Sometimes, being different is a good thing. Differences are what make people and life so interesting, and allow us to learn and grow.
It was a couple of years ago that I first heard the term “neurodivergent.” My introduction to the term was through reading a trilogy of books called The Rosie Project, The Rosie Effect, and The Rosie Result, which feature an autistic main character. The story explores the topic of neurodivergence with a humorous and heartfelt approach. After I read those books, I started hearing the word “neurodivergent” in popular culture more and more. If you didn’t already know, this is a thing now. (In all fairness, neurodivergence had actually been a thing presumably since humans came into existence, and the term was coined decades ago, but the awareness of it is now becoming more mainstream).
A great summary of what this term is all about is the following excerpt from the Verywell Mind article, “What Does It Mean to Be Neurodivergent?”
Neurodivergence is the term for when someone’s brain processes, learns, and/or behaves differently from what is considered ‘typical.’
Formerly considered a problem or abnormal, scientists now understand that neurodivergence isn’t inherently an issue for the individual and that it has a large societal benefit. Not all presentations of neurodivergence are a disability, like synesthesia, but all are a difference in how the brain works.
With this shift, practitioners are no longer treating neurodivergence as inherently an illness. They are instead viewing them as different methods of learning and processing information, some of which become disabilities in an inaccessible and ableist society.Resnick
“Neurodivergent,” in a nutshell, describes anyone whose mind works differently than what is considered “normal.” Of course, what is considered normal can vary across cultures and change with time. Like most labels, “neurodivergent” is a term that can be used in many different ways and for many different types of people.
Most narrowly and originally, “neurodivergent” was used as an alternative or complementary term for people with autism. But more commonly and in recent years, the term has been used to describe people not only with autism spectrum disorder, but also people with ADHD, dyslexia, Down syndrome, Tourette’s, OCD, bipolar disorder, and many more mental conditions.
Whether one has an official diagnosis or not has also become less important when using this term. Remember, neurodivergence is not a medical term or a legally protected term–it’s a social term, and its use has changed and expanded over time.
An article from the Child Mind Institute explains:
“The term used to be used to describe people who either had a clinical diagnosis or were borderline, with symptoms that are near the clinical threshold for a diagnosis,” she explains. “More recently, what I’ve seen is broadening to include anybody who identifies with it. People who feel that they think or process outside of the box.”Miller
Even with a diagnosis for something like autism or ADHD, every neurodivergent individual experiences life and the world uniquely. No two neurodivergent people are exactly the same–just as no two neurotypical people are exactly the same! We are all different in ways both big and small.
As an article from BetterUp says:
The number of different ways a human brain can be wired is almost infinite. Diagnoses simply provide us with a kind of verbal shorthand. It’s a convenient way to refer to a specific set of symptoms or experiences that commonly occur together. Even within a diagnosis, two people’s experiences can range widely.Cooks-Campbell
Considering that no two minds work exactly alike, using the term neurodivergent is becoming more and more a personal choice. For example, most loosely, neurodivergence can also encompass many other mental differences and conditions, including generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, sensory processing disorders, and learning differences.
And, while it has been used most often as an umbrella term for disorders, a mental difference doesn’t have to be a disorder to be considered neurodivergent. Things like non-heterosexuality, having a non-cisgender identity, synesthesia, being an empath, introversion, and possibly many more differences that could describe the mental workings of an individual, could all be considered neurodivergent.
While mental illnesses and the non-disorder differences I listed may not be generally or popularly accepted forms of neurodiversity, I personally would advocate for this wider and more inclusive use of the term. Because ultimately, claiming that label for oneself is a personal choice. I know that not everyone likes labels, but for me, they add clarity and can be empowering! That is why I am proud to call myself neurodivergent.
I believe that increasing awareness and reducing stigmatism of both neurodiversity and mental illness go hand in hand. The more we can understand ourselves and how our brains work, the better lives we can live. And the more we can understand others and how their brains work in ways that are both similar to and different than ours, the better we can make our world for everyone. Mental disorders can be a part of one’s identity, and that doesn’t have to be a negative thing. They can add strengths, as well as weaknesses, to one’s life.
That being said, it is important not to use the term to downplay the struggles of those with mental disorders. Some types of neurodivergency are not just differences, but disabilities. Those disabilities may be partially a result of living in an ableist society which is not designed for those who are different; but, they also can be innate, and debilitating in and of themselves. Seeking diagnosis and treatment can have great value for many, many people. I am not advocating for simply accepting the struggles that come with being different! I am only advocating for recognizing that being different isn’t always bad, and can in fact be a good thing in many cases, or at least in some ways.
So, with all of that explaining out of the way, I wanted to share a bit about my personal differences, or neurodiversity.
I am neurodivergent in six ways that I know of right now. For me, these differences add both strengths and weaknesses to my day-to-day life. I use this label to encompass my ADHD, anxiety, and depression–the golden trifecta, as I jokingly think of it. I’m also an introvert and an empath, and I’m pansexual and polyamorous by nature. All of these labels are ones that I embrace because they are part of who I am, and they are ways that my mind works uniquely. They each come with drawbacks as well as advantages.
At first thought, I struggled to see a way that depression could add anything positive to a person’s life or to the world. But then I realized that empathy is a strength I can attribute, at least partially, to my depression-susceptible mind. My experiences with depression have allowed me to develop deeper empathy for the suffering of others, and an ability to think more profoundly about life. It’s even possible that my struggle with depression caused me to develop my empathic nature.
Depression shows up in my life as feeling down, sad, unmotivated, and just “over” life. It also brings feelings of guilt and inadequacy–especially mom-guilt. It makes me feel that I’m not enough, and that no matter what I do it will be wrong. It makes me lose interest in things I used to enjoy. It gives me insomnia. It makes me want to isolate myself socially (although that is also just part of being an introvert, and having social anxiety). And of course, the worst part of depression for me is suicidal ideation. It can take very little for me to spiral into not wanting to be alive anymore. So, those are the not-so-fun things to deal with.
Depression is the label that I have used the longest. I have known that I struggle with depression since I was a teenager, although it wasn’t until further into my adulthood that I consciously accepted it. I would say depression is my second biggest form of neurodivergence. It is a disorder that I, personally, have chosen to seek treatment for.
Although I also have anxiety, I struggle with it the least. For me, it shows up as restlessness, insomnia, feelings of dread, feeling the need to escape situations, excessive worrying about everyday things, muscle tension and headaches, and repetitive/racing thoughts. I also have a touch of social anxiety, but that’s pretty tangled up with introversion, depression, and ADHD. On a side note, I also have migraines, and it can be hard to distinguish my tension headaches from migraines, unless I have an aura or nausea, which indicate a migraine.
The ”positive” side of anxiety for me is that, in a strange way, it energizes me. The feeling of restlessness shows up as needing to be doing something productive, helping someone, or taking care of others. I get hits of dopamine through these activities, which seems to counteract my anxiety somewhat.
Another aspect of my neurodivergence is being an introvert. As I said earlier, some people count it and others don’t–but it doesn’t really matter what other people think. For me, I feel that it’s something that makes me different than what is considered “normal,” so it fits. My introversion shows up in a few different ways, some of which are similar to mild autism spectrum disorder.
I have difficulty making eye contact and difficulty initiating or maintaining conversations. I have a very small social circle. I’m almost always happier at home (or in my home-away-from-home, aka Eleanor, my travel trailer). I don’t like meeting new people or being in crowds. I am a quiet person, in general, although when I’m comfortable with people I come out of my shell. Personally, I don’t see introversion as a weakness at all. It’s something that I like about myself. I’m never too busy talking to be a good listener, and that goes really well with my empathic nature. I have learned to be confident and comfortable in my own skin without needing to be loud about it.
Being an empath is hands-down my favorite area of neurodivergence. What it means is that I am very highly attuned to the emotions of others, especially those I’m close to. It allows me to show compassion for others beyond what is probably considered common. I can tell when something is off with someone, and I have a powerful intuition. This makes me an excellent care-taker, partner, mother, and friend. It also means that I have a tendency to absorb the emotional energy of the people around me, which can be a big challenge. This is something that I have to be aware of and consciously reframe my thinking around all of the time. Taking responsibility for other people’s emotional states is not healthy, and can happen very easily–so I have to be careful and cognizant.
Being pansexual and polyamorous wouldn’t be considered neurodivergent by most people (based on my research), but I believe that sexuality and gender identity are part of the way a person’s mind works. I believe they are ingrained, present at birth, and originating in the brain–and being non-cisgender and/or non-heterosexual is, by definition, “different” than the norm. (It’s called heteronormative, after all). Thus, I include it. My sexual identity is basically irrelevant to my daily life, because I am in a monogamous heterosexual relationship that I’m committed to for life. Nevertheless, I feel that it’s an important part of my identity.
Out of all of my neurodivergent “labels,” ADHD resonates the most. I have many behaviors that can be associated with ADHD, including anxiety and depression themselves. It is not uncommon for all three to go together, with ADHD as the underlying root cause.
ADHD is a label that I only very recently embraced. I am not diagnosed, and I have no interest in seeking a diagnosis or treatment for it. This is my personal choice. I never felt that I had ADHD until I learned more about it over the past year. I learned about ways that ADHD shows up in people’s lives and behaviors, beyond the basic definition of having difficulty paying attention and hyperactivity. Realizing that there is a huge range of ADHD far beyond that small-box definition allowed me to see just how much I am affected by it.
It’s such a big topic for me that I decided to write a whole separate post about it! That will be coming soon, so stay tuned.
What Does It Mean to Be Neurodivergent? By Ariane Resnick, CNC
What Is Neurodiversity? By Caroline Miller
Types of Neurodiversity: Understanding How People See The World, By Allaya Cooks-Campbell