Neurodiversity is a neologism popularized in the late 1990s by Australian sociologist Judy Singer and American journalist Harvey Blume to refer to variation in the human brain regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood and other mental functions in a non-pathological sense.[1] The term emerged as a challenge to prevailing views that certain neurodevelopmental disorders are inherently pathological and instead adopts the social model of disability, in which societal barriers are the main contributing factor that disables people.[2][3]

The subsequent neurodiversity paradigm has been controversial among autism advocates, with opponents saying that its conceptualization of the autism spectrum doesn't reflect the realities of individuals who have high support needs.[4][5][6]


In a New York Times piece written by American journalist and writer Harvey Blume on June 30, 1997, Blume described the foundation of neurodiversity using the term "neurological pluralism".[7] Blume was an early advocate who predicted the role the Internet would play in fostering the international neurodiversity movement.[8]

The word neurodiversity is attributed to Judy Singer, an Australian social scientist on the autism spectrum, who used the term in her sociology honors thesis published in 1999.[9][10] The term represented a move away from previous "mother-blaming" theories about the cause of autism.[11] Singer had been in correspondence with Blume as a result of their mutual interest in autism, and though he did not credit Singer, the word first appeared in print in an article by Blume in The Atlantic on September 30, 1998.[12]

Some authors[13][14] also credit the earlier work of autistic advocate Jim Sinclair in advancing the concept of neurodiversity. Sinclair was a principal early organizer of the international online autism community. Sinclair's 1993 speech, "Don't Mourn For Us", emphasized autism as a way of being: "It is not possible to separate the person from the autism."[15]

The term "neurodiversity" has since been applied to other conditions and has taken on a more general meaning; for example, the Developmental Adult Neurodiversity Association (DANDA) in the UK encompasses developmental coordination disorder, ADHD, Asperger's syndrome, and related conditions.[16]

Within disability rights movements

The neurodiversity paradigm was initially embraced by individuals on the autism spectrum,[17] but subsequent groups have applied the concept to other neurodevelopmental conditions such as ADHD,[18] developmental speech disorders, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dysnomia, intellectual disability, and Tourette syndrome;[18][19] and mental health conditions such as bipolarity,[20][21] schizophrenia,[3][22] schizoaffective disorder, antisocial personality disorder,[23] and obsessive–compulsive disorder.[24] Neurodiversity advocates denounce the framing of autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and other neurodevelopmental disorders as requiring medical intervention to "cure" or "fix" them and instead promote support systems, such as inclusion-focused services, accommodations, communication and assistive technologies, occupational training, and independent living support.[25] The intention is for individuals to receive support that honours authentic forms of human diversity, self-expression, and being, rather than treatment which coerces or forces them to adopt accepted ideas of normality, or to conform to a clinical ideal.[26]

Proponents of neurodiversity strive to reconceptualize autism and related conditions in society by the following measures: acknowledging that neurodiversity does not require a cure; changing the language from the current "condition, disease, disorder, or illness"-based nomenclature and "broaden[ing] the understanding of healthy or independent living"; acknowledging new types of autonomy; and giving non-neurotypical individuals more control over their treatment, including the type, timing, and whether there should be treatment at all.[14][3]

A 2009 study[27] separated 27 students (with autism, dyslexia, developmental coordination disorder, ADHD, and stroke), into two categories of self-view: "a 'difference' view—where neurodiversity was seen as a difference incorporating a set of strengths and weaknesses, or a 'medical/deficit' view—where neurodiversity was seen as a disadvantageous medical condition." They found that, although all of the students reported uniformly difficult schooling careers involving exclusion, abuse, and bullying, those who viewed themselves from a difference view (41% of the study cohort) "indicated higher academic self-esteem and confidence in their abilities and many (73%) expressed considerable career ambitions with positive and clear goals."[27] Many of these students reported gaining this view of themselves through contact with neurodiversity advocates in online support groups.[27]

A 2013 online survey, which aimed to assess conceptions of autism and neurodiversity, found that "a deficit-as-difference conception of autism suggests the importance of harnessing autistic traits in developmentally beneficial ways, transcending a false dichotomy between celebrating differences and ameliorating deficit."[28]


The neurodiversity paradigm is controversial in autism advocacy.[17] The dominant paradigm is one which pathologizes human brains that diverge from those considered typical. From this perspective, these brains have medical conditions which should be treated.[29]

A common criticism is that the neurodiversity paradigm is too widely encompassing and that its conception should exclude those whose functioning is more severely impaired.[17][30] Autistic advocate and interdisciplinary educator Nick Walker, who has been credited with the most nuanced definition of the neurodiversity movement and the paradigm underlying it, says that neurodivergencies refer specifically to "pervasive neurocognitive differences" that are "intimately related to the formation and constitution of the self," in contrast to medical conditions such as epilepsy.[3]

See also


  1. Armstrong, Thomas (2011). The power of neurodiversity : unleashing the advantages of your differently wired brain (1st Da Capo Press paperback ed.). Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Lifelong. ISBN 9780738215242. OCLC 760085215.
  2. Oliver, Michael, 1945-2019. (2006). Social work with disabled people. Sapey, Bob. (3rd ed.). Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 1403918384. OCLC 62326930.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  3. Chapman, Robert (2019-01-10). "Neurodiversity Theory and Its Discontents: Autism, Schizophrenia, and the Social Model of Disability". In Tekin, Serife; Bluhm, Robyn (eds.). The Bloomsbury Companion to Philosophy of Psychiatry. Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 371–387. ISBN 9781350024069.
  4. Opar, Alisa (May 6, 2019). "A medical condition or just a difference? The question roils autism community". Washington Post. Retrieved 12 May 2019.
  5. Robison, John E. "The Controversy Around Autism and Neurodiversity". Psychology Today. Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  6. McGee, Micki (August 2012). "Neurodiversity". Contexts. 11 (3): 12–13. doi:10.1177/1536504212456175.
  7. Blume, Harvey (1997-06-30). "Autistics, freed from face-to-face encounters, are communicating in cyberspace". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-11-08. Yet, in trying to come to terms with [a neurotypical-dominated] world, autistics are neither willing nor able to give up their own customs. Instead, they are proposing a new social compact, one emphasizing neurological pluralism. [...] The consensus emerging from the Internet forums and Web sites where autistics congregate [...] is that NT is only one of many neurological configurations -- the dominant one certainly, but not necessarily the best.
  8. Blume, Harvey (1997-07-01). ""Autism & The Internet" or "It's The Wiring, Stupid"". Media In Transition. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved 2007-11-08. A project called CyberSpace 2000 is devoted to getting as many people as possible in the autistic spectrum hooked up by the year 2000, reason being that "the Internet is an essential means for autistic people to improve their lives, because it is often the only way they can communicate effectively."
  9. Singer, Judy (1999-02-01). "'Why can't you be normal for once in your life?' From a 'problem with no name' to the emergence of a new category of difference". In Corker, Mairian; French, Sally (eds.). Disability Discourse. McGraw-Hill Education (UK). pp. 59–67. ISBN 9780335202225. For me, the key significance of the 'autism spectrum' lies in its call for and anticipation of a politics of neurological diversity, or neurodiversity.
  10. "Meet Judy Singer Neurodiversity Pioneer". My Spectrum Suite. Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  11. Bumiller, Kristen. "The Geneticization of Autism: From New Reproductive Technologies to the Conception of Genetic Normalcy." Signs 34.4 (2009): 875-99. Chicago Journals. University of Chicago Press.
  12. Blume, Harvey (September 30, 1998). "Neurodiversity". The Atlantic. Archived from the original on January 5, 2013. Retrieved November 7, 2007. Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of wiring will prove best at any given moment? Cybernetics and computer culture, for example, may favor a somewhat autistic cast of mind.
  13. Solomon, Andrew (2008-05-25). "The autism rights movement". New York. Archived from the original on 27 May 2008. Retrieved 2008-05-27.
  14. Fenton, Andrew, and Tim Krahn. "Autism, Neurodiversity and Equality Beyond the Normal" (PDF). Journal of Ethics in Mental Health 2.2 (2007): 1-6. 10 November 2009.
  15. Sinclair, Jim. Don't Mourn For Us. Autism Network International, n.d.. Retrieved on 2013-05-07.
  16. DANDA website. Retrieved on 6 January 2015
  17. Jaarsma P, Welin S (February 2011). "Autism as a Natural Human Variation: Reflections on the Claims of the Neurodiversity Movement" (PDF). Health Care Anal. 20 (1): 20–30. doi:10.1007/s10728-011-0169-9. PMID 21311979. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-11-01.
  18. Woodford, Gillian. 'We Don't Need to be Cured' Autistics Say Archived 2016-03-03 at the Wayback Machine. National Review of Medicine. Volume 3. No. 8. April 30, 2006. Retrieved February 23, 2008.
  19. Mackenzie, Robin; John Watts (2011-01-31). "Is our legal, health care and social support infrastructure neurodiverse enough? How far are the aims of the neurodiversity movement fulfilled for those diagnosed with cognitive disability and learning disability?". Tizard Learning Disability Review. 16 (1): 30–37. doi:10.5042/tldr.2011.0005. We recommend, therefore, that the term neurodiverse include the conditions ASD, ADHD, OCD, language disorders, developmental coordination disorder, dyslexia and Tourette's syndrome.
  20. "On Neurodiversity". Retrieved 14 May 2015.
  21. "An Exploration Of The Neurodiversity Movement". Archived from the original on 2015-06-01. Retrieved 2015-08-11. Conducting a poll of what she calls her 'online tribe', other bipolar people participating in specialized listservs and chatrooms, Antonetta discovered that, like her, most responders like their minds and the gifts their bipolarity brings them. One man she quotes says: "I choose not to look at bipolarity as an illness at all. In fact, I couldn't imagine myself as not being bipolar, nor would I want to be. The bipolar is a strong component of who I am, and I do not wish to be anyone else but me" (p. 89). Another respondent wrote, "I feel, and cause others to feel ... Touched, the life of the imagination is the real life" (Antonetta, 2005, p.90).
  22. Morrice, Polly (January 29, 2006) "Otherwise Minded" The New York Times, review of A Mind Apart: Travels in a Neurodiverse World
  23. "The Virtue of Sociopaths: how to appreciate the neurodiversity of sociopathy without becoming a victim". Retrieved 2015-08-02.
  24. "The Myth of the Normal Brain: Embracing Neurodiversity, Apr 15 - AMA Journal of Ethics (formerly Virtual Mentor)". Retrieved 2015-08-05.
  25. "Position Statements". Autistic Self Advocacy Network. Retrieved April 21, 2013.
  26. "What is Neurodiversity?". National Symposium on Neurodiversity at Syracuse University. 2011. Retrieved October 2, 2012.
  27. Griffin, Edward; Pollak, David (January 2009). "Student experiences of neurodiversity in higher education: Insights from the BRAINHE project". Dyslexia. 15 (1): 23–41. doi:10.1002/dys.383. PMID 19140120.
  28. Kapp, Steven K.; Gillespie-Lynch, Kristen; Sherman, Lauren E.; Hutman, Ted (January 2013). "Deficit, difference, or both? Autism and neurodiversity". Developmental Psychology. 49 (1): 59–71. doi:10.1037/a0028353. PMID 22545843.
  29. Feinstein, Adam (Dec 11, 2017). "Neurodiversity: The cases for and against" (PDF).
  30. Frith, Uta (2008-10-23). Autism: A Very Short Introduction. OUP Oxford. ISBN 9780191578656.

Further reading

  • Armstrong, Thomas (2010). Neurodiversity: Discovering the Extraordinary Gifts of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Other Brain Differences. Boston: Da Capo Lifelong. p. 288. ISBN 978-0738213545.
  • Armstrong, Thomas (2012). Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development. p. 188. ISBN 978-1416614838.
  • Silberman, Steve. "Neurodiversity Rewires Conventional Thinking About Brains". Wired. Retrieved 7 May 2013.
  • Reitman, Harold (2015). Aspertools: The Practical Guide for Understanding and Embracing Asperger's, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and Neurodiversity. Deerfield Beach, FL: HCI Books. p. 240. ISBN 9780757318542.
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