What Does Neurodivergent Mean?

How neurodivergent individuals think compared to neurotypical individuals

The terms neurodivergent and neurodiverse refer to people whose thought patterns, behaviors, or learning styles fall outside of what is considered "normal," or neurotypical. Neurodivergence embraces the idea that differences in the human brain are natural and, in many cases, can lead to meaningful and positive insights and abilities.

The concept of neurodiversity is gaining traction as both neurodiverse and neurotypical people are finding that differences are not necessarily disabilities. Some differences can be real strengths.

This article discusses what it means to be neurodivergent, types of neurodiversity, related signs, and how to accommodate a person who is neurodiverse.

Meaning of Neurodivergent

The term neurodiversity was first used in 1997 by Judy Singer, a sociologist on the autism spectrum.

The term was intended to be comparable to the term biodiversity, which refers to the diversity of all living things. Neurodiversity refers to the variety of ways all people think and behave.

Making Sense of the Terms

  • Neurodivergent: A noun referring to the diversity or variation of cognitive functioning in all people
  • Neurodiverse: An adjective typically used to describe neurodivergent people
  • Neurodivergence: A noun referring to cognitive functioning which is not considered typical or "normal"
  • Neurodivergent: An adjective describing people who have a neurodivergence
  • Neurotypical: An adjective describing people whose cognitive and social behaviors fall within traditional norms

Who Is Neurodiverse?

The neurodiverse population includes people with specific diagnoses that are considered developmental disorders (as opposed to intellectual disabilities or mental illnesses). These include but are not limited to:

  • Autism: A developmental disorder that includes differences in social communication skills, fine and gross motor skills, speech, and more
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): A neurodevelopmental disorder that includes features of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity
  • Tourette's syndrome: A tic disorder that starts in childhood and involves involuntary, repetitive movements and vocalizations
  • Various learning disabilities such as dyslexia (difficulty with language skills, especially reading) and dyscalculia (difficulty with doing basic arithmetic)

It is possible to become neurodiverse as the result of a physical or emotional injury or trauma, but in most cases, neurodiversity exists from birth onward.

Neurodivergence is often first recognized at the time of a diagnosis. Of course, neurodivergent behaviors and thinking exist before that. There are also individuals with related symptoms but without diagnoses who consider themselves neurodiverse.

Research is ongoing into the genetic and environmental causes of disorders such as autism and ADHD, and there is no doubt that many people are simply born with atypical brains.

The term neurodiversity is rarely applied to mental health disorders such as schizophrenia, depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder. However, there is a debate over whether the term is an appropriate one for treatable mental health illnesses as well.

While some mental health disorders, such as anxiety, may occur in neurodivergent people, they can also affect those who are neurotypical. Therefore, being anxious is not a sign of neurodivergence.

Neurodivergent Traits and Examples

There are a great many ways in which thoughts, behaviors, and emotional responses can be neurodivergent.

It's important to remember that neurodivergence is a cultural construct. So, behaviors that are considered "normal" in one part of the world may be considered "atypical" elsewhere or at a different time in history.

Challenging Traits, Characteristics, and Signs of Neurodiversity

Being neurodiverse can be challenging. Because they are considered "not like everyone else," neurodivergent people may struggle with fitting in socially, behaving in expected ways, or easily adjusting to change.

Some common and challenging signs of neurodiversity include:

  • Social communication difficulties, such as trouble making eye contact while talking or not reading body language
  • Speech and language challenges, such as stuttering and repetition
  • Learning challenges that may be related to difficulties with focus, reading, calculation, ability to follow spoken language, and/or problems with executive functioning (important skills, including working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control)
  • Unusual responses to sensory input (sensitivity or unusual insensitivity to light, sound, heat, cold, pressure, crowds, and other stimuli)
  • Unusual physical behaviors, such as rocking, expressing tics, blurting things out, and shouting at unexpected times
  • Inflexibility (inability to adapt or to change interests based on age or situation)

Helpful Traits, Characteristics, and Signs of Neurodiversity

While neurodiversity can make life more difficult, it can also make certain tasks easier. In some cases, neurodiverse ways of seeing and making sense of the world can result in exciting discoveries and intriguing outcomes.

Some signs of neurodiversity that can have a positive impact include:

  • Ability to stay focused on a topic or activity of interest for long periods
  • Outside-the-box thinking, which can lead to innovative solutions to challenges
  • Strong observational skills and attention to detail
  • Superior ability to recognize patterns, including in codes and behaviors
  • Having strong skills in areas such as music, art, technology, and science

Of course, these are very generalized descriptions. Certain skills are more likely to appear in, for example, an autistic person than a person with dyscalculia, or vice versa. Even then, every person is unique.

Is There a Test for Neurodivergence?

While a health professional may be able to diagnose a condition that causes neurodivergence, there is no official test that can "detect" it. In addition, there are differing opinions about how it is defined. This is why you may get differing results if you take any of the number of quizzes designed to help you assess for neurodiversity. Some people in the neurodivergent community prefer to embrace the idea of self-diagnosis.

Why the Term "Neurodiversity" Caught On

Neurodiversity caught on quickly once the term was coined in 1998. This occurred for several reasons. For one, the number of people with diagnosed developmental disorders exploded in the early 2000s, making neurodiversity a much more common phenomenon.

In addition, because people don't "grow out of" autism, ADHD, learning disabilities, or Tourette's syndrome, neurodiverse children become neurodiverse adults—many of whom are very capable of self-advocacy.

Another important reason for the popularity of the concept of neurodiversity is that definitions of autism spectrum, ADHD, and learning disabilities—some of the challenges most often associated with divergent thinking and behaviors—were and still are in a state of flux.

Many people grew up before certain disorders were given a label, but they always felt atypical. Today, many such people feel embraced by the neurodiversity movement.

Diagnostic labels are constantly changing, based largely on cultural norms and expectations. People who were neurotypical 50 years ago are no longer considered to be so and vice versa.

For example, it was only in 1973 that homosexuality ceased to be listed as a condition related to or caused by a mental health illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The DSM is the official handbook of the American Psychiatric Association on mental and developmental disorders.

The 2013 update of the DSM included major changes that removed the disorder called Asperger's syndrome (the highest-functioning end of the autism spectrum), altered the definitions of autism and ADHD, and added hoarding disorder as a brand new diagnosable disorder.

Asperger's syndrome was considered a unique disorder for only about 20 years—from 1993 to 2013. Hoarding (accumulating excessive belongings, often of little value) only became pathological until 2013. Presumably, it was considered neurotypical before that time.

Clearly, the distinction between neurotypical and neurodivergent is flexible and constantly changing.

Why Neurodiversity Is Important

The concept of neurodiversity has become increasingly attractive to people who consider themselves neurodivergent and those who write about, speak about, and work directly with neurodivergent individuals. There are several reasons for this, including:

  • Neurodivergent self-advocates have become strong supporters of the concept of neurodiversity and are working hard to establish a sense of pride in neurodiverse ways of thinking and behaving.
  • Educators are discovering that a large portion of their student population is neurodivergent. They are legally bound to provide appropriate educational accommodations based on individual needs, rather than diagnosis.
  • Many employers and members of the general population see real adaptive benefits to neurodivergence. In fact, the Harvard Business Review specifically touts neurodiversity as a competitive advantage because it often imparts many strengths and positive traits.

The number of people who could be described as neurodivergent is very high and continues to rise. While there is no official statistic available, the peer support organization ADHD Aware estimates the number of people with neurodivergent disorders (autism, ADHD, Tourette's, various learning disabilities, and related challenges) comes to over 30% of the population.

How to Accommodate Someone Who Is Neurodivergent

People who are neurodivergent can be very different from one another, which makes it difficult to provide a single list of helpful accommodations. However, there are some that can support both children and adults with or without specific neurodivergent diagnoses.

Certain accommodations are legally required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Easy and Effective Accommodations for Someone Who is Neurodivergent - Illustration by Danie Drankwalter

Verywell / Danie Drankwalter

Some of the easiest and most effective accommodations include:

  • Awareness of neurodivergence and willingness to be flexible at school or in the workplace when specific, reasonable requests are made: These may range from wearing noise-blocking headphones in school corridors to a preference to work from home or communicate via text vs. videoconference.
  • Positive responses to sensory challenges that may cause physical discomfort: These may include replacing fluorescent light bulbs with less-harsh incandescent or LED lights, reducing ambient noise, eliminating air fresheners, moving one's workplace to a quieter spot, and providing natural light.
  • Technological supports for managing time and schedules: These can include smartphone alarms, calendars, and other time-management software.
  • Options for different ways of taking in and communicating information: These may include oral vs. written reports, videos vs. lectures, typed responses vs. in-person meetings.
  • Sensitivity to social differences: Examples include taking it in stride rather than reacting negatively if someone speaks loudly, has tics, stammers, or finds it difficult to socialize in a typical manner, as well as repeating words or speaking more slowly to improve comprehension.

In addition to accommodating differences, it's also important to recognize and build on differences when they are helpful. Ways this is accomplished include:

  • Carving out a job that makes the most of an individual's strengths without unduly challenging their weaknesses
  • Assigning a particular job or activity based on an individual's strengths and preferences
  • Asking neurodivergent students or employees for their advice and input when designing office spaces, teams, and project management systems


Neurodivergence is a relatively new concept that presents neurological differences as normal variations rather than pathological disorders. It is growing in significance and can be very helpful in creating universally accessible schools, workplaces, and communities.

People who are neurodivergent usually are diagnosed with a neurodevelopmental disorder such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, or Tourette's syndrome, but may also have related differences such as sensory dysfunction.

It is not only appropriate but easy and helpful to work with neurodivergent self-advocates, students, and employees to provide accommodations while also supporting and promoting individual strengths and abilities.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Am I neurodivergent?

    You absolutely are neurodivergent if you have been diagnosed with a developmental or learning disorder, such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, or Tourette's syndrome.

    You may decide to consider yourself neurodivergent if you have no diagnosis but think, behave, or interact in ways that are outside the norm.

    You might also choose to describe yourself as neurodivergent if you are diagnosed with a mental illness such as schizophrenia, although mental illness is not usually included in definitions of neurodivergence.

  • Is neurodivergence a disability?

    People who are neurodivergent usually have a diagnosis that is generally described as a disability. That said, many autistic people feel that their autism is a strength, and the same goes for people with diagnoses such as ADHD or dyslexia.

    The reality, however, is that the world is generally set up for the benefit of neurotypical people, so it can be more difficult for neurodivergent people to function well at school or at work.

  • Is neurodivergence genetic?

    Some forms of neurodivergent are almost certainly genetic, at least in part. For example, research shows that autism and ADHD are often hereditary. It is also possible to become neurodivergent as a result of exposure to certain drugs in the womb, or as the result of a physical or emotional injury.

13 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  9. Harvard Business Review. Neurodiversity is a competitive advantage.

  10. ADHD Aware. Neurodiversity and other conditions.

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Additional Reading
    1. Cristina D. Dye, Matthew Walenski, Stewart H. Mostofsky, Michael T. Ullman. A verbal strength in children with Tourette syndrome? Evidence from a non-word repetition taskBrain and Language, 2016; 160: 61 DOI: 10.1016/j.bandl.2016.07.005


    den Houting J. Neurodiversity: An insider’s perspective. Autism. 2019;23(2):271-273. doi:10.1177/1362361318820762


  • Doyle N. Neurodiversity at work: a biopsychosocial model and the impact on working adults. Br Med Bull. 2020;135(1):108-125. doi:10.1093/bmb/ldaa021

  • Singer J. Neurodiversity: The Birth of an Idea. J. Singer; 2017.

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.