Neurodivergent vs Neurotypical: What Teachers Need to Know

Have you heard of the terms neurodivergent and neurotypical? Maybe you have just heard these terms but not sure what they mean or are. These are important terms to know about if you work with and know people who identify as neurodivergent.  You most likely have students whose brain functions in different ways than the typically developing brain. Knowing about these terms is a way to make sure your classroom is inclusive to all types of people and differences. 

What does it mean to be neurotypical?

Let’s start off with what it means to identify as a neurotypical individual. You may be one of these, and not even realize! A neurotypical person’s brain develops as you would typically expect.

They reach their milestones similarly to the majority of their peers. They do not have additional medical conditions that are impacting their overall development. 

Although they will face challenges and difficulties of their own, the way their brain develops is not one of them. 

What does it mean to be neurodivergent?

So now let’s talk about being neurodivergent. Someone who is neurodivergent has a brain that develops differently than the typical developing brain. Because of this, their brain processes the world and information differently. This can make certain things like social skills more challeninging. 

It is important to note that this term neurodivergent is not a medical term or diagnosis. People who identify with this term can have various medical diagnoses such as autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and more but the term itself is not a medical term. S

ome people also identify as neurodivergent who have mental health struggles such as anxiety disorders or depression.

It is important to know there is not one ‘right’ way for people’s brains to work and that all brains are different, which is why this term was developed.

This term is a way to self identify and was developed from the concept of neurodiversity. Let’s talk about some of the origins of this next.

Why was the term neurodivergent developed?

This term came from the neurodivergent movement. Although this seems like a new term in recent years, it was coined in the 1990s. It came from the from the voices of neurodivergent people because the term is more inclusive term than simply saying a disability or other terms that could be ostracizing.

A very important aspect of it is that it highlights differences instead of deficits. So often when someone is given a formal diagnosis, they are then flooded with all of the deficits they have. Although there are challenges with having a type of neurodivergence, it should always be viewed from a strength stand point. Each person has individual strengths that need to be celebrated!

What is the neurodiversity movement?

It was a movement that started to show just because someone has a diagnosis, that there may be similar traits but they are all very different. For example, two people could have the same diagnosis of Autism and have very different skills and challenges. 

The Neurodivergent movement wants to show that people with these medical diagnoses are very different. I have heard the analogy of a fingerprint. Although we all have fingerprints and they are similar- there is not a single one that is alike. I think this is the perfect visual.

It is so important to highlight the individualities of each person- regardless of their diagnosis.

Can someone stop being neurodivergent?

Although this is a self identification, no when someone is neurodivergent that is apart of who the person is. Just like you cannot stop being Autistic or stop being blind, you cannot stop being neurodivergent. 

How can I support someone who is neurodivergent?

The main suggestion is to listen to neurodivergent individuals. It is so easy these days with social media- you can find social media accounts or facebook groups and connect with neurodiverse people.  That is how this term was starting in the first place, through listening to individuals in the neurodiversity movement.

As with listening to neurodivergent voices, we have heard that Autistic people do not want to be associated with the puzzle piece or the color blue. Many people now want to be referred to as an Autistic person rather than a person with Autism. However, this is not true for everyone, so the best way is to ask if you are unsure!

What are some common misconceptions about neurodiversity?

There are many common misconception, lets break them down

  • Viewing neurodivergence as solely a deficit rather than recognizing the strengths and unique perspectives it can bring. Brain differences are things to be celebrated- there are so many strengths within each person, we just need to change our vantage point sometimes to see them.
  • Assuming that neurodivergent individuals are unable to succeed or contribute meaningfully in education, employment, or other areas of life. Remember, this is an umbrella term and that those who are neurodivergent can be very successful, just as neurotypical people.
  • Believing that all neurodivergent individuals share the same traits or experiences, when in reality, neurodiversity encompasses a wide range of conditions and characteristics. This is one of the biggest misconceptions, which we already debunked!
  • Equating neurodivergence with pathology or abnormality, rather than understanding it as a natural variation in human cognition and behavior. 
  • Believing that everyone who is neurodivergent will process information the same way and require the same supports. Remember, everyone has different strengths and different challenges- learning this can help support your students in the best way possible.

How can we support neurodiversity in schools?

Supporting neurodiversity involves creating inclusive environments where all individuals feel valued and empowered to succeed. 

Some strategies include:

  • Providing accommodations and modifications tailored to the specific needs of neurodivergent individuals, such as alternative learning materials or flexible work arrangements. This can include using task boxes, adding in visuals, reading books about a neurodivergent person, or creating a predictable environment.
  • Educating staff and colleagues about neurodiversity to promote understanding, empathy, and acceptance. Education is the best tool for change. Neurological differences are within all of us and just learning that can change your approach and thoughts.
  • Implementing universal design principles to make environments and activities accessible to everyone, regardless of neurodivergence. What works well for some person can work well for others. Think about the dip in the sidewalk. This dip was made for those with wheelchairs. However, it is very convenient to moms with strollers, bikers, roller blades, and more. This is an example of a universal design that is made for someone specific, but helps all!
  • Encouraging open communication and collaboration among team members to leverage the diverse strengths and perspectives of neurodivergent individuals to create a supportive environment.
  • Advocating for policies and initiatives that promote equity and inclusion for neurodivergent individuals in schools, workplaces, and society at large. This does not have to stop in just the classroom, because your students are not going to stay in your classroom forever- they will go into society. So help advocate for education for the general population can help support neurodivergent children as a well. 

By  understanding and embracing neurodiversity you can foster a more inclusive and equitable classroom and society. By challenging misconceptions and actively supporting neurodivergent individuals in schools, we can create environments where everyone feels valued, respected, and empowered to reach their full potential. Through education, advocacy, and collaborative efforts, we can celebrate the diverse strengths and perspectives that neurodiversity brings, ultimately building a more compassionate and inclusive world for all.

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