What is it and why does it matter?
April 2023 | The Learning and Wellbeing Team

Neurodiversity is a term that is used to describe the unique ways in which people’s brains work. People who describe themselves as “neurodivergent” attribute the very different ways in which they think, solve problems, communicate and interact with other people to these brain differences and will frequently distinguish themselves from “neurotypical” individuals who do not experience these differences in thinking, communicating and socializing. 

The term neurodiversity was first used by Judy Singer, who is an Australian social scientist.  She used this term for the first time in her honour thesis, in 1999, while studying sociology at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in Sydney, Australia. The term was first mentioned in print in an article written by Harold Blume in the Atlantic. 

People diagnosed with a number of disorders, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD), will often describe themselves as neurodivergent, which recognizes that their differences and difficulties arise from the differences in how their brains work. The difficulties that arise from these differences in brain functioning may be manageable, with or without medication, or maybe profoundly impairing. Most people who are neurodivergent can benefit from education and programs to help them in developing their strengths and talents, to select career paths that will align with these strengths and talents, or obtain accommodations at school or work that will help them reach their full potential.  

Why this matters 

The purpose of the term neurodiversity, and the neurodiversity movement is to recognize that many differences between individuals with and without conditions, such as ASD or AD/HD, were too often only seen as deficits that required treatment rather than as source of opportunity or potential opportunity. 

There are countless examples of individuals who are neurodivergent in every area of life who have excelled because of these differences, including:

More and more people who are neurodivergent are talking about their experiences. Some examples of famous and successful people who are neurodivergent include:

  • Animal scientist and author Temple Grandin.
  • Oscar-winning actor Sir Anthony Hopkins.
  • Musician and singer Billie Eilish.
  • Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles.
  • Climate activist Greta Thunberg.

There is a growing recognition of the advantages that many individuals who are neurodivergent can offer to organizations and businesses. In 2017 the Harvard Business Review published an article called Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage. The benefits have been broad and far-reaching, including gains in productivity gains, improvement in quality and innovation, as well as increased employee engagement. 

What neurodiversity is not

Neurodivergent is not a medical diagnosis but rather an umbrella term to describe a vast number of differences and often medical conditions, such as AD/HD and ASD, in addition to a wide range of learning difficulties and deficits that differentiate individuals with those differences (i.e., “neurodivergent”) from those without (i.e., “neurotypical”). 

This is an important distinction. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) are medical conditions which are diagnosed by a health or mental health professional. Being diagnosed with these conditions implies that there is some degree of impairment, struggle or hardship that affects people’s lives. It is the impairment that comes with the conditions that entitle you to an accommodation in school or in the workplace. Describing yourself as neurodivergent and attributing the differences and often difficulties you may have that arise from differences in how to think, solve-problems, communicate and interact with others is not sufficient to obtain an accommodation. 

Is there stigma around the term ‘neurodivergent’?

As with any new term, some people will understand immediately, others will need some time to get their heads around it, a few are going to resist, challenge it and even mock it. The pushback you experience from others may come in the form of not knowing anything about it, so you may need to inform them about what it is and what the term is trying to do. But it may also come in the form of a debate, for example, reminding you that this is not a real disorder. That’s not going to be pleasant. But it is okay. Just remind them that you know that it is not a disorder but then remind them that it is a very important term in that it reminds all of us that there is a lot of exceptional talent that is often overlooked, underused or openly dismissed because of some differences in how people communicate, interact with others, and think about things. 

Do you need a diagnosis?

Whether or not you need a diagnosis will depend on your school or employer. So, the short answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no. Some colleges and universities will grant accommodations with a letter from a health or mental health professional, even without a diagnosis. But it usually be more effective to have that diagnosis, as it is the diagnosis that is recognized within a legal and human rights framework that entitles you, by law, to an accommodation.  

Some workplaces will grant informal accommodations if you make the request on the basis of improved performance and productivity in your job. If your request to work from home, work different hours, wear noise-cancelling head phones, and be tasked with fewer activities at a single time can lead to increased productivity or performance on the job, your employer should be interested and willing to listen. Even so, they may still need a lot of convincing. 

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Austin, R. D. & Pisano, G. P. (2017). Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage. Harvard Business Review.
Blume, Harvey (September 30, 1998). “Neurodiversity.” The Atlantic. 
Singer, J. (1998). Odd people in: The birth of community amongst people on the autistic spectrum: a personal exploration of a new social movement based on neurological diversity (Honours dissertation). University of Technology, Sydney. Republished in Singer (2017).

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