What is Neurodiversity? Understanding Neurodiversity and Neurodivergence

neurodiversityI think most people would agree that 2020 isn’t a year that anyone is likely to forget in a hurry. The major events that have unfolded have brought about changes in many areas of our lives, including within our workplaces. Among these changes, the Black Lives Matter movement has added urgency to the issue of inequality in companies and organizations, and the topic of diversity and inclusion is increasingly making its way onto corporate agendas. Monday 28th September saw the start of National Inclusion Week in the UK, which was set up to ‘celebrate inclusion in all its forms’. One form of diversity that may not immediately spring to mind when you think of diversity and inclusion, however, is neurodiversity.

Neurodiversity refers to the range of differences in brain function and behavioural traits among all humans, and the neurodiversity paradigm encompasses the idea that atypical (= not typical or usual) ways of thinking and behaving are part of the normal range of human thought and behaviour:

The neurodiversity movement is based on the belief that there is no such thing as “normal” when it comes to the human mental landscape.

The adjectives neurodivergent and neurodiverse are commonly used to describe people who display these atypical patterns of thought or behaviour:

This artwork explores the alternative ways in which neurodivergent individuals perceive the world.


The company employs people who identify as neurodiverse.

Neurodiverse can also be used to describe a group that includes individuals with these traits, and the neurodivergent is the noun that is used collectively for such a group:

The authors[…] include[…] some people who identify as on the autism spectrum. We are a neurodiverse group.


a cultural movement devoted to accessibility, equality, respect, and social justice for the neurodivergent.

Neurodivergence is the state of being neurodivergent:

It’s hard to believe that one in seven people have some form of neurodivergence[…]

A person who does not display the behaviours or thought patterns associated with these conditions, on the other hand, may be described as neurotypical:

Employees at the shop are trusted with every responsibility a neurotypical barista has.

All of these words are used in the context of autistic spectrum disorders, and also refer to a range of other conditions such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD, which, when considered together, are estimated to affect more than 15% of the UK population. These conditions account for quite a wide range of differences in brain function and behaviour, but, as an example, a person with an autistic spectrum disorder may have difficulty with multitasking or engaging in social interactions. At the same time, they may have particular strengths in areas that many neurotypical people struggle with, such as innovative thinking or having a high level of expertise on a given topic.

Although corpus evidence suggests that the frequency of these terms has increased in recent years, they are not, in fact, entirely new words. Neurodiversity was coined in 1998 by Australian sociologist Judy Singer, who, along with American journalist Harvey Blume, tried to promote the idea that neurodivergent individuals should be acknowledged as sometimes having exceptional strengths and abilities alongside any perceived weaknesses, and that they should be provided with support systems to help them achieve their full potential as well as inclusion in society, regardless of their individual differences.

While there are many proponents of neurodiversity, the neurodiversity movement has also sparked controversy over the years, with some opponents arguing, for example, that considering an autistic spectrum disorder as a difference rather than as a condition may prevent people from gaining access to treatments that could reduce or eliminate some of the symptoms. Another line of reasoning is that full inclusion in society may not be appropriate for people with high support needs.

Whether or not you agree with the neurodiversity paradigm, there’s no doubt that many organizations are waking up to the benefits that neurodivergent employees can bring and are trying to become neurodiversity smart. This means valuing people for their individual strengths, rather than measuring them against a standard template of what makes a good employee. It also involves ensuring that reasonable adjustments can be made in the workplace to improve work performance for neurodivergent employees. If more and more employers choose to harness the power of diversity and inclusion in this way, perhaps systemic inclusion (= inclusion that is inherent in all of the processes of an organization) will one day be embraced in every workplace. Whatever the impact of the events of this year, that idea at least offers a glimmer of hope for the future.

Neurodiversity hasn’t yet made it into OALD online but look out for it in our next update.

Leonie Hey is a Senior Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department. She taught English in Sardinia and worked as a language teacher in the UK before joining OUP in 2011.

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

Every year we help millions of people around the world to learn English. As a department of the University of Oxford, we further the University’s objective of excellence in education by publishing proven and tested language learning books, eBooks, learning materials, and educational technologies.

5 thoughts

  1. Dear Leonie Hey,

    Thank you for writing an interesting article.

    I take the line that we shouldn’t tie workplace discrimination of the sort of neurodivergent people you mention together with discrimination against people on the grounds of their appearance. They are both inequality issues. But, for employers to discriminate on the grounds of appearance is almost always without any benefit to the company and it comes at a cost to society. Whereas, discriminating to find the best people to fill a job with the least amount of effort is of benefit to both the company and hopefully society on the whole. We really can’t ignore that the UK has a free market capitalist system, which is a system that I and most others find largely acceptable, even though it does discriminate against us in a hurtful way sometimes.

    Growing up in the UK I myself was diagnosed with dyslexia and also suffered quite badly from dyspraxia. As a result of those conditions I left the education system without any qualification in English, could not fill out governmental forms and struggled though the job market and society. I wasn’t dealt all bad cards and I was lucky enough that I managed to learn to read at a young age and by my mid twenties had become quite proficient at it. Over time I learned to look at the world a bit more philosophically and I have spent the last 15 years teaching myself how to overcome my difficulties. I think that sometimes people might confuse the fact that I am mostly self taught with me being in some way very mentally different from them, although I suppose they could be correct.

    Anyway that’s all getting very deep and actually in danger of becoming a bit dark and not what I really wanted to write about – What I really wanted to say is that I now live in a foreign country and over the last few years I have been using some of OUP’s books to teach my own and some of the other local children how to read and write in English and that through teaching them and with the confidence of having good classroom and take home material, things have been going well. My ten year old is doing well at school in all subjects including English, in fact all the kids I teach are doing well at school in their English lessons. My four year old daughter, that I’m worried has inherited my difficulties, learned the letter Aa with your Oxford phonics world course yesterday evening. Back at home it was a pleasure watching here turn over the first page of her crisp new workbook to tackle the homework activities. She really got it and it looks like we are all set for her to master English as well. I will be using your course books and a bit of my own imagination for the duration of her journey in our little classroom. What is also quite nice for me is that I have made a huge improvement in my own spelling and writing as a direct result of teaching kids, although I’m not sure I would be quite up to scratch to teach English in the UK.

    So, thank you for writing the article it was though provoking and many thanks to Oxford, I’m very pleased with what you publish. You probably don’t always realise how much good you already bring and I am very happy to support you.

    All the best

    Charles Isted

    1. Hi Charles,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the article and for giving an insight into your own experience of suffering with dyslexia and dyspraxia and how your learned to overcome your difficulties. I take on board your point about tying in workplace discrimination on grounds such as gender or race with the inequality issues surrounding neurodiversity, and I agree with the differences you outline in your comment.

      I also found it interesting to learn about your experience of living abroad and teaching your children and others how to read and write English. I think that I can speak for all of my OUP colleagues in saying that we’re always delighted to receive such positive feedback about our English Language Teaching publications, and we really enjoy hearing how people are benefiting from using them on an individual level. We’re grateful for your support and we hope that you continue to find our resources useful.

      Best wishes


  2. Hi Leonie, great article!
    As a proudly neurodiverse individual, it’s brilliant to see the awareness of neurodiverse strengths and skills growing in mainstream society and media. In my case, synesthesia and dyslexia have absolutely shaped my work, hobbies and relationships. Whilst there are certainly challenges, there are also incredibly exciting opportunities – and lots of fun to be had – when you think differently than many people!

Leave a Reply