The word “neurotypical” describes someone who thinks and processes information in ways that are typical within their culture. They tend to learn skills and reach developmental milestones around the same time as their peers.

In contrast, the term “neurodivergent” describes someone who processes information in a different way. Autistic people and those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and similar conditions sometimes identify as neurodivergent.

These words can be a way of moving discussions away from focusing on a disease or mental health disorder, implying instead that people simply have a different way of understanding and interacting with the world.

However, some argue that the term “neurodiversity” is better still. This word refers to various ways that individuals think and behave. Rather than frame one way as typical and the other as atypical, “neurodiversity” embraces a continuum of possibilities.

In this article, we will look at what it means to be neurotypical and neurodivergent and explore some traits that share associations with these words. We will also look at neurodiversity and its benefits.

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‘Neurotypical’ and ‘neurodivergent’ are ways to describe how people process information. SolStock/Getty Images

The term neurotypical describes someone who thinks and processes information in an expected way for their culture and setting.

Some characteristics that people associate with neurotypical development include:

  • reaching developmental milestones at a similar time to other children, such as learning to speak
  • having social or organizational skills that are similar to someone’s peers
  • being able to tolerate some sensory discomfort, such as loud noises, without much difficulty
  • being able to adapt to changes in routines
  • being able to focus in class or at work for prolonged periods
  • having varied interests or hobbies typical for the person’s age

A neurotypical person does not necessarily have all of these traits or have them in all situations to identify as neurotypical.

For example, some people without autism may feel overwhelmed by certain sensory experiences, such as being in a crowd. Some children also have delays in learning speech or other skills that are not a result of any diagnosis.

The meaning “neurotypical” is also subjective, to an extent. What people consider typical can vary according to context.

For example, a 2018 study comparing data from the United States, India, and Japan looked at the characteristics doctors use to distinguish autistic from allistic — or nonautistic — people. Researchers found that while many traits were consistent across groups, others depended on the culture.

The term “neurodivergent” describes people who process information and behave in a way that differs from the actual or perceived norms of a particular culture. It is a way to discuss diagnoses, such as autism, in a way that does not frame it as a problem or an illness.

According to the United Kingdom charity ADHD Aware, 30–40% of the population are neurodivergent. As with the term “neurotypical,” though, the term has no fixed meaning.

Neurodivergence comes in many forms. People with the following may consider themselves neurodivergent:

  • ADHD: People with ADHD often have high levels of energy, which may cause hyperactivity and difficulty sitting still at school or work. Therefore, staying focused or organized can also be difficult. However, these traits can also mean people with ADHD are spontaneous and dynamic.
  • Learning disabilities: Learning disabilities affect how someone learns or takes in information. For example, dyslexia affects a person’s ability to read, while dysgraphia affects handwriting and fine motor skills. People with these diagnoses are not unintelligent or incapable of learning — in fact, they often have average or above-average intelligence. However, they can benefit from learning in different ways.
  • Autism: Autism affects how someone processes sensory information and how they think and communicate. For example, an autistic individual may be very sensitive to certain sounds and noises or have trouble reading social cues. Others may have very specific, in-depth interests. The effects vary greatly from person to person.
  • Tourette’s syndrome: People with Tourette’s syndrome have a neurological condition that causes them to make involuntary movements or sounds, known as tics.
  • Synesthesia: Individuals with synesthesia experience the senses in different ways. They may see colors or shapes when they hear music or taste certain flavors when they hear words. They may only experience this in their “mind’s eye,” or externally in the world around them.

Some consider rare forms of giftedness to be part of neurodivergence too. For example, people with hyperthymesia have a highly accurate memory of their own life experiences.

Does neurodivergence include mental health?

The above diagnoses are not mental health conditions — they are neurodevelopmental in origin. They come with long term traits that do not change over time.

However, some people consider mental health conditions to be part of neurodivergence because they can also change how someone thinks and behaves. People with these conditions can also face some of the same challenges, such as feeling misunderstood or experiencing stigma.

However, mental health conditions have some characteristics that make them distinct:

  • Quality of life: Being neurodivergent does not necessarily reduce quality of life. In the right circumstances, people who identify as such can lead fulfilling lives. However, a supportive environment does not prevent mental health conditions from affecting quality of life.
  • Identity: For many, neurodiversity is part of their identity. Some may also feel this way about their mental health condition. In some situations, this viewpoint could cause harm. For example, seeing anorexia as a lifestyle or identity can mean people do not seek treatment, which could be fatal.
  • Treatment: Finally, many mental health conditions are treatable and can improve significantly with support and therapy. The same is not true for autism, learning disabilities, and other types of neurodivergence. Though there is no cure for these diagnoses, appropriate support can help people learn the skills they find challenging.

ADHD Aware states that eventually, some long term conditions that people consider psychological, such as schizophrenia or antisocial personality disorder, may ultimately become part of the concept of neurodivergence or neurodiversity.

The more scientists discover how these conditions work, the more the language will evolve.

Neurodiversity refers to the wide spectrum of ways that people think. It frames differences in cognition as variations, all of which are equally normal and valuable.

The concept became popular in the 1990s, when sociologist Judy Singer proposed that autism arises from the brain working differently from nonautistic individuals. She also highlighted that this is not a fault but a difference. Neurodiversity has since become a movement, changing how people see autism and other diagnoses.

Neurodiversity advocates may still use the terms “neurotypical” and “neurodivergent” to identify where they are on the neurodiversity spectrum or talk about others. However, everyone is included in neurodiversity, regardless of how their brain functions.

There are mixed opinions on whether the terms “neurotypical” and “neurodivergent” are helpful.

Some feel that “neurotypical” is an accurate reflection of how many people understand the world and social interactions in a similar or typical way.

The word can also reflect the privileges from which neurotypical people can benefit. Because their peers consider them “typical,” people who fall into this category often have an easier time in school, the workplace, and relationships.

However, others say that calling one group “typical” reinforces the idea that while some people think typically, others think atypically. A 2021 paper argues that this is both scientifically inaccurate and harmful.

The authors say that diversity in how people think is a natural product of evolution and that it is natural for human brains and bodies to vary. To consider one type of cognition “typical” ignores this fact.

How a person identifies and describes themselves is ultimately a personal choice. Generally, it is a good idea to use the terms an individual prefers.

Supporters for neurodiversity believe that variations in thinking are beneficial to society, adding different perspectives and ideas. Teaching children about neurodiversity may:

  • reduce fear about the way their brain works or how they differ from others
  • encourage them to see differences as normal and natural
  • teach them about being aware of harmless behaviors, such as stimming
  • help cultivate healthy self-esteem
  • empower children to advocate for their needs, for example, if they are have reading difficulties in class
  • feel confident about their unique abilities

On a personal level, the benefits for adults are very similar. Learning about neurodiversity can change how people see themselves or those around them.

On a broader scale, acceptance of neurodiversity may:

  • help parents and caregivers understand and care for their children
  • help teachers understand how best to educate children with a range of needs
  • encourage employers to hire neurodiverse people, reducing unemployment
  • increase positive representations of neurodiversity in the media
  • decrease stigma, bullying, and discrimination

The word “neurotypical” refers to people who have brains that function in a similar way to most of their peers. Individuals who are neurotypical develop skills, such as social or organizational skills, at around the same rate as others their age. They can also tolerate change, disruption in routines, and distractions without too much difficulty.

In contrast, people who consider themselves neurodivergent have brains that function differently. They may have a diagnosis such as ASD, ADHD, dyslexia, or Tourette’s syndrome. Neurodivergence comes in many forms, and they affect people with these diagnoses differently.

The concept of neurodiversity includes all of these variations, framing none of them as better or worse than the other. This comes from the idea that diverse minds are just as much a part of humanity as other types of diversity, such as gender and sexuality.