In the ever-evolving landscape of human differences, we are constantly learning about how everyone’s brains work differently and how there is no one ‘correct’ or ‘normal’ way to be. The concept of neurodivergence then emerges as a transformative force, inviting us to reconsider the intricacies of our cognitive and neurological makeup.
This term, coined to emphasise the diversity of neurological development within the human population, encapsulates a wide range of conditions, including autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia and more. It refers to the natural variation in neurological development, encompassing such conditions.
Why did this concept emerge?
Historically, the lens through which we viewed neurological differences often bore a deficit-based perspective, where conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia and others were often pathologised or stigmatised. However, the emergence of the term “neurodivergence” has ushered in a new era—one characterised by a deep appreciation for the richness of human neurology. It acknowledges that there is no single, universally ‘normal’ neurological configuration. Instead, it embraces the idea that our brains, like our personalities and physical appearances, exist along a diverse spectrum.
The term “neurotypical” is used to describe people whose brains function in a way that is considered typical. Neurotypical people make up most of the population, but there is a wide range of variation in how one’s brain works, even among neurotypical people.
Apurva Bardia, Hyderabad-based, counselling psychologist says, “Up until now we believed that the basic brain functioning, or brain processing mechanism needs to be the same. But that’s not true and there can be a lot of different ways of understanding and perceiving the world around you.”
She adds that this led to the idea of understanding what it means to be neurodivergent or neurodiverse. It encompasses different groups of people who may have different kinds of processing abilities.
Neurodivergence is not a medical diagnosis, but rather a way of describing differences in brain function. The concept of neurodiversity is based on the idea that there is no one “right” way for a brain to function. All brains are different, and neurodivergent brains are just as valid as neurotypical brains.
What does neurodivergence look like?
Bardia cautions that while there are some traits that may be common in neurodivergent individuals, this need not be the case for everyone. There might be general tendencies that one can spot but they may not have it at the same intensity or the same variation.
She adds, “Some things that may be commonly present may include sensory overload, difficulty in translating thoughts into speech, difficulty in sitting in the same position for long periods of time.”
Eshwar Gajendran, 26, Bengaluru-based analyst, is living with ADHD and autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Gajendran speaks about how traditional educational institutions cater to neurotypical individuals, which makes the educational experience for those who are neurodivergent isolating and alienating. “Statistically speaking, people who have ADHD often don’t cross the threshold of higher education because everyone starts casting them as being lazy and ungrateful rather than actually acknowledging the difficulties,” he says.
For him, remembering names, words, equations etc in the syllabus was a nightmare, while it was easy for those who did not have ADHD or autism. “It’s like when you’re forcing someone to do something that they find incomprehensibly difficult, or overwhelming. When you have ADHD, certain things are inherently so draining and cognitively expensive so you would break down before you’re able to fulfil the requirements,” says Gajendran.
Embracing a neurodiversity-inclusive world
“There is a very clearly established pattern of what is right and what is wrong in our world,” says Bardia. In school, one is expected to sit for hours on end, listen to teachers talk, make notes, retain everything, and then write an exam. And this is what is considered the right way of learning because this is what is popularly present all around us, Bardia adds.
However, for a child who may be neurodiverse, sitting and processing information only auditorily may be difficult. It is like asking someone in a wheelchair to go up a flight of stairs.
This means such children are unable to perform well in an exam and subsequently get labelled ‘bad students,’ and that is the identity they begin to carry of themselves. “So that very fundamentally changes their perception of what it means to study, what it means to grasp on information because it is not tailored to something that they would understand,” says Bardia.
The solution to this problem, is to engage with children in their early stages, expose them to different forms of learning, and see what they are responding to better.
“Some children may respond to kinaesthetic learning, learning through movement or respond better to visual tools, a lot of infographics, moving pictures,” says Bardia.
Therefore, embracing neurodivergence is about recognising that neurological differences are part of the human experience. By acknowledging and celebrating these differences, we can create a more inclusive and compassionate society.