What Is Neurodiversity? Intro to Neurodiverging

Today's episode serves as an introduction to what I'll be talking about through this podcast series, including my answers to these questions:

  • What does neurodivergent mean?

  • What is neurodivergence?

  • What is neurodiversity?

  • And why are they important to talk about?

🎧  Rather listen than read this post? This post is based off the transcript of Episode 1 of the Neurodiverging Podcast! Listen on Apple Podcasts Google Podcasts | Spotify

Introduction to Neurodiverging

Welcome, everyone, to the pilot episode of Neurodiverging! I’m Danielle, I’m so excited to be here, and I really appreciate you clicking on this and for being here with me.

neurodiverging profile photo

Neurodiverging is an ongoing podcast series, and it will be exploring different aspects of neurodivergence in the family context. So if you're neurodivergent, want to know what neurodivergent means, or you're living with a parent, child, or partner who is, or any combination of the above, like in my house, please stick around! 

So again, my name is Danielle. I’m not a doctor, a therapist, or any kind of medical professional, but I am an autistic mom with significant executive dysfunction and sensory processing issues, and also anxiety, yay! Lots of things.

My partner and 5 year-old daughter have attention disorders, and my 7 year-old son is on the spectrum with me. My partner and I went undiagnosed until after our kids were born, so we have all had a steep, sometimes difficult, but ultimately fulfilling learning curve finding out more about neurodivergence and neurodiversity, and getting to know ourselves better as neurodiverse individuals.

We did a lot of work to educate ourselves as we became aware of our differences, and I found that it was really hard to find resources from folks who are neurodivergent themselves. It’s definitely getting better, but until recently, it was even hard to find blogs from autistic women, or from really anyone in the neurodivergence community.

So I really feel like,  as good as it is to be talking to your doctors and therapists and medical professionals, which you certainly should be doing, you need to be talking to your community too, other folks with the same diagnoses as you. They are the ones who have the inside info on how to work with your strengths, or those of your family, and make life work for you.

My own autistic and ADHD friends have been so valuable to me, for example, as I work to adjust my parenting to the needs and styles of my own kids. And even the most well-meaning medical professionals, if they’re neurotypical, sometimes don’t have great understanding about what certain diagnoses mean in terms of future growth and development, participation in social and family life, achieving meaningful employment, and a whole host of other real-life issues.

They can’t be in your shoes, so they just don’t know. Talking to other people who are like you can give you a broader understanding of what’s possible, and what works, and what doesn’t. And, maybe most importantly, seeing other people who are just like you can go a long way toward making you feel less alone.

Also, you drive the bus. You decide on medical treatments and interventions, therapies, medications, etc., and you own it to yourself to be as well-informed as you possibly can be, and to make sure any interventions that are suggested to you are things that you are choosing because they will help YOU, will support YOUR goals, and not just things the doctor recommends to everyone who walks in the door with the same diagnosis as you.

Because that happens a lot, and it’s not great, and people are individuals, and sometimes what works for Suzy, who is also an autistic mom, won’t work for me and vice versa so. You drive the bus. 

Anyway, that is part of why I think information like this is so necessary and so important, and I really hope that I can be of some help and support to you, wherever you are in your personal journey.

Generally, I’ll be discussing more practical information about living as a neurodivergent person, or with someone who’s neurodivergent. And I'll try to answer the question, What does neurodivergent mean?

But for this initial episode, I thought it might be more helpful to back up a bit, and to talk a little bit about what neurodivergence is, what it means, and why it’s important to think about in your day-to-day life.

Then I’ll talk a little bit about the neurodiversity movement, which is a foundation of my own approach to parenting, working, and my own self-care and really everything I do, so it’s going to become imbued into the podcast and I think it’s important to talk about it a little bit.

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What Is Neurodivergence?

First, neurodivergence. This is a little academic, so put up with me for a second, it’s helpful, I really do think. So, the neuropsychology community coined the term “neurodivergent” to refer to anybody presenting an “atypical” neurology. Yeah, we’ll get back to “atypical” later, hang on.

Anyway, there are tons of examples of of neurodivergence, as an atypical neurology, but some of the most popular ones are things like being on the autism spectrum or Aspergers, being in the umbrella of attention deficit disorder, dyslexia, epilepsy, hyperlexia, dyspraxia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and Tourette syndrome, along with probably the most common ones I think, depression and anxiety disorders.

These are just some examples, they are by no means is this meant to be an exhaustive at all. Sometimes, things like executive dysfunction and sensory processing issues are also neurodivergence in and of themselves; sometimes though they are symptoms of a larger neurodevelopmental condition.

Like for example, my sensory processing disorder is linked to the autism spectrum disorder. Some people just have the sensory processing issues without being autistic. They’re both neurodivergences, but even though they’re called the same thing, but they both look different.

motor perseveration

Are Neurodivergent People Normal?

So one thing you might have noticed about the word “neurodivergence” is that it implies the existence of a “typical” neurology. You can't diverge from nothing, you have to be diverging from somewhere, and that somewhere is this idea of neurotypical, or a “normal” neurology that the majority of humans share.

So there are a group of people and professionals who believe that anyone with any neurodevelopmental condition that falls under the neurodivergence umbrella is a person who needs to be fixed, needs to be cured, needs to be made into a “normal’ person..

Now this is a pretty problematic idea, right? It implies that for example, some with one with autism, like me, doesn't get to be treated as valuable and valid unless I work very hard to conform, to be a “normal” person, to make myself look and act like a neurotypical person.

Now some autistic people are able to do this for short periods of time but at huge costs. And a lot of neurodivergent folks just can’t look like neurotypical folks, because we’re not.

Even if you’re capable of doing that, living in what is basically a performance for your entire life is stressful, extremely difficult, and can make you feel dehumanized and alone. A lot of us experience a huge increase and exacerbation in symptoms when we do that.

And that’s just me speaking for myself, as an autistic woman - a ton of folks with other conditions can’t “mimic” neurotypical people, so the point is moot. 

Neurodivergence Doesn't Need to Be Cured

But even if you could do all this work, and put yourself through all this stress, neurodivergences can't be cured. By that I mean, there is no way to take a neurodivergent brain and turn it into a neurotypical brain.

There are no medications, no therapies, no surgeries, that will ever achieve this. And, I and a lot of other people would argue that neurodivergences absolutely don’t need to be cured. They are a normal part of the range of human neurology. 

I'm not saying all neurodevelopmental conditions are great - certainly there are some types or degrees of neurodivergence that are terribly difficult to live with, or that present along with other disabilities that are really challenging for the individual and their family. I’m not trying to minimize these individuals or their concerns.

I am also not trying to speak against seeking medical attention, therapies, or medications. I personally am on an antidepressant, and my kids are in occupational therapy, and I think people should use the resources they need to use, and that is a deeply personal decision and I am not here to make that more difficult for you. I am here to honor your personal decisions.

But these are supports, they are here to help you, but they are not cures, and that is the difference I’m trying to make. Regardless of how challenging life can be with these conditions, these disabilities, the differences are still part of a normal human range.

So individuals might feel that there condition is completely unreasonable and may want a cure, but the condition itself is still a normal part of a normal human range, that’s what I’m trying to say. They’re not rare outliers that should be discounted. 

Are There Benefits to Being Neurodivergent?

The number of folks who count under the neurodivergence umbrella are a huge percentage of the population, and a lot of us are undiagnosed or underdiagnosed, and so don’t get counted in research studies and papers and numbers, and that’s a whole other thing.

And many of us who are neurodivergent will tell you that there are a great many benefits to having brains that work differently. Again, it depends on the condition and the severity. Many of us have great skills that arise directly out of our differences, and which are often things that neurotypical folks have trouble with.

For example, this is a somewhat random example from my own life: I have an outrageous memory that is context-based, or environment based. So it’s linked up to what I was doing and where I was.

So I can recite for you whole conversations that happened the last time we came to this restaurant, who ate what, what they thought about it, what the server recommended and everything. If a song comes on the radio, I will get a slideshow in my head of things that happened to me, or ways I felt, or experiential data basically that are linked up with listening to that song. 

This is not a particularly helpful skill most of the time, but it has its benefits, and I have access to a huge amount of detailed memory that I can access through specific stimuli, even though my memory for everyday things, and especially my short term memory, are awful, really poor.

I can use this sort of hack of my memory to my advantage by including a trigger, like music or a specific place, when I know I’ll need to recall information later. And I do it pretty often.

I’ve developed over 30 years of life so many ways to trick myself into remembering things because I can’t do it naturally, well, naturally’s not a great word, but I can’t do it any other way. If I can’t trick myself into remembering the thing, I will not remember the thing.

So, I’ve discovered all these ways to remember the thing. I have never ever ever met a neurotypical person who can do this to the extent that I can.

There are a lot of neurotypical people with great memories, and a lot of them with memories that are way better than mine, but the amount of data I can link up to a specific sensory experience is unusual.

Is there a neurotypical person out there who can do this? Yes, probably, but it's much more prevalent among autistic folks in my personal experience to have alternative memory systems in place that neurotypical folks don’t have, and there are examples you can kind of see that having a variation of approaches to the same task can really help you in situations where you need as much data as you can.

So the idea I’m driving at, at its very simplest, is that humankind as a whole does better if our communities have both neurotypical and neurodivergent people in them. Together, we have a wider range of skills and abilities, and a more varied approach to strategizing and solving world problems for everyone. We have evolved this diversity on purpose.

Humans are diverse, neurodiverse, because we function the best this way as a group.

Yellow dandelion flower growing in rocks
Photo by Nacho Juárez from Pexels

The Neurodiversity Movement

Now, this idea that neurodiverse folks have value in and of ourselves, that our diversity is natural and purposeful, and that we don't need to be fixed or changed or cured - for the most part - forms the basis of what's called the neurodiversity movement.

The neurodiversity movement is generally under the umbrella of disability rights as a whole - the idea that anybody with any kind of disability deserves support structures that honor them as individuals who have the same rights to access the world as able-bodied people. Nobody should be forced into whatever definition of “normal” currently reigns supreme in psychology.

Psychology changes all the time. And psychologists and psychiatrists and all medical professionals are doing the best they can, and it is a difficult field, so no hate to them. But what I’m saying is that hat we see as “normal” psychology changes very often as we learn more about the brain.

So the definition of that a “normal” person looks like, like who’s your Joe Schmo in the textbook, and what should they look like changes constantly, so it doesn’t really help anybody really, even neurotypical people, to hold up Joe Schmo and say, “Well, is your brain exactly like his?”

But especially for people who are neurodivergent, trying to make them into Joe Schmo is super unhelpful because our brains are different! We’re wired different.

So the neurodiversity movement is the idea, not that neurodivergence is at all better than neurotypicality, because as I just said, we need both, but rather it is a claim that all people deserve access to supports that work for them, that all people are valid and should be valued, regardless of the way their brains work (or don't work, in some cases, like in the case of my short-term memory).

So in case you cannot tell, neurodiversity is really important to me and it’s a key part of how I raise my kids. And like I said earlier, it’s a key part of how I think about myself and my life and my community.

Neurodiversity and Disability

Hopefully you are starting to see by now that all of our brains work in different ways. And for everybody, regardless of diagnosis or lack thereof, you will have some skills that are very strong and some skills that are very poor.

And that’s just sort of normal - ha, “normal” again, but it is a feature of human individuals, right, that some of us are really good at some things and equally poor at other things, and that’s just how people are.

So, some of those weaknesses are things that we can change, if we want to, with hard work, medication, therapies, etc. But some weaknesses are permanent. No matter how much you work at them, you’re not going to get stronger in whatever that skill is, and that’s just, that’s not a fault, right, that’s just how you are.

Those weaknesses are not a reflection of who we are as people. Another example, I am often face-blind, so I have trouble recognizing faces outside of context. If I see you everyday at the store, I know who you are, but even if I see you everyday at the store, if I then see you at the library, I will not recognize who you are until I hear your voice.

That’s just how my brain is. I am often face-blind and will always be often face-blind. I can't change it. There’s no pill I can take, there’s not a lot of therapies you can do to change that. Does it make meeting friends occasionally awkward? Oh my gosh, yes, so much, right! Does it mean I am a terrible friend? No, absolutely not.

My friends know I might not recognize their faces if we’re meeting in a new environment, and supportive friends are 1000% okay with that, because they know it’s a thing my brain does, not a thing I, Danielle, have control over.

It is impossible to grow and learn and become better people if we can’t accept that there are some things, some aspects of ourselves and our brains, that we can’t change by pure willpower. All the therapies in the world, right.

And for these things, finding and using the right supports are paramount. I know that not everybody has access to the supports they need, and that’s part of why the neurodiversity movement and promoting disability rights are so important.

It’s important that we model that for our kids and partners and our communities, regardless of our own neurology - we are good enough as we are. 

We are allowed to communicate about things that are especially tough for you - that’s not complaining! You are allowed to call out that a support that you need isn’t there. We need to be able to trust that our friends, families, and medical professionals will help us develop alternative methods or solutions with us, solve problems with us.

We can accept help when we need it, or even when we just want it. Again, these things are true whether you’re neurotypical or neurodivergent - you are good enough, and you don’t have to do everything independently all the time. Let’s all give each other some grace, here.

If you are a parent to a child who is expected to grow up to be relatively independent, remember that you are preparing your kid to drive their own bus, as it were. They will need to be able to determine for themselves which kinds of supports they need or want, be they medical, social, practical, whatever.

And even if you child will need medical or physical support for their whole life, if they can communicate, they deserve some say, some help solving the problems that seem biggest to them - even if they don’t seem like the biggest issues to you.

Accepting that different brains work differently is the most basic assumption we need to be making around neurodivergence and disability.

If we agree that the vast majority of folks are trying their very best, if we are open to hearing what people tell us about their own disabilities and their own needs, and if we can stop assuming that the “normal” ways of going about things are always the best, then we can go a long way in raising the quality of life for neurodiverse folks. And for everybody!

And all of these goals certainly start at home and in the community, where you have the chance to model these ideals for your kids, for your families, for your neighbors, and for yourself and for everybody!

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