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

The official global blog for Oxford University Press English Language Teaching. Bringing teachers and learners top quality resources, tools, hints and tips, news, ideas, insights and discussions to help people around the world to learn English.

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