Neurodivergence refers to a broad spectrum of variation in the human mind concerning things like socialisation, focus, learning, the mental processing of stimulus and more. Being neurodivergent basically means that your mind seems to work differently from the way that most people’s minds do (with the majority being described as neurotypical). Neurodivergence is a neutral, non-judgemental way of talking about differences that were previously pathologised and classified as disorders (and still are, a lot of the time).
The term was coined in 1998 by sociologist Judy Singer, who herself is on the autism spectrum, and initially the term referred specifically to autism. It later diversified, and while I’ve mostly heard of it describing ADHD and sometimes learning disabilities in addition to autism, it can also refer to things like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and intellectual disabilities.
The paradigm of neurodivergence is linked with the social model of disability, which holds that people are disabled by the society which refuses to accommodate them, instead putting up barriers to make it hard for them to get on with their daily life. That is, there is nothing “wrong” with being neurodivergent (or having any other kind of disability); there is something wrong with the society that keeps trying to force neurodivergent or disabled people to be something they’re not. As such, neurodivergence advocates hate institutions that try to “treat” autism through behaviour modification, or seek funding for research into a “cure” for autism.
Talking about neurodivergence is also about acknowledging that neurodivergence gives many people unusual strengths, as well as weaknesses. For example:
- the high attention to detail, as seen in autism
- the ability to focus for long periods of time on a passion project, seen both in autism and ADHD
- high levels of creativity and “outside-the-box” thinking, seen in many with ADHD and various learning disabilities
- a potential willingness to question and challenge aspects of society that are unjust, but that the majority have long shrugged off and ignored as “just the way things are”.
Neurodivergent people can (and have) achieved great success as scientists, musicians, activists, academics, and technology workers, as well as (of course) a whole range of other things.
There are some who criticise the paradigm of neurodivergence for focusing mainly on the experiences of neurodivergent people with “low support needs”. I don’t think that this is really a fair criticism, because the whole point of the social model of disability is that people are entitled to access whatever supports they need to participate in society as an equal – that is, it is explicitly in favour of providing “high support” where needed. If I may dare to say it, these critics’ issue seems to be more that they think autism is bad (and other conditions too) and do not agree with there being a non-judgemental way of talking about them that uplifts, rather than talks over, the people who experience them first-hand.