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Visions Journal


A short introduction

Nancy Norman, PhD

Reprinted from the The Many Faces of Neurodiversity issue of Visions Journal, 2023, 18 (3), pp. 5-7

Stock photo of middle-aged white woman

Author’s Note: Throughout this editorial, I use identity first- and person-first language interchangeably as a reflection of respect for neurodivergent persons and sensitivity towards their individual identities. Identity-first language puts a person’s diagnosis/disability before the person when describing or referring to them (e.g., autistic person, disabled), whereas person-first language puts the person before their diagnosis/disability (e.g., a person who has autism, a person with disabilities).

What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity describes all people by embracing the reality that everyone is different and worthy of respect and belonging.

We use the term neurodiversity to capture the diversity of all people and celebrate the uniqueness and differences in thinking, behaving, learning and understanding in everyone. Neurodiversity tells us there are infinite possibilities in human thinking and no one right way to be in the world. Rather than focusing on deficits, neurodiversity makes a shift, moving us away from understanding human brain function and abilities as “normal” or “typical” and towards embracing individual strengths and abilities. Neurodiversity stresses that we need to respect and embrace all human variation, as we are all diverse.

The concept of neurodiversity includes both individuals who are neurotypical and neurodivergent. Neurotypical refers to individuals with brain function, behaviours and processing abilities that are typical or similar (what we generally expect to see in most people). Said another way, a person who is neurotypical has strengths and challenges that are not affected by differences in brain function.

In contrast, neurodivergent refers to individuals with brain function that works differently than most people. This commonly includes people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), learning disabilities (LDs) such as dyslexia (reading disability) or dyscalculia (math disability), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and mental illnesses (like anxiety disorders). Neurodivergent individuals experience, interact with and interpret the world in unique and diverse ways.1 Further, no two individuals experience the world in the same way.

Historical and social context

The neurodiversity movement began during the 1990s when Australian sociologist Judy Singer, who has ASD and was already an advocate for herself, started pushing for social justice for neurodivergent people. Judy was the first person to use the term neurodivergent, which appeared in her sociology honours thesis (1998). This was the first academic inquiry into the ASD self-advocacy movement (now commonly referred to as part for the larger disability movement). Before this time, society often viewed people with differences in thinking, behaving and processing information in a negative light. They were considered less able—and maybe, less valued—than people who were neurotypical.

During recent history (1960s–1980s), a medical perspective dominated popular thought and societal values. The medical viewpoint preferred “average” and “normal.” Medical values judged any shifts away from “typical” as negative and in need of fixing, likely through medical or educational interventions and support, however wrong-headed. For example, historically, neurodivergent people were very often sent to residential hospitals and institutions, or specialized day schools. Society viewed differences as weaknesses or something lacking within the person.

During the 1990s and 2000s, societal changes promoted inclusion and empowerment for marginalized groups. This gave rise to the movement to embrace diversity. For example, protests grew against organizations that approached autism as something that needed to be “cured” and Autism Pride Day started in 2005. Over the last decade, our view of neurodiversity has continued to develop. Increasingly, we understand that all differences we observe between individuals are natural and valuable.2 Today, the neurodiversity movement emphasizes inclusion and acceptance for all and calls for further research and support for individuals with neurodivergent abilities, disabilities and disorders.

How does neurodivergence impact mental health?

Differences in processing and interpreting information, behaving and learning affect people in a host of ways. For some, these variations have a minimal impact on daily functioning and interactions in the world. For others, differences brought about by neurodivergence may have a great impact on mental health.

Even those with a similar disability experience its impacts in different ways. For some neurodivergent individuals, building connections and establishing and maintaining meaningful interpersonal relationships can be challenging. Given that society tends to operate from a neurotypical perspective, individuals who are neurodivergent may struggle to fit in and gain a sense of belonging within their community. Discrimination against difference and disability, and ostracization from mainstream society through bullying and harassment have long-lasting impacts on well-being. This disconnection from others hurts self-esteem and self-worth, leading to loneliness and social disengagement.

Everyone wants to fit in, and when the need for belonging is not met, it has serious impacts on mental health. Research shows children and youth who are neurodivergent are more likely to be bullied during their younger years (kindergarten to Grade 12). As a result, neurodivergent students are at greater risk of developing serious mental health challenges throughout their lifespan, as compared with their neurotypical peers.3,4

Neurodiverse people can experience mental health conditions and concerns impacting their overall health ranging from mild to severe, and from temporary to chronic. Although mental health conditions can impact neurotypical people, neurodivergent persons are at significant risk of experiencing mental illnesses. Difference in brain structures and processing abilities, as well as differences in how neurodivergent people interpret, interact with and make sense of the world, place them at greater risk for developing anxiety and depression, as well as other mental illnesses. For example, research has shown approximately 80% of people who are neurodivergent struggle with anxiety disorders, and depression is highly co-occurring in this population.5

Given the seriousness of the connection between neurodivergence, mental health concerns and mental illness, we need a deeper understanding of neurodiversity. By widening the circle of our understanding, we gain deeper connections to, and compassion for, the wholeness of human experience.

About the author

Nancy is Professor of Inclusive and Special Education in the Faculty of Education at Vancouver Island University. She completed her PhD in Special Education at UBC and specializes in Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) and mental health and well-being for neurotypical and neurodivergent children and youth. Nancy is also a certified teacher and teacher of the deaf and hard-of-hearing


  1. Jurgens, A. (2020). Neurodiversity in a neurotypical world: An enactive framework for investigating autism and social institutions. In H. Rosqvist, N. Chown & A. Stenning (Eds.), Neurodiversity Studies (pp. 73–88). Routledge.

  2. Botha, M., Dibb, B. & Frost, D. M. (2022). "Autism is me": An investigation of how autistic individuals make sense of autism and stigma. Disability & Society, 37(3), 427–453.

  3. Kim, S. A., Baczewski, L., Pizzano, M., Kasari, C. & Sturm, A. (2022). Discrimination and harassment experiences of autistic college students and their neurotypical peers: Risk and protective factors. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 1–14.

  4. McLeod, J. D., Hawbaker, A. & Meanwell, E. (2021). The health of college students on the autism spectrum as compared to their neurotypical peers. Autism, 25(3), 719–730.

  5.  Accardo, A. L., Pontes, N. M., & Pontes, M. C. (2022). Heightened anxiety and depression among autistic adolescents with ADHD: Findings from the National Survey of Children’s Health 2016–2019. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 1–14.



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