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Painterly illustration of three multi-colored silhouettes with different ways of processing information depicted in them.
Painterly illustration of three multi-colored silhouettes with different ways of processing information depicted in them.

Understanding Neurodiversity

Exploring Differences in Brain Function

When someone mentions "diversity," differences in gender, race or religion may come to mind. But diversity also includes differences in brain functioning. Neurodiversity is a term that describes the cognitive differences between how people think, learn and behave.

There is no single, correct way for a brain to function. Neurodiversity honors each person's unique perspectives and experiences without judgment.

Neurodiversity is an umbrella term that includes two categories in which most people fall:

  • Neurotypical: This describes people who process information in a way that is considered standard or typical. Someone who is neurotypical develops brain functions, like social and organizational skills, at similar rates as others their age.
  • Neurodivergent: This refers to people who process information in a way that is not typical for their age. This variation could include a diagnosed condition like autism or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but neurodivergence itself is not a diagnosis. It just means the brain works differently than what is considered typical. It's neither right nor wrong.

Conditions Considered Neurodivergent

About 15% to 20% of the world's population shows signs of neurodivergence, which are often influenced by genetics and environmental factors. Common conditions associated with neurodivergent brain functioning include:

Neurodivergence is often viewed as a weakness, but neurodiversity offers an alternative perspective: Differences in brain functioning can be a strength.

"Neurodivergence is not a diagnosis, but more of a care philosophy. It's a more inclusive way to describe people whose brain functions differently," says Colby P. Wiley, PhD, a neuropsychologist at Northwestern Medicine. "This perspective emphasizes the positive aspects, aiming to highlight the strengths associated with the diagnosis rather than focusing on remediating the deficits." 

Some strengths of neurodivergence include:

  • Innovation and creativity
  • Accuracy
  • Unique problem-solving
  • High levels of concentration
  • Reliability

Signs of Neurodivergence

People who are neurodivergent often experience unique emotional and behavioral symptoms, but some common indicators include: 

  • Difficulty with social interactions
  • Clumsiness
  • Heightened anxiety
  • Difficulty with focusing or staying still
  • Sensitivity to light, sound, touch and smells
  • Repetitive behaviors or routines

"Understanding symptoms of neurodivergence can impact management outcomes," says Wiley. "A small amount of knowledge can make a big difference."

For example, if someone has autism and shares that they don't pick up on nonverbal social cues or sarcasm, it may be helpful to look at them while speaking and be direct in your communication. "Let's meet them where they're at," says Wiley. "Avoid forcing them to conform to a neurotypical perspective."

Being open and willing to discuss accommodations promotes inclusivity and helps create an environment where neurodivergent people feel comfortable discussing their challenges.

Getting Help

If you or someone you know is struggling with aspects of daily life, like keeping up with demands at work or school, Wiley recommends taking a moment to identify any barriers. For instance, is overwhelming anxiety or sensitivity to sound preventing you from keeping up? Do you feel that you sometimes struggle with daily tasks that seem to come easily or naturally to others?

It's important to discuss these concerns with your physician or a therapist, or consider a neurocognitive evaluation conducted by a neuropsychologist. A neurocognitive evaluation includes a thorough clinical interview as well as direct testing of your thinking, memory, attention and processing, mood and conversational skills. It may also include a review of your medical records. These steps can help identify potential areas of neurodivergence and lead to symptom management, if needed.

"Instead of trying to change traits, we aim to create an environment that accommodates them," says Wiley. "However, if someone's attention issues hinder their daily routines or academic progress, we can provide support, such as medication. This approach allows us to address their difficulties while still honoring individuality."