What Does Being Neurodivergent Mean?
Neurodivergent is a term used to describe individuals whose brains process, learn, or behave differently from what is considered typical neurological development (neurotypical). Generally, neurotypical individuals move through life without having to wonder if their brain is functioning in a standard way. Being neurodivergent has both strengths and challenges. The challenges include learning disabilities and medical disorders, while the strengths include solving complex mathematical calculations without pen and paper, having a better memory than a neurotypical person, and so many more.
Of the world’s population, 15-20 percent exhibit some form of neurodivergence. It is believed that there are a variety of ways for the brain to work and the differences of each mind are embraced instead of being viewed as inadequacies. Neurodiversity recognizes that both brain function and behavioral traits are indicators of how varied humans are. Although the word refers to the diversity of all people, it is often used in the context of autism spectrum disorder, as well as other neurological or developmental conditions, such as ADHD or learning disabilities. About 1 in 6 (17%) children aged 3–17 years were diagnosed with a developmental disability, as reported by parents, during a study period of 2009-2017. These included autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity.
Australian sociologist Judy Singer coined the term “neurodivergent” in 1998 to increase acceptance and inclusion of “neurological minorities.” No two brains are the same, so there is no definition of the normal capabilities of the human brain. People who are neurodivergent have differences in the way their brains work so they are seen as neuro-differences, not deficits, and are appreciated as a social category, similar to differences in ethnicity and gender. It is important to note that neurodivergence is not a medical term or condition. It is also different from a physical disability or mental illness, but it can be associated with them since those who are considered neurodivergent may need accommodations at home, work, or school.
Types and Signs
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): A broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication. Signs of autism usually appear by age 2 or 3, and some even earlier. About 1 in 36 children have been identified with ASD, according to estimates from the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network. Autism is reported to occur in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups and is nearly 4 times more common among boys than among girls.
- Sensory Processing Difference: Hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to stimuli, leading to heightened or diminished sensory responses. This can impact daily functioning and contribute to sensory overload or avoidance.
- Social Communication Challenges: Difficulty interpreting or responding to social cues, understanding figurative language, or maintaining eye contact. This can affect social relationships.
- Restricted and Repetitive Behaviors: Repeated patterns like hand flapping, rocking, and adherence to rigid routines are common. Comfort and predictability come from these actions, and changes in the environment can cause stress.
Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): A neurodevelopmental condition characterized by persistent inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. ADHD symptoms start before age 12, and in some children, they’re noticeable as early as 3 years of age. The CDC suggests that around 9.4% of all children are diagnosed with ADHD at some point before the age of 18.
- Struggle to maintain attention, easily distracted, frequently shifting focus from one task to another.
- Restlessness, fidgeting, difficulty engaging in quiet activities.
- Difficulties in impulse control and decision-making and poor organization, time management, and planning skills.
Dyslexia: A specific learning disorder that primarily affects reading skills. Dyslexia symptoms can appear as early as preschool age. According to the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, dyslexia affects 20% of the population.
- Challenges with accurate and fluent reading. Individuals may struggle with word recognition, decoding, and reading comprehension.
- Visual and auditory processing challenges, including difficulty distinguishing between similar letters or sounds, which leads to confusion and errors in reading and spelling.
General Signs of Neurodivergent Minds
- Neurodivergent individuals may process information uniquely, displaying strengths in certain areas and challenges in others. They may exhibit enhanced or specialized intellectual abilities, allowing them to excel in specific areas.
- Some neurodivergent individuals have heightened sensory perception or attention to detail. They may notice subtle patterns, textures, or sounds that others might overlook.
- Neurodivergent individuals may exhibit intense focus and attention toward their areas of interest. They can become deeply immersed in specific tasks or subjects, displaying a remarkable ability to concentrate for extended periods of time.
- Neurodivergent minds may experience emotional regulation challenges, including a struggle to express their emotions effectively. As a result, they might exhibit heightened emotional responses.
How to Support a Loved One Who Is Neurodivergent
The first step to finding out if you, or someone you care for, are neurodivergent is to talk to your healthcare provider. They can refer you to a specialist or other providers who can determine if you have a medical disorder, condition, or other brain-related difference that might explain why your brain works differently.
Psychologists, psychiatrists, and neurologists are professionals commonly involved in diagnosing and assessing neurodivergent conditions. These specialists possess the expertise and knowledge to administer appropriate assessments, interpret the results, and provide comprehensive evaluations.
Since neurodiversity refers to the unique way that each person’s brain develops, it is not preventable, treatable, or curable but some of the conditions that cause a person to be neurodivergent are manageable. For some people, such as those with ADHD, behavioral therapy and medication can positively affect their quality of life. For others, therapy programs can help them “play to their strengths,” meaning they illustrate how to make the most out of your abilities. They can also show you how to adapt to challenges, minimizing their interference in your life.
Ways to Help Now:
- Providing sensory-friendly spaces by reducing noise levels, using soft lighting, or providing access to sensory tools like noise-canceling headphones or fidget toys. Also, allowing for sensory breaks if sensory overload occurs.
- Helping them with their social communication and interaction challenges by offering targeted social skills training programs on understanding nonverbal cues and maintaining conversations.
- Establishing predictable routines and visual schedules and breaking down complex tasks into smaller chunks.
Society has shifted greatly in the past few years in its understanding of the importance and diversity of how the brain operates. This means that the way in which we interact with those who are neurodivergent will also continue to improve and evolve. Another advancement has been in special education, with approaches becoming centered around how people with assorted neurodivergent tendencies learn best. The Children’s Guild schools and programs are committed to providing a supportive and nurturing environment for neurodiverse students.
The Children’s Guild and Neurodiversity
The Children’s Guild (TCG) provides whole-child education and family services to empower children and families to thrive in their communities. We meet them where they are with tangible resources so they can experience more success. TCG oversees nonpublic, charter, and public schools, as well as programs for children at all different learning and emotional levels. Since its inception in 1953, The Children’s Guild operates schools serving students with significant behavioral and academic issues including emotional disturbance, autism across the spectrum, developmental disabilities, and any combination of those disabilities.