What does it mean when a person is neurodivergent?
The term “neurodivergent” describes people whose brain differences affect how their brain works. That means they have different strengths and challenges from people whose brains don’t have those differences. The possible differences include medical disorders, learning disabilities and other conditions. The possible strengths include better memory, being able to mentally picture three-dimensional (3D) objects easily, the ability to solve complex mathematical calculations in their head, and many more.
Neurodivergent isn’t a medical term. Instead, it’s a way to describe people using words other than “normal” and “abnormal.” That’s important because there’s no single definition of “normal” for how the human brain works.
The word for people who aren’t neurodivergent is “neurotypical.” That means their strengths and challenges aren't affected by any kind of difference that changes how their brains work.
Why does this term exist?
The term “neurodivergent” came from the related term “neurodiversity.” Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist, coined the word “neurodiversity” in 1998 to recognize that everyone’s brain develops in a unique way.
Like a person’s fingerprints, no two brains — not even those of identical twins — are exactly the same. Because of that, there’s no definition of “normal” capabilities for the human brain.
For most areas of modern medicine, defining what’s normal is critical. In many circumstances, healthcare providers determine a person’s health based on the yes-or-no question, “Is this normal?” Depending on the answer, a person is either sick or well based on symptoms they do or don’t have or things they can or can’t do.
An example of this in everyday life would be comparing the following two people with a special talent for drawing.
- Person #1: A 12-year-old child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who struggles in social situations. The child’s main ASD-related issues are social problems, unusually high interest in drawing and being strictly dependent on a daily routine. The child is naturally better at drawing without taking classes or accumulating experience.
- Person #2: A 40-year-old neurotypical adult. The adult learned to draw at the age of 17, and their talent took hard work and time to develop. They’re very social and make friends easily.
No one would consider the adult abnormal or defective because they can’t paint as well as the child. Likewise, autism spectrum disorder is a condition that can take many different forms, many of which happen in people who don’t have ASD.
Describing the child as neurodivergent acknowledges that they’re “differently abled.” Neurodiversity means it’s natural for both the adult and the child to develop differently and have their own abilities and struggles.
Is being neurodivergent a disability?
Some neurodivergent people struggle because of systems or processes that don’t give them a chance to show off their strengths or that create new or more intense challenges for them.
- Example #1: Many people who are neurodivergent struggle in social situations, which can make it hard to find work because they struggle during job interviews. However, they can still get the job if the hiring process emphasizes their abilities, such as screening potential hires with a skills test. Once on the job, their attention to detail means they’re an outstanding accountant or record-keeper because they can easily process data that others might find more tedious.
- Example #2: Some who are neurodivergent struggle in noisy environments or situations. That means a busy office can feel overwhelming to them. However, a pair of noise-canceling headphones might give them the quiet they need to make them the most productive person on their team because one of their strengths is the ability to focus on their work intensely.
In both examples, accommodations helped the person overcome their particular struggle. For someone with a disability, an accommodation is a way to accept that they’re different or have challenges, and then give them a tool or a way to succeed. For the people who are neurodivergent in the examples above, the accommodations were the hiring process and the headphones.
Accommodations for people with disabilities isn’t a new idea. Some examples include:
- Physical disabilities: Ramps and entrances with automatic doors for those in wheelchairs.
- Sensory disabilities: Crosswalks with a loud tone for those who have vision problems to let them know it’s safe to cross the street.
Why use the term neurodivergent to describe people?
Some people oppose the idea of neurodiversity as being about differences instead of deficits. Many who take that stance say they’re against it because some who are neurodivergent have true medical conditions that need treatment.
However, research shows that knowing about the idea of neurodiversity doesn’t mean people who are neurodivergent ignore or deny that they have struggles. Instead, the research shows people who know about the idea of being neurodivergent use that knowledge to adapt and help them succeed.
Experts’ research also shows words and language related to neurodiversity make a difference in how people live. People who are neurodivergent and learn that it means they’re different — not sick or defective — are more likely to be happier and aim higher in their careers.
An example of this is someone who has dyslexia. People with that condition struggle to read because their brain doesn’t process written language like the brain of someone without dyslexia. However, people with dyslexia usually have brains that are better at processing or mentally picturing 3D objects. That makes them much faster at identifying optical illusions, and they have a natural talent for jobs like graphic design and arts, engineering and more.
What are the symptoms of being neurodivergent?
“Neurodivergent” isn’t a medical term, condition or diagnosis. People who are neurodivergent have differences in the way their brain works. This is still true even for people with the same medical diagnosis. That means people with very different signs and symptoms can still have the same diagnosis.
What conditions can a neurodivergent person have?
People who identify themselves as neurodivergent typically have one or more of the conditions or disorders listed below. However, since there aren’t any medical criteria or definitions of what it means to be neurodivergent, other conditions also can fall under this term as well. People with these conditions may also choose not to identify themselves as neurodivergent.
Some of the conditions that are most common among those who describe themselves as neurodivergent include:
- Autism spectrum disorder (this includes what was once known as Asperger’s syndrome).
- Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
- Down syndrome.
- Dyscalculia (difficulty with math).
- Dysgraphia (difficulty with writing).
- Dyslexia (difficulty with reading).
- Dyspraxia (difficulty with coordination).
- Intellectual disabilities.
- Mental health conditions like bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and more.
- Prader-Willi syndrome.
- Sensory processing disorders.
- Social anxiety (a specific type of anxiety disorder).
- Tourette syndrome.
- Williams syndrome.
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I find out if I’m neurodivergent or if my child 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.
Is it possible to prevent, treat or cure being neurodivergent?
Neurodiversity refers to the unique way that each person’s brain develops. That means it’s not preventable, treatable or curable.
Some of the conditions that cause a person to be neurodivergent are manageable. If a specialist or other healthcare provider diagnoses you (or someone you care for) with a condition like those mentioned above, they can also talk to you about resources for people with that condition. There’s a wide range of possible management options, therapy programs and more.
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 you “play to your strengths,” meaning they show you how to make the most out of your abilities. They can also show you how to adapt to your challenges, minimizing their interference in your life.
Can people who are neurodivergent be successful?
Yes, many people who are neurodivergent are accomplished and successful.
More and more people who are neurodivergent are talking about their experiences. Some examples of famous and successful people who are neurodivergent include:
- Animal scientist and author Temple Grandin.
- Oscar-winning actor Sir Anthony Hopkins.
- Musician and singer Florence Welch.
- Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles.
- Climate activist Greta Thunberg.
Experts also believe several accomplished historical figures were neurodivergent based on evidence from their lives. Those include:
- Nobel Prize-winning physicist and chemist Marie Curie.
- Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Albert Einstein.
- Artist Vincent Van Gogh.
- Inventor and engineer Nikola Tesla.
- Author F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Business leaders also have a growing understanding of the value of being neurodivergent. In 2017, the magazine Harvard Business Review published “Neurodiversity as a competitive advantage.” The article details the benefits of hiring people who are neurodivergent and why more businesses are doing so.
That same article noted that several major national and international corporations have hiring processes that can accommodate people who are neurodivergent. Those corporations include some of the largest names in information technology, the automotive industry, the banking sector and more.
Where can I learn more about what it means to be neurodivergent?
People who are neurodivergent often excel at communicating in online spaces. That’s because nonverbal communication — such as eye contact, facial expressions and body language — doesn’t have to be a part of online interaction. Experts often compare computers and other digital devices to prosthetics for those with difficulties in social communication.
There are several online spaces where groups of people who are neurodivergent gather, exchange information, discuss their experiences and struggles, and offer advice and resources to each other. Some of the most popular spaces are in plain sight, with neurodivergent communities, groups and information-sharing on some of the most popular websites and social media platforms.
What are some things I can do to support someone who is neurodivergent?
There are many things people can do to be supportive of neurodivergent individuals. Some of the most important things you should keep in mind include:
- Listen. People who are neurodivergent may feel misunderstood or left out. Be willing to listen to them. Let them know you hear them and respect them and their choices.
- Communicate in ways that help them. Sometimes, people who are neurodivergent prefer written communication such as instant messaging, texting or emails over a phone call or face-to-face conversation. Give them the time and tools they need to communicate.
- Avoid value-based labels. Experts recommend against using the terms “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” to describe conditions like autism. They often assume a person’s level of function based on how much they behave like someone who’s neurotypical.
- No two neurodivergent people are the same. The personalities and preferences of neurodivergent people can be widely different, even when they have the same underlying condition.
- Don’t assume that anyone is incapable or unintelligent. People who are neurodivergent often have conditions or preferences that make them stand out or appear different.
- Treat everyone with respect. You can “normalize” and provide others with accommodations in a way that honors their human dignity.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
“Neurodiversity” is a word used to explain the unique ways people’s brains work. While everyone’s brain develops similarly, no two brains function just alike. Being neurodivergent means having a brain that works differently from the average or “neurotypical” person. This may be differences in social preferences, ways of learning, ways of communicating and/or ways of perceiving the environment. Because of this, a neurodivergent person has different struggles and unique strengths. People who are neurodivergent can benefit from education and programs that help them develop their strengths using them to their benefit to live happy, healthy lives.
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