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Neurodiversity: Embracing and Celebrating the Differences in the Human Brain

Updated: Apr 19, 2023

“Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of wiring will prove best at any given moment?”
— Harvey Blume, The Atlantic, 1998

What is neurodiversity?

In 1998, Judy Singer, a sociologist who is also autistic, coined the term "neurodiversity" to describe the idea that everyone's brain differs in the way they develop and function. These differences manifest in the way people experience and interact with the world, thus, there are many ways in which people think, learn, and behave.

The classification of neurological differences is associated with stigmatization and marginalization. Historically, people labelled with deficits and pathologies were often subjected to exclusion and unfair treatment such as the denial of rights or opportunities (and still are in many ways). The neurodiversity movement emerged in the 1990s to promote acceptance of neurological differences and advocate for inclusivity and recognition of rights.

Neurodiversity does not view differences as deficits. It recognizes that no two brains - not even those of identical twins - are exactly the same. It embraces differences amongst all people because there is no definition of the "normal" capabilities of the human brain. Understanding neurodiversity is not only important in clinical research and education, but in building strong, healthy relationships as well.

What does being neurodivergent mean?

When an individual diverges from societal standards of “normal” neurocognitive functioning, they can be considered neurodivergent, not “having neurodiversity.” The term Neurodivergent is an umbrella term used to describe a brain that processes information in a way that is different from what is considered the norm, due to factors that were genetic or acquired from the environment. The term neurodivergent was coined by autistic activist Kassiane Asasumasu who has highlighted that this term is not to be used as tool for exclusion rather, “[...]It is specifically a tool of inclusion.".

Neurodivergent is having neurological functions that diverge from what is typical such as individuals with neurodevelopmental differences like ADHD and Autism, for example. On the other hand, people whose neurocognitive functioning aligns with the societal standards of what is accepted as “common" or "typical" are referred to as being neurotypical.

Why is it important?

Understanding how one’s brain thinks differently is a very empowering experience. It is helpful for describing differences without having to use the words "normal" or "abnormal." It connects individuals who experience similar barriers and frustration with being misunderstood. It fosters community and understanding with others who are neurodivergent.

Person First vs. Identity First Language

Identity language should be inclusive and non-judgemental. As such, there is ongoing debate on the right way to do so – do we use identity-first or person-first language?

Identity-first language can lead with recognizing a person’s neurocognitive difference, such as “autistic person,”. Person-first language puts the person before the condition, such as “person with autism,” recognizing that they are first and foremost a person that is not defined by their condition.

Different people have different preferences for the language they use to identify themselves. A good rule of thumb is to ask and/or listen to how people define themselves. How a person chooses to self-identify is essential to the formation of a positive identity, and they should not be corrected if they choose to use a language different from what you prefer.

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