Conditions

Different, Not Deficient: Understanding Neurodiversity

What do Bill Gates, Greta Thunberg, and Daniel Radcliffe have in common? They are all examples of people with neurodiversity. Bill Gates has dyslexia, something that didn’t stop him from becoming the owner of Microsoft and one of the wealthiest people in the world; Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has a spectrum disorder and says […]

Author Generic Image By Grow Therapy

Updated on May 21, 2024

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What do Bill Gates, Greta Thunberg, and Daniel Radcliffe have in common? They are all examples of people with neurodiversity. Bill Gates has dyslexia, something that didn’t stop him from becoming the owner of Microsoft and one of the wealthiest people in the world; Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has a spectrum disorder and says that “being different is a superpower;” and Daniel Radcliffe, famously known for playing Harry Potter, is dyspraxic and says, “it has never held me back.”

So, what’s the concept of neurodiversity? And what makes someone neurodivergent? Here’s everything you need to know. 

What Does Neurodivergent Mean?

“Anyone with a brain that functions in ways that diverge significantly from the typical neurological development or what society considers ‘normal’ is considered neurodivergent,” says Melissa Galica, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) with Grow Therapy.  

People whose brains work and process information “normally” are called neurotypical. 

Anyone with a brain that functions in ways that diverge significantly from the typical neurological development or what society considers ‘normal’ is considered neurodivergent.

- Melissa Galica, LPC

Neurodivergent is an adjective that comes from the term neurodiversity, a word that Australian sociologist Judy Singer first coined. She wanted to promote equality and the inclusion of “neurological minorities” while steering away from the idea that there’s a “right” way of thinking. 

What Would Be Considered Neurodivergent?

Neurodivergent is an umbrella term. Within this one word lie many factors as to why someone could be considered neurodivergent, for example, if they have a learning disability, an anxiety disorder, or a mental health condition like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Here are some other specific examples:

Autism spectrum disorder: In 2020, about one in 36 children was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). One of the more common neurodevelopmental disorders, autism impacts social communication and behavior and is more common in girls than boys. 

ADHD: The CDC reported that between 2016 and 2019, around 6 million U.S. children (aged between 3 and 17) were diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). People with ADHD may have problems paying attention, controlling impulsive behaviors, and being overly active.

Dyslexia: Dyslexia impacts reading ability, processing of symbolic language, and phonological awareness. It affects around 9-12% of people globally. 

Dyspraxia: Also known as developmental coordination disorder, dyspraxia affects motor coordination and movement in around 6-10% of children.

Tourette’s syndrome: About one in 160 children aged between 5 and 17 has Tourette’s syndrome, which causes involuntary tics or repetitive behaviors and speech. It’s more common in boys than girls. 

Dyscalculia: A difficulty in learning and comprehending mathematics, dyscalculia impacts around 3-7% of people, including children, adolescents, and adults. 

Dysgraphia: Dysgraphia is a writing disability that affects a person’s spelling, handwriting, and written expression and is thought to impact up to 20% of the population. Dysgraphia is also more common in children who have ADHD. 

Down’s syndrome: Down’s syndrome is an intellectual disability and a condition where a baby is born with an extra chromosome, which can affect how their body and brain develop. This can present both mental and physical challenges for the baby.

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What Are Some Neurodivergent Behaviors?

There isn’t just one way to characterize neurodivergent individuals; they don’t all display the same behavior — with behavior also varying among those with the same condition. However, some common behaviors can be observed in neurodivergent people. Specifically, it looks into the behaviors commonly associated with autism and ADHD, separated into lists for adults and children. 

Neurodivergent Behaviors in Adults

Galica says, “Many of these tendencies are developed in childhood and can be associated with autism and ADHD. Still, neurodivergence can happen throughout the lifespan, and factors such as trauma and stress can affect how neurodivergence is expressed.”

Neurodivergent Behaviors in Children

However, developmental disorders aren’t always at the root if you spot any of these signs. To stay on top of your child’s development, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children undergo developmental and behavioral screening during regular well-child visits at nine months, 18 months, and 30 months. 

What Do Neurodivergent People Typically Struggle With?

Neurodivergent individuals often struggle with sensory overload and social interaction, says Galica. Many have heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli like sounds, lights, textures, and scents that most people can tune out. But for neurodivergent brains, these inputs can be painful, distracting, or overwhelming. 

“Fluorescent lights, scratchy fabric, loud noises, or strong smells can overload the nervous system, leading to meltdowns or the need to retreat from the situation entirely,” she adds. 

Because neurodivergent people may avoid crowded spaces or social events, simple tasks like grocery shopping or riding the school bus can be intensely stressful. They might need headphones, sunglasses, or other tools to manage the stimulation. 

“Reading social cues and unwritten rules of conversation can also prove challenging,” adds Galica. “Difficulty making eye contact, picking up on body language, and understanding sarcasm or peers’ interests may complicate forming connections. Social settings present subtle signals to decipher on top of the sensory stimuli.”

“Ultimately,” says Galica, “the mental effort to navigate fundamental social interactions or environments most find comfortable can quickly deplete neurodivergent people’s energy reserves.”

How to Support Someone With Neurodiversity

The most profound way to help someone with neurodiversity isn’t to take away their autonomy, emphasizes Galica. They’re not broken — they’re just different. Be flexible, empathic, and inclusive, and empower their self-advocacy. 

Here are some other ways to be a friend to someone with a condition such as autism:

If you know or work with someone who’s autistic, here are some ways that you can build a relationship with them:

Also, be gentle but direct when setting your boundaries. If they’re standing too close to you, for example, look to mention this calmly and kindly.

Therapy and Neurodiversity

Galica says the most effective therapies start early, set incremental goals, emphasize strengths, generalize skills to real-life settings, and foster accommodating environments.

Here are the types of therapies that can be helpful for neurodivergent people:

Ultimately, a therapist will help guide the neurodivergent individual on the best course of action based on their circumstance and needs.

Famous People With Neurodiversity

As Galica said, people with neurodiversity aren’t broken. From Hollywood to technology’s halls of fame, countless well-known people have dealt with or are dealing with their own neurodivergence, and it’s never stopped them from making a name for themselves. 

Many people believe that their neurodiversity has offered them unique ways of functioning in the world of work. Evidence-based research suggests that entrepreneurs with ADHD have a more intuitive cognitive style and show higher levels of entrepreneurial alertness. 

Here are five recognizable names that have succeeded while also managing neurodiversity:

Richard Branson

Richard Branson, entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group, has dyslexia and describes it as “an alternative way of thinking.” In an interview with Robb Report, he says, “I would jumble things up. People just assumed that we [dyslexics] were stupid. I think that, by and large, people with dyslexia are more creative and good at seeing the bigger picture. We do think slightly differently to other people.”

Steve Jobs

Thanks to Steve Jobs, whether it’s an iPhone, iPad, or Mac, you’ve likely used or even currently own an Apple product. The co-founder and CEO of Apple built a billion-dollar company and dealt with developmental dyslexia like Richard Branson. 

Anthony Hopkins

Famous for movies including “Silence of the Lambs” and “Meet Joe Black,” Anthony Hopkins is autistic and is known in Hollywood for his incredible ability to memorize lines, which he attributes to being autistic.  

Billie Eilish

Singer Billie Eilish was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome when she was 11 and finds that when she’s focusing on other tasks, such as singing or horse-riding, her tics tend to decrease. In an interview with David Letterman in 2022, she told him, “It’s part of me. I have made friends with it. And so now, I’m pretty confident in it.”

Greta Thunberg

Greta Thunberg is a well-known Swedish climate activist who uses her social media platforms to inform today’s youth and spread awareness about climate change. Thunberg has a spectrum disorder the she describes as “a gift,” and believes being different is a “superpower.” 

Support and Guidance From a Therapist

Not only is neurodiversity or being neurodivergent not a medical diagnosis, but it’s also not a disability or a deficit in any way. To be diverse is simply to be different — no human brain is the same, so neurological differences are inevitable. 

Not only is neurodiversity or being neurodivergent not a medical diagnosis, but it’s also not a disability or a deficit in any way.

As you’ve seen with our examples, many people have gone on to be successful while also managing their conditions. That’s not to say you need to try and become a famous actor, singer, or the owner of one of the biggest technology companies in history — success looks different to everyone. To some, it’s work satisfaction. To others, it’s being part of a loving family, while some might feel successful by achieving certain levels of academia. 

At Grow Therapy, we want to help you gain access to the help you need. If you are dealing with any of the conditions mentioned above, or you’re taking care of someone who is, our qualified therapists are here to support you and offer guidance. “With tailored, patient, and empathetic therapeutic approaches, the quality of life for neurodivergent people can be significantly improved,” Galicia adds as a final note.

FAQs

  • While there are complex interactions between genetics and environment, current evidence suggests that neurodiversity has biological roots and can cluster in families.

  • The exact cause of Tourette’s syndrome is unknown, but research suggests that it’s an inherited genetic condition.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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