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What is neurodivergence? | Image: Brooke Cagle

What Does It Mean to be Neurodivergent? A Therapist Explains

What do the following celebs have in common? Sir Anthony Hopkins, Florence Welch, Simone Biles, Dan Aykroyd, Albert Einstein, Elon Musk, Sir Isaac Newton, Richard Branson, Billie Eilish, Tim Burton, Justin Timberlake… Apart from being on a dream dinner party list (imagine the conversation!) they’ve also self-disclosed as being neurodivergent.

‘Neurodivergence’ is a relatively new term that aims to reflect the different ways our brains help us to engage with the world – and people – around us. Importantly, neurodivergence is a social concept and not a diagnosis. You cannot be diagnosed as neurodivergent, but you can be diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, down syndrome, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), etc – all of which can see a person’s mental function differ from those of an average person, a ‘neurotypical’.

What is neurodivergence? | Image: Annie Spratt
What is neurodivergence? | Image: Annie Spratt

The term was first coined by Judy Singer, a popular ’90s sociologist who used it with a view to reframe how we feel and treat the people who show signs of neurodivergence. When we say ‘treat’ here, we mean in terms of respectful engagement with people, instead of treatment in the medical sense – as neurodivergence is a social term and not a diagnosis, there actually is no treatment for it. 

Singer said that neurodiversity is ‘a state of nature to be respected’, an ‘analytical tool for examining social issues’, and ‘an argument for the conservation and facilitation of human diversity’. Put simply, it’s not a negative word and actually can help us to better interact as humans, by being aware of the differences in which individuals’ brains develop and work. 

What are the Signs of Neurodiversity?

A neurodivergent person’s brain works slightly different to the average person’s brain. Within the group of neurodivergent people, each individual’s brain may also work and process slightly differently – it’s a spectrum and everyone must be treated as an individual. 

Neurodivergence can first become apparent when reaching growth milestones established by medical professionals and society for children. The individual may not process information as their peers do, or have trouble interacting socially with other people, or difficulty communicating ‘appropriately’ (i.e. being ‘too loud’), all of which become especially visible during school.

Later in life, differences in processing emotion or the inability to work in groups can also be demonstrative of the different mental functions experienced by those who are neurotypical. However, there are also some positives to being neurodivergent – the ability to problem solve, render 3D images imaginatively, and fight for fairness are just some of them.

How we think about Neurodiversity is important | Image: Headway
How we think about Neurodiversity is important | Image: Headway

How We Think About Neurodiversity Matters

It’s an innate human need to make sense of something, especially when we may not understand it. That’s why neurodiverse individuals may have previously had trouble fitting the rigid structure of schooling that the Department of Education previously had, or difficulty working in traditionally corporate companies. We believed as a society that neurodivergent individuals should work, play and live in neurotypical structures.

We’ve come a long way, though, in knowing how to identify, assist and support neurodivergent individuals – and society is slowly catching up. The belief now is that there is no ‘right’ way to learn or think. We simply process and communicate in unique ways – sometimes with strengths and sometimes with struggles if compared to a ‘neurotypical’ individual. 

What to Do If You Think You May Be Neurodivergent

If you identify with some of the behaviours mentioned above and think you may be neurodivergent, a medical doctor can refer you to a specialist who can provide support – be that a neurocognitive assessment for a specific disorder, medication, resources, or simply tools to better manage neurodivergence in the world. 

There are long waitlists for these assessments in Australia, and so it can be handy to talk with a therapist about concerns you have around social or learning challenges while you wait for any formal support. Counsellors can help you to identify and leverage your strengths within the specific contexts you need – at work, at home, with your relationships. 

Becoming your own self-advocate does a world of good. Have a think about what your friends, family, employer and team can do to support you. This may be as simple as shifting your desk to a quieter zone in the open-plan office, or going to a particular supermarket instead of that noisy one that can make you feel overwhelmed. 

Finally, one of the best things you can do if you think you may be neurodivergent is identify your superpowers – those strengths in mental processing and behaviour that neurotypical people may not have access to. Identify them and own them. It’s our differences that make us awesome – just think of that dream celeb dinner party list. 

About the author: Tammi Miller, therapist and founder of BARE Therapy, and author of Paperback Therapy: Therapist-approved tools and advice for mastering your mental health.