I’ve noticed a real uptick in use of the term “neurodivergent” across a range of social situations.
Recently, a friend confided that the guy they were dating dumped them because he misunderstood the intention of something they said. Then, I watched a co-worker try to explain to their boss why they struggled to complete a piece of work. Later, I scrolled Instagram and saw a celebrity’s long social post detailing their relief at a recent medical diagnosis.
In each case, the person put their issues down to their ‘neurodivergence’. I got the impression that each of them hoped to be better understood and accommodated by others, without them needing to provide detail about their particular condition. But, I also don’t think it worked. I didn’t understand what was wrong, why it happened and what I should do next.
It was only after some digging that I discovered that one person has Dysgraphia, one has ADHD and another has Irlen Syndrome. These are three very different conditions. By trying to explain their issues by simply saying they were ‘neurodivergent’ each person wasn’t explaining much at all.
Is neurodivergence vague?
My confusion led me on a journey of discovery. Clearly, to understand what neurodivergence isn’t, I first must understand which conditions neurodivergence covers. Because I think we’re in danger of misusing and overusing the word ‘neurodivergence’ as a catch-all for a range of different experiences.
Misuse of terms can cause problems. It can lead to outcomes which actually harm people with neurodivergent conditions instead of helping them. By looking at neurodivergence as a one-size-fits-all condition, we generalise complex patterns of behaviour. This bunching of cognitive issues leads to confusion on how to best help those affected. It may also lead to assumptions that all neurodivergent behaviours are the same, which is far from the truth.
Also, I already can see an over-reliance on the term. People have a tendency to throw around the word ‘neurodivergent’ in a casual sense. This could lead to a risk of misdiagnosis based on incomplete information. And, worse, if people use the term as an excuse for bad behaviours, it could water down the meaning of neurodivergence for others with notable issues.
Where did neurodivergence come from?
Social scientist Judy Singer coined the term neurodivergence in 1998, to cover a wide range of primarily cognitive processing conditions which affect how the brain works. Contrary to the proliferation of people saying they are neurodivergent, most of us process information in a more conventional way AKA being ‘neurotypical’. Those experiencing neurodivergent behaviours do not process certain types of information in this way. Singer intended the word to have two uses:
- Better describe what neurological diversity means
- Create a social movement of neurological minorities
This a noble pursuit. Singer wanted neurodivergent people not to feel alienated and instead to feel safe and understood when they can’t process information or act in a way that neurotypical people can.
Processing vs Mood
A key part of neurodivergence is that people don’t process information in the same way. But what does process even mean? The brain, that complicated squishy pink structure that rules our lives, is responsible for dictating how we walk, talk, think, see, read, do maths equations (if you can’t avoid it) and formulating memories.
Neurodivergence covers medical disorders, learning disabilities and other conditions. It is not a negative term, it’s an indication of difference.
Where the definition gets interesting is that neurodivergence can also cover mood disorders. We’ve entered a complicated territory of linking emotional states to cognitive functioning and resulting behaviours.
The many types of Neurodivergence
Neurodivergence can include Autism, Dyspraxia (difficulty in performing coordinated movements) and Dysgraphia (difficulty with handwriting and spelling due to cognitive impairment). These are all cognitive impairments. People with these conditions may need specific help with tasks that require this type of cognitive processing. Hyperlexia (advanced reading and comprehension skills) is also a form of neurodivergence.
Some practitioners also state that anxiety is a form of neurodivergence. As a person who suffers from Misophonia (where sounds trigger negative emotional responses) and Misokinesia (heightened sensitivity to others’ repetitive movements). I have never really identified as neurodivergent.
However, the word isn’t Latin or Greek like the names of many neurodivergent conditions are. This is not only a range of conditions, but a range of severity and impairment. The range means people are required to fully explain their conditions. And this puts additional pressure on you having to explain your neurodivergence with long explanations which are unlikely to get to the heart of the issue.
When it’s not neurodivergence
I personally don’t think that anxiety is the same as Dyspraxia. But I am also learning that many people have conditions. If that’s the case then are they really divergent? Perhaps all of us do have behaviours that are different from others.
Neurodivergent conditions cannot be diagnosed by filling out an online questionnaire, however they are a good indicator of potential.
Many sufferers of physical conditions do not affect our personalities, if you break your leg, it shouldn’t change your values. Neurodivergence on the other hand, can be inextricably linked to the neurodivergent person’s personality. Many people will say that this is just me. Their divergence is only from some societal norms.
Some believe that anxiety is a form of neurodivergence. I wouldn’t want to say that anxiety is a core part of my personality, yet it’s certainly something that I feel. Therefore it might actually be unhelpful to lump in so many different characteristics under one catch-all term.
Back to those three examples above. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying that a person is neurodivergent in a specific situation, but that should not be the end of the story. We should all be keen to learn more about these differences and we can only do so and help others explain the precise nature of their issues. Yes, it may take longer and and it may involve more complex words. Neurodivergence is everywhere, but perhaps we’re all not neurodivergent.