Types of Neurodiversity
If you’ve browsed our website and blog, you may have noticed that some important missions here at Waypoints are disability rights and celebration of neurodiversity. We strongly believe that neurodivergent people do not need to be “healed” or “fixed,” and listed that stance as one of our core values in our strategic plan as part of our BHCOE accreditation.
As noted in our FAQ, the term neurodiversity acknowledges the fact that no one’s brain functions in the exact same way as another person’s brain. When some brains function in different ways and influence needs that differ from the “norm,” they’re considered neurodivergent. Like other facets of diversity, neurodiversity includes a broad, natural spectrum of human experience.
The neurodiversity movement is deeply tied to the cause of disability rights in general, as well as to autistic self-advocacy. The neurodiversity movement believes that autism should be accepted, not merely acknowledged or understood. But autism is definitely not synonymous with neurodivergence, and for that matter, autism itself includes a huge spectrum of neurodiversity!
What is Neurodiversity?
The term neurodiversity was originally defined in 1998 by Judy Singer, a sociologist who identifies as “somewhere on the autistic spectrum.” On the website Exceptional Individuals, it is defined as a noun meaning “the diversity or variation of cognitive functioning in people.” This concept is important because it helps to depathologize diagnoses and symptoms of neurodivergence (see below). Acknowledgement of the existence of natural neurodiversity is in alignment with the social model of disability, as opposed to the medical model.
Here are some other key terms related to neurodiversity:
- Neurodiverse – the adjective version of neurodiversity! A single person wouldn’t be referred to as “neurodiverse.” Instead, you could refer to a community being neurodiverse if it included members who varied in their neurological conditions. Humanity, as a whole, is neurodiverse.
- Neurodivergence – a noun referring to neurological/cognitive functioning that differs from the “norm.” Neurodivergence is a part of neurodiversity. Neurodivergence may be present from birth or acquired through something like traumatic brain injury (TBI) or seizures. As noted by Nick Walker of Neuroqueer, “neurodivergence is not intrinsically positive or negative, desirable or undesirable – it all depends on what sort of neurodivergence one is talking about.”
- Neurodivergent – as above, the adjective that goes along with neurodivergence. Again, it’s important to note that neurodivergent is not synonymous with autistic! People with autism, ADHD, learning disabilities, dyspraxia, or a wide variety of other neurological or cognitive differences may identify as neurodivergent. Sometimes this term is abbreviated as ND, e.g., “I am ND.”
- Neurotypical – this term is intended to refer to those who are not neurodivergent, though that is a complicated line to draw. As Dr. Thomas Armstrong wrote in The Myth of the Normal Brain: Embracing Neurodiversity, “there is no brain that has been pickled in a jar in the basement of the Smithsonian Museum or the National Institute of Health or elsewhere in the world that represents the standard to which all other human brains must be compared. Given that this is the case, how do we decide whether any individual human brain or mind is abnormal or normal?”
So, what types of neurodiversity are there? This isn’t really a question that can be clearly answered. It would be like asking how many types of personalities there are, or how many cultures exist! Many different conditions are often considered to be examples of neurodivergence, but someone may also be neurodivergent without any kind of specific or formal diagnosis.
Examples of Neurodivergence
With that being said, there are some differences from what is societally considered to be “neurotypical” that neurodivergent people often have in common. Below are just a few very broad categories, along with examples of each. To reiterate, some of these may be characteristics of autism, but not all autistic people will experience each of these aspects of neurodivergence. Further, many people who are not autistic (referred to as allistic people) may experiences these differences.
Keep in mind as well that while some of these could be interpreted in a negative light, disabilities do not always go hand in hand with impairments. Impairments are often more so caused by a lack of accommodations for disabilities in the environment!
- Sensory – Neurodivergent people may experience hypersensitivity to certain sensations, OR hyposensitivity. In other words, a song playing at a usually acceptable volume may feel far too loud to someone hypersensitive to sound, and a person who is hyposensitive to pain may barely notice when they stub their toe. One may also be sensory-seeking, finding extra enjoyment in physical sensations produced by rocking back and forth, turning in circles, or making or listening to certain sounds. Experiences previously associated with strong sensory stimulation can also come to have the same effects, and situations that would typically be fine can become intolerable if someone’s sensory threshold is exceeded. This is sometimes colloquially referred to as someone becoming “escalated.” Kaelynn Partlow wrote about her experience of deeply fearing medical procedures, even those that she’s “logically” learned to be painless. (Her essay is also an excellent example of how emotional regulation can be affected in these circumstances!)
- Attention – Neurodivergence related to attention may take the form of intense focus on one task at a time to the extent that it’s difficult to transition to another activity, or a strong urge to multi-task! The former is sometimes called hyperfocus, and the latter might be interpreted as hyperactivity. This can actually be related in part to differences in sensory processing; doing only one thing at a time may be under-stimulating, or being interrupted may be so disorienting that it’s difficult to resume what was previously going on.
- Motor – Difficulty with hand-eye coordination, spatial awareness, vocal enunciation, or fine motor skills like writing are examples of neurodivergence related to motor ability. This is particularly prevalent for those with dyspraxia. Amy Sequenzia provides an excellent example of what it can be like for thoughts and intentions to feel disconnected from physical movements. She describes typing sentences being a long, painstaking process despite the absence of any physical motor impairments, due to it taking so long for her hands to actually “activate” as she thinks about what she wants to write.
- Cognitive – Cognition refers to just about anything related to thinking, and sometimes acting upon those thoughts as well. Examples of cognitive neurodivergence can include very logical and objective problem-solving (as opposed to more emotional responding), excellent retention of what is learned, or being able to easily visualize things. Difficulty with organization, planning, and starting tasks can also be aspects of cognitive neurodivergence.
There is, of course, a lot of overlap across these arbitrary categories, and others may include social, emotional, or learning differences. It is probably impossible to come up with a truly exhaustive list! Considering these different aspects of neurodivergence, though, can help with acknowledgement of just how natural this kind of diversity is. Hopefully, the next steps will revolve around improved acceptance of and accommodations for divergence from the “norm” throughout society.
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