Neurodiversity: Why it is such a wonderful word


“Neurodiversity: The range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits, regarded as part of normal variation in the human population (used especially in the context of autistic spectrum disorders.)” –from Dictionary Online.

What a wonderful word neurodiversity is. It puts mental health and illness in the context of diversity; the variations that exist across the human continuum. If we accept racial, ethnic, religious, and ethnic diversity, why not include neurological diversity in the discussion also? As a matter of fact, we should not only tolerate it, but also celebrate it.

I also like this term because its first element, “neuro,” emphasizes the biological basis of this kind of diversity. Society has long accepted that illnesses including epilepsy, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and schizophrenia spring from neurological differences.

But I think we should add bi-polar disorder, depression and anxiety disorders to this list. The more neuroscientists research these more common mental illnesses the more they appear to be “no-fault” brain disorders.

They arise just as much from brain anomalies as from environmental factors such as trauma and family dynamics. I believe we would do well to expand the term neurodiversity beyond the autism spectrum, as well as to redefine “normal variation in the human population” to cover the conditions so many of us encounter.

Defined in this way, neurodiversity describes many of us. Are you or people you know neurodivergent? Have you experienced major depression, clinical anxiety or panic attacks? I certainly have, as have members of my family and friends. Relatives have suffered with panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and Asperger’s Syndrome. A very close family member has been hospitalized for major depression not once, but twice.

Yet I consider myself and my relatives “normal” — or maybe I’d like to expand the definition of normal. If we accept neurodiversity, we must acknowledge that a “normal” life can have dramatic ups and downs and that average behavior can changed under duress. In short, emotional pain and mental distress can be part of any life. Mental illness stands somewhere on the continuum of human experience.

Does this mean we need to accept these illnesses as something we just have to live with? No; there is help available for those suffering from mental disorders, whether moderate or severe.

Therapy and medications can relieve symptoms and restore the mind’s resilience. But my point is that these treatable illnesses are far more common that we might imagine. Many of us must walk through life shouldering a burden of pain that, while treatable, will always pose a challenge. The neurodivergent form a silent army.

Why is talking about this important? Because for too long many of the neurodivergent have suffered mutely. Stigma about mental illness keeps people from seeking help that is available. Many who could recover remain in the shadows, their potential contributions to our society lost. If we lose the neurodivergent we miss out on the talents and creativity of Sylvia Plath, Abraham Lincoln, Vaslav Nijinsky, Virginia Woolf and others who lived with mental illness. We lose our access to unique perspectives and energies. We lose much of what makes us human.

Does anyone choose to be neurodivergent? No; as is said of greatness, it is simply thrust upon some. But neurodiversity — like other forms of human variation — is part and parcel of the human condition.

The neurodivergent may not have chosen the sometimes stony path they walk. Yet walk it they must. They must accept all the difficulties and potential that their situation brings. As Robert Frost wrote:

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and I,

I took the one less traveled by.

And that has made all the difference.”

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