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  • Writer's pictureTahirah Yasin Khan

What is Neurodiversity?

Diversity is all around us. The word itself may be one of the most used in business and education in recent years, as recognition has grown that we are all different in a myriad of ways, and that this is a good thing for all of us.

Most people will be familiar with diversity in terms of race, gender, age, and physical ability. Differences in all of these and many other characteristics are part of the great richness of humanity. But neurodiversity may be a concept that you are less familiar with.

The term 'neurodiversity' was first used by Judy Singer, an autistic sociologist. The key idea is that our diversity extends to the way we think and experience the world around us. It is diversity of the brain.

Most of us tend to grow up thinking that everyone senses things in the same way that we do. If we find a day too hot or a sound too loud for comfort, then everyone else will as well. In general terms, this can often be true – people will generally agree that temperatures of over 100° F are on the warm side, and that a heavy rock concert is fairly loud.

But we also recognise that our perceptions of other things can vary hugely. A good example is food. We all have different tastes, and there will be people who find your favourite food absolutely revolting. This must mean that we sense the taste and texture of the food concerned differently or have different preferences for tastes and textures.

The concept of neurodiversity also recognises that while many people fall in a specific range of varieties of thinking and perception, there are some that think and sense the world is a very different way from the majority. These people are described as neurodivergent, while the prevalent range of ways of thinking and experiencing the world is known as neurotypical.

Your AMAZING Brain!

A useful comparison here is to think of height. As with how our brains work, we have very little control over how tall we are, though an accident or injury can have a major impact. Our height is to some degree determined by genetics, but not entirely. While most people’s height falls within a typical range, there are a few people who are naturally very tall or very short. There is nothing wrong with their height, it is simply different from the norm (though it may come with some associated health issues which are not experienced by people of more typical height).

In the same way, neurodivergent people are not better or worse than neurotypical people, just different. They too may face challenges from being different to the norm and can be disabled not by being deficient in any way, but by living in a world designed for a different way of thinking (just as someone in a wheelchair is disabled by a flight of stairs with no alternative of a lift or ramp). However, while someone who is very tall or short is obviously different when you see them, neurodivergent people’s differences are much less visible, and therefore easily forgotten or overlooked by others.

Many neurodivergent people have what are termed 'spiky profiles' – they are very good at some things, and very challenged in other areas, with relatively few areas of moderate natural ability. Neurodivergence is not a mental illness, though many neurodivergent people struggle with conditions like anxiety and depression though trying to manage their differences in a world designed for a different way of thinking.

Neurodivergence can be thought of as falling into different categories. Some of the official names of these term them conditions or disorders, which carries unhelpful negative connotations – they are differences, not deficits. It is also important to remember that many neurodivergent people may be in several categories, even where the common traits of these seems contradictory. All varieties of neurodivergence bring a mix of strengths and challenges.

Autism is a wide category of neurodivergence, and autistic people can be hugely different from one another. Common traits of autism are greatly increased or reduced sensation in one or more senses, difficulty with social skills, such as body language and tone of voice, hugely creative minds that see problems very differently, and having special interests that the person is an expert in.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is another wide-ranging category. ADHD people may find almost everything they encounter interesting, and therefore struggle to focus on one thing for any length of time. They may have sensory differences in the same way as autistic people and may find it challenging to keep organised and on track with tasks.

Dyslexia affects the way that the brain processes information and can cause problems with reading and writing because of challenges in recognising and remembering patterns. On the other hand, dyslexic people are often very good at reasoning and can be highly creative.

Dyscalculia is similar to dyslexia, but with challenges in respect of numbers and maths rather than words and letters. People with dyscalculia may also be very creative, good at solving problems and have a range of other strengths.

Dyspraxia can cause problems with coordination, and also with organisational skills, but as with dyscalculia, can also bring strengths with creativity and problem solving.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a greatly misunderstood condition where people feel driven by anxiety to repeat certain tasks, fearing harmful consequences of not doing so. People with OCD can be highly empathetic, creative and have a great eye for detail.

While these categories can be helpful, all neurodivergent people are different from one another. The best way to learn about what a neurodivergent person experiences is to ask them – listening and learning is always the beginning or understanding.


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