This article is coauthored by Tawny Tsang and Stacy Shaw
The term neurodiversity refers to a growing movement that views differences in people’s neurology as providing them with valuable diversity and skills (Kapp, Gillespie-Lynch, Sherman, Hutman, 2013) opposed to viewing their neurological differences as a disease or disorder that requires treatment. The term is often used to describe people with autism, but extends to other labels such as those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, or Tourette’s Syndrome. The neurodiversity movement presents a paradigm shift in understanding mental functioning, moving away from distinguishing individuals with psychiatric conditions as categorically different from the neurotypical population, and moving toward viewing neurological differences as contributing important diversity to society. An important caveat of the neurodiversity movement is that it does not completely dismiss the presence of psychiatric conditions. Rather, it regards high-functioning individuals with psychiatric conditions spanning the normal distribution of human mental functioning.
In this article, we list 5 things you should know about neurodiversity.
1. Where the Term “Neurodiversity” Comes From
Neurodiversity was first coined by Judy Singer, an autism advocate, as part of her dissertation in sociology in the 1980’s. Neurodiversity is a portmanteau for “neurological diversity”, and describes the natural variability in human cognitive functions. Singer has since described the use of the term to capture fit–every individual has a broad array of strengths and weaknesses that can be harnessed to best meet task demands. The term gained popularity after the late 1990’s from an article in The Atlantic that highlighted the strengths of autistic thinking for the computational age. The term now carries some controversy–by associating diversity with developmental disorders like autism, and contrasting neurodivergent with neurotypical, there is some negative connotation that there is a “normal” versus “abnormal”. Some of the controversy also stems from people tending to use “neurodiversity” to describe high-functioning individuals with autism and overlooking that diversity also extends to the neurotypical population as well.
2. Neurodiversity Has Links to Creativity
Research has found that people who are neurodiverse — specifically those with ADHD — show better performance on a divergent thinking task (a measure of creative potential) and have more creative achievements compared to the general population (White and Shah, 2011). This increased creativity may be explained by differences in the default mode network, a network of neural regions that become activated when thinking about past (Spreng, Mar, & Kim, 2009), future (Buckner et al., 2008), and during mind wandering (Christoff, Gordon, Smallwood, Smith, and Schooler, 2009). The default mode network is linked with creative thinking (Beaty et al., 2014 ), and those with ADHD have dysregulation of their default mode network– meaning that this network is activated when it’s more efficient to be deactivated (Metin et al., 2015). It could be that those with ADHD may show more creativity because of this unique aspect of their neurological diversity, but more research is needed to pinpoint the exact mechanism.
3. Neurodiversity Is Valued in the Workforce
Natural variability in cognitive functioning can be seen as positive, and this is something that businesses have taken note of. For instance, autistic people tend to have strengths in attention to detail, memory, and systemizing. These traits lend themselves well for writing computer manuals, managing databases, and identifying bugs in computer codes. In other words, neurodiversity can be seen as a competitive advantage. Some companies, including Home Depot, Target, Microsoft, and Walgreens have specific programs to provide additional support and training for their neurodiverse employees.
The rise of the tech industry has also been a positive in providing additional mental health support. For instance, an autistic teen developed an app called AUMI to help track his mood and anxiety levels, and to help prevent burnout. While this app was specifically designed to help individuals on the spectrum, it also has become popular and useful for a wider population.
4. Embracing Neurodiversity Is Associated With Stronger AcademicSelf-Esteem
Additional efforts to embrace neurodiversity can help individuals with special needs perform better in higher education. A qualitative study that looked into individual accounts of neurodiversity in higher education found that individuals who regarded neurodiversity as a euphemism for a medical condition were more likely to seek Disabled Student’s Allowance; in contrast, those who viewed neurodiversity as acceptance of cognitive strengths and weaknesses were more likely to carry academic self-esteem (Griffin & Pollack 2009). Emphasizing the latter view of neurodiversity can help students feel supported by their institutions.
5. Neurodiversity Organizations Are Now Partnering With Researchers
Including the perspectives of neurodiverse stakeholders in research can help develop a narrative that takes into account the topics that interest and benefit self-advocates. For instance, the Autism Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) is a nonprofit organization run by autistic self-advocates that pushes for public policy advocacy as well as inclusion in research studies. Through their partnership with the Academic Autism Spectrum Partnership in Research and Education (AASPIRE), they are working towards bridging the academic and autistic community to develop research projects that are relevant to adults on the autism spectrum. AASPIRE advocates for Community Based Participatory Research, which involves the stakeholders at each step of the research process from project development to dissemination.
Beaty, Roger E., Mathias Benedek, Robin W. Wilkins, Emanuel Jauk, Andreas Fink, Paul J. Silvia, Donald A. Hodges, Karl Koschutnig, and Aljoscha C. Neubauer. “Creativity and the default network: A functional connectivity analysis of the creative brain at rest.” Neuropsychologia 64 (2014): 92-98.
Buckner, R. L., Andrews‐Hanna, J. R., & Schacter, D. L. (2008). The brain’s default network: anatomy, function, and relevance to disease. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1124(1), 1-38.
Christoff, K., Gordon, A. M., Smallwood, J., Smith, R., & Schooler, J. W. (2009). Experience sampling during fMRI reveals default network and executive system contributions to mind wandering. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(21), 8719-8724.
Griffin, E., & Pollak, D. (2009). Student experiences of neurodiversity in higher education: insights from the BRAINHE project. Dyslexia, 15(1), 23-41.
Kapp, S. K., Gillespie-Lynch, K., Sherman, L. E., & Hutman, T. (2013). Deficit, difference, or both? Autism and neurodiversity. Developmental Psychology, 49(1), 59.
Metin, B., Krebs, R. M., Wiersema, J. R., Verguts, T., Gasthuys, R., van der Meere, J. J., … & Sonuga-Barke, E. (2015). Dysfunctional modulation of default mode network activity in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 124(1), 208.
Spreng, R. N., Mar, R. A., & Kim, A. S. (2009). The common neural basis of autobiographical memory, prospection, navigation, theory of mind, and the default mode: A quantitative meta-analysis. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 21(3), 489-510.
White, H. A., & Shah, P. (2006). Uninhibited imaginations: creativity in adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Personality and Individual Differences, 40(6), 1121-1131.