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Supporting Neurodiversity in Education

The new term on the street - neurodivergent - often gets lumped into the SpEd side of education, but it encompasses a lot more than many realize. It’s actually a nonmedical umbrella term that refers specifically to the way in which a brain functions (neuro) in a manner that moves differently from the “normal” or “expected” way (divergent). In short, being neurodivergent means that your brain offers both strengths and challenges that differ from others lumped into the “norm” category.

Coined in 1998 by Australian sociologist Judy Singer, the term ‘neurodiversity’ was meant to show that unique brain development is as common as fingerprints. No two brains develop in exactly the same way, therefore, there is no ‘normal.’ The hope was to bring light to the strengths and skills of the neurodivergent in hopes of highlighting their skill rather than limiting them to differences or challenges. Accommodations are the key.

For example, education has placed a huge spotlight on dyslexia in the past decade in hopes of identifying and assisting students who struggle to read as a result. What’s fascinating, however, is that even though processing words is difficult, students with dyslexia excel at mental imagery, especially of 3D objects, especially with optical illusions. This natural talent makes them well-suited for art, engineering, and graphic design tasks.

Here are some FAQs about neurodiversity to help us all understand the term more completely:

Do you have to be diagnosed as neurodivergent?

No. Remember that neurodivergent is a nonmedical umbrella term that refers to the way the brain works. Other medical diagnoses will fit underneath this umbrella.

What are medical examples of neurodiversity?

While labeling can be both an asset and an issue, we can definitely list many conditions that affect the way the mind works and put them under the umbrella of neurodivergent. Here is a brief list:

More obvious:


Asperger syndrome


Down syndrome



Intellectual Disabilities (ID)

Less obvious:

Acquired or traumatic brain injury

Anxiety Disorders

Bipolar Disorder


Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Social anxiety

Tourette’s syndrome/Tic disorders

What is the opposite of neurodivergent?

Neurotypical is the term used to refer to those whose brain functioning does not impact their strengths and challenges.

Do all neurodivergent people have learning disabilities?

No. The emphasis here is on differences, not disorders. We’re looking at ways the brain functions differently, allowing different strengths to emerge. As a result, there may be some challenges in other areas, but accommodating strengths is key.

For more information, here are several perspectives and research on neurodiversity:

Awareness and Education - Neurodiversity Basics - Stanford Medicine - Stanford Neurodiversity Project

Neurodiversity in Education - The Learning Scientists

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