Neurodivergent, neurotypical, neurodiverse: What do they mean?
When Elon Musk publicly revealed that he has Asperger’s syndrome, the media was awash with stories brandishing the words “neurodivergence”, “neurodiverse” and “neurotypical”. But what exactly do these terms mean? We unpack them for you:
Firstly, these are non-medical terms to describe people with words other than “normal” and “abnormal”. Secondly, the terms were originally developed by people influenced by the social model of disability*, and are therefore used for social inclusivity, recognising that everyone’s brain works differently. This contrasts with the medical model of disability which identify mental differences as “abnormalities, disorders, deficits, or dysfunctions”**.
What is neurodiversity?
As reported in the British Medical Association, “neurodiversity” is based on “biodiversity”, a high level of which is considered desirable and necessary for a thriving ecosystem. Similarly, neurodiversity advocates argue that society would benefit from recognising and developing the strengths of autism or dyslexia (for instance), instead of characterising them by their weaknesses.
“Neurodiversity” was originally coined by the Australian sociologist, Judy Singer, in 1998. In the late 2000’s, some educational psychologists replaced the term ‘Specific Learning Difficulties”, using the umbrella term “neurodiversity” instead, and this became more common especially within occupational psychology in the 2010s. ***
Against this background, neurodiversity can be defined as “the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioural traits, which is regarded as part of normal variation in the human population”. Hence, in context, “neurodiverse” refers to a group of people that includes neurotypical and neurodivergent people.
What is “neurotypical”?
As reported in Medical News today, “neurotypical” describes someone who processes information as expected for their culture and environment.
Neurotypical development includes characteristics such as:
• reaching developmental milestones at a similar time to other children
• having social or organisational skills that are similar to someone’s peers
• being able to focus in class or at work for long periods
• being able to adapt to changes in routines
• being able to tolerate some sensory discomfort, such as loud noises, without much difficulty
• having varied interests or hobbies typical for the person’s age
To identify as neurotypical, a person doesn’t need to have all these traits. Being “neurotypical” is subjective, though, because what is typical depends on the context.
What is neurodivergence?
A neurodivergent person can be defined as someone whose neurological development is considered atypical, thus, neurodivergence is the opposite of neurotypical. This affects the person’s social preferences, ways of learning, ways of communicating and the way they perceive the environment.
Therefore the neurodivergent person has different struggles (medical disorders, learning disabilities and other conditions) and unique strengths (better memory, being able to solve complex mathematical calculations in their head).
Some of the conditions considered neurodivergent:
• Autism spectrum disorder (including Asperger’s syndrome)
• Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
• Down syndrome
• Dyscalculia (difficulty with maths)
• Dysgraphia (difficulty with writing)
• Dyslexia (difficulty with reading)
• Dyspraxia (difficulty with coordination)
• Intellectual disabilities
• Mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
• Prader-Willi syndrome
• Social anxiety (a specific type of anxiety disorder)
• Tourette syndrome
• Williams syndrome
• Sensory processing disorders
These terms are not without controversy, however. There is debate between medical experts and people living with these conditions, and within their groups, on whether it’s a disability or a naturally occurring difference that calls for greater social inclusivity and acceptance.
*“The social model of disability says that disability is caused by the way society is organised, rather than by a person’s impairment or difference. It looks at ways of removing barriers that restrict life choices for disabled people.” – Disability Nottinghamshire.
***Doyle N. (2020). Neurodiversity at work: a biopsychosocial model and the impact on working adults. British Medical Bulletin, 135(1), 108–125. https://doi.org/10.1093/bmb/ldaa021
1. Cleveland Clinic. Neurodivergent. Cleveland Clinic [Online]. Accessed on 27 September 2022. Available from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/23154-neurodivergent [CC]
2. Disability Nottinghamshire. (n.d.) The Social Model vs The Medical Model of Disability. Disability Nottinghamshire [Online]. Accessed on 30 September 2022. Available from https://www.disabilitynottinghamshire.org.uk/index.php/about/social-model-vs-medical-model-of-disability/ [DN]
3. Disabled World. (2022). What Is: Neurodiversity, Neurodivergent, Neurotypical. Disabled World [Online]. Accessed on 27 September 2022. Available from https://www.disabled-world.com/disability/awareness/neurodiversity/ [DW]
4. Doyle, N. (2020). Neurodiversity at work: a biopsychosocial model and the impact on working adults. British Medical Bulletin. 135: 1 (108–125). https://doi.org/10.1093/bmb/ldaa021 [BMB]
5. Porterfield, C. (2021). It’s Not Just Elon Musk — These Billionaires Are Also Neurodivergent. Forbes [Online]. Accessed on 3 October 2022. Available from
6. Villines, Z. (2022). What does neurotypical, neurodivergent, and neurodiverse mean?. Medical News Today [Online]. Accessed on 27 September 2022. Available from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/what-does-neurotypical-mean [MNT]