent if they have ASD or ADHD. A neurodivergent person’s brain may function differently from expected norms, but the term doesn’t necessarily signal a disability or a need for medical treatment.
Types of Neurodiversity
Since neurodiversity represents the sum of all the different ways human brains function and are structured, the term includes many distinct and varied behaviors, conditions, and states. It’s important to understand that neurotypical people make up a large part of this greater picture.
ASD and ADHD
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and ADHD are perhaps the most prominent or visible forms of neurodivergence. ASD itself is incredibly diverse. Broadly, the condition represents differences in how a person perceives and relates to their surroundings. These differences then influence how the person learns, communicates, and behaves.
ADHD may function similarly, though often on a different axis. It is typically characterized by differences in attention, hyperfocus and hyperfixation, and impulsivity.
Learning Differences and Mental Health
Other conditions that may be considered neurodiverse include dyslexia, dyscalculia, Tourette’s syndrome, PTSD, anxiety, OCD, and depression. Throughout human history, these differences in brain function have always been present. In many cases, they offer evolutionary advantages to larger groups of people. Neurodiverse traits are often connected with creativity, innovation, problem-solving, pattern recognition, and observational strengths.
How to Accommodate Neurodiversity in Your Everyday Life
Because neurodiversity represents a vast collection of individuals with particular needs, wants, goals, and thoughts, there is no one answer that addresses the needs of neurodivergent folks all at once. Instead, accommodating neurodiversity is usually better done on an individual basis.
However, there are best practices people and businesses can implement to make their spaces more accessible in general. Just know that one single action can’t check all the boxes for all the people you will encounter.
It’s important to consider noise in the workplace. Many types of neurodivergence lead to sensitivity to sound and a predisposition to overstimulation. Offering quiet workspaces for those who need them can reduce this risk. Providing headphones or simply allowing for their use with no conditions helps individuals address their own needs as they arise.
It’s best to be clear and direct in both written and verbal communication. Employees shouldn’t be asked to read between the lines or interpret sarcasm or euphemisms. If someone appears to be acting rudely or ignoring the workplace’s social etiquette, don’t assume the worst. Instead, communicate directly and clearly to ensure everyone gets the information they need.
In social settings, simply recognizing that neurodivergence is real and that people’s brains function in many ways will help set the tone for acceptance and accommodation. If you’re interacting with someone who is neurodivergent, be an active listener, respect their identity, and don’t make assumptions about how their brain functions or how they process their surroundings. If you need to, it’s always okay to kindly ask for clarity.
Additionally, it’s important for neurotypical people to advocate for neurodiversity in all settings, even—and especially—when there are no known neurodivergent people present. Push for accommodations and accessibility features when organizing events, like sensory-friendly lighting and options for receiving information, and call attention to inappropriate behavior when you see it. Being an advocate for neurodiversity makes it easier for everyone to participate in public life.