What Is Neurodivergence?

On this blog, I deal with questions and challenges “on writing, neurodivergence, and the creative process.” Lots of folks have heard of the first and third, but fewer have heard of the second.

What Is Neurodivergence_

What Is Neurodivergence?

From “neuro-,” meaning “pertaining to the nervous system,” and “divergence,” meaning “the process or state of things becoming different,” neurodivergence refers to the state of having a brain, nervous system, or both that operates different from the typical. The word neurotypical is often used to describe the “typical” from which one diverges.

Neurodivergence overlaps with, but is broader than, the world of existing diagnoses for neurological or psychological conditions. Autism, ADHD, multiplicity, and schizophrenia are forms of neurodivergence; so are epilepsy, cerebral palsy, and multiple sclerosis. Acquired or developed neurodivergences exist in the form of traumatic brain injuries, white matter lesions from chronic migraines, dementia, Alzheimer’s, PTSD, and alterations from substance use (legal or otherwise). And there are almost certainly forms of neurodivergence that we can’t see on scans and haven’t created diagnostic criteria for. (Folks with more than one neurodivergence are often called “multiply neurodivergent.”)

Does neurodivergence’s “opposite,” neurotypicality, exist? It’s tough to say. No two human nervous systems are identical, so choosing any one nervous system from the several billion currently existing on the planet and calling that The Neurotypical Brain(TM) would be tough to do, at best.

Neurotypicality does, however, exist as a social and cultural norm, with profound implications for medicine, education, employment, and everyday life. If you were ever taunted on the playground by kids calling you “weird,” “crazy,” “stupid,” “cuckoo,” “spaz,” “retard,” or “messed up,” congratulations: your classmates were telling you that “normal” is a thing and you weren’t it.

Neurodivergence and Creativity

Everyone “knows” there’s a link between neurodivergence and creativity, or innovation, or genius…but no one knows quite what it is, or what fosters it, or why.

My interest in the relationship between neurodivergence and creativity is more practical, because my experience of creativity is more practical. Having ADHD has taught me that a thousand ideas a second are useless if you can’t see even one of them through to its final form.

That’s why, here, I write about the practical side: how to channel various neurodivergences in the directions you want to go in order to get work done.

It’s why I’ve written a three-part series on how I drafted my first novel in 10 months with undiagnosed, untreated ADHD.

It’s why I’m keenly interested in questions of emotional labor, particularly the emotional labor that autistic and other neurodivergent people are pressured to do on a daily basis in the name of keeping neurotypicality firmly rooted in the center of “normal” – and how this burden disproportionately falls on women and on people perceived as women.

It’s why I write a lot – both here and in my published works – about finding and maintaining the sort of inner and outer structures that allow neurodivergent creatives to find their “even keel,” which may or may not look like what the rest of the world calls “mental health” but which allows the individual to manage their life and dial down the distress that can otherwise tank creativity. Lowering the mental and emotional cost of being neurodivergent matters, to our creativity and to our well-being.

It’s why I’m adamant that creatives need to be paid, and not in “exposure.” Creatives of all neurotypes often struggle to pay the bills while still creating, and the fight can be even tougher for neurodivergent creatives, who need to pay the bills and create while also navigating a world that often actively opposes their neurotype…or worse, exploits it.

When exposure is what you’re paid in, it’s also what you die of.

Writing on Neurodivergence: The State of the Conversation

Googling “neurodiversity” nets millions of results, ranging from academic works to badly-spelled anonymous forum posts. Googling “neurodivergence” turns up considerably less work.

The term “neurodivergence” (and its adjective form, “neurodivergent”) was coined by Kassiane Asasumasu to address a problem with the word neurodiversity: namely, that while “neurodiversity” describes groups very well, it doesn’t describe particular individuals within those groups.

A group that has neurodiversity, or a neurodiverse group, will contain at least one person who is neurodivergent, but that person as an individual is not “neurodiverse” (unless they are a multiple system whose members have a variety of neurotypes, which is more common than you’d think!).

And when you Google “neurodiversity,” things get even more fraught, because that word gets used to mean multiple things: a basic biological fact, a subset of the disability rights movement, a way of speaking about neurodivergence that doesn’t put our ideas about neurotypicality on a pedestal, …and so on.

Confused? Nick Walker wrote the seminal piece on the subject, which has been translated into several languages. For an even more 101 version, see my 2016 article at Un-Boxed Brain. Michelle Swan has an excellent piece for those who diverge in directions that psychiatric science hasn’t yet put a label on. And for a short but devastating list of ways in which we build boundaries around the “normal” by pushing the neurodivergent out of it, check out this piece by Gillian Giles.

As part of my research on autism and rhetoric, I’ve been writing about neurodivergence, and the ways we talk about it, for several years. Two of my publicly-available academic articles on it are available:

I’ve also been cited in Melanie Yergeau’s Authoring Autism and Julia Miele Rodas’s Autistic Disturbances, both of which deal with rhetoric and neurodivergence.


1 Comment

  1. fakeflamenco says:

    I like the word neurodivergence much better than previous terms. Tells what it is without shaming. Thanks.


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