Neurotypical vs. Neurodivergent: What’s the Difference?

Neurotypical vs. Neurodivergent: Concept of the diversity of people's talents and skills illustrated in a drawing
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Whether scrolling on your phone or chatting with other parents in the playground, you’ve probably heard the words ‘neurotypical’ and ‘neurodivergent’ thrown around lately. But what do these terms mean exactly? We took the neurotypical vs. neurodivergent question to an expert and found out their definition, the differences between the two and, perhaps most importantly, why you should care. Read on for the full scoop.

Meet the Expert

Dr. Sanam Hafeez is a NYC-based neuropsychologist and Director of Comprehend the Mind, a diagnostic and treatment center for neuropsychological, psychiatric and educational difficulties. She received her doctorate from Hofstra University and completed her post-doctoral work in neuro-developmental psychology at Coney Island Hospital in Brooklyn, NY.

What Does Neurotypical Mean?

As you might suspect, neurotypical is “a term used to describe a person whose neurological development and functioning is considered typical or within the normal range,” says Dr. Hafeez, adding that it is often used to describe individuals “whose cognitive and behavioral functioning is considered in line with what is expected from the majority of the population.” In other words, neurotypical refers to someone who doesn’t have the neurological differences associated with conditions like autism, ADHD and others. (But more on that later.)

What Does Neurodivergent Mean?

Neurodivergent individuals, on the other hand, do have neurological differences that affect their cognitive functioning and behavior. According to the expert, some examples of neurodivergent conditions include autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia and Tourette's syndrome. It’s important to note that these neurological conditions are associated with a unique set of challenges and strengths, which is why “the terms neurodivergent and neurotypical are often used to promote understanding and acceptance of neurological differences and reduce stigma and discrimination,” says Dr. Hafeez.

Neurotypical vs. Neurodivergent: What’s the Difference?

Per the above definitions, the distinction between the two terms is pretty clear. But what does that look like in real life? Well, Dr. Hafeez tells us that the divergent part of neurodivergent can sometimes refer to cognitive differences that may impact a person’s daily functioning—including, but not limited to, difficulty with social communication and/or sensory processing.

Additionally, “neurodivergent individuals may exhibit behaviors that are atypical or unexpected, such as repetitive behaviors or hypersensitivity to sensory input.”

This means that neurodivergent individuals have different strengths and face different challenges than their neurotypical peers. Indeed, the expert tells us that a neurodivergent individual might excel in areas that a neurotypical person does not—like by having strong attention to detail or an exceptional memory, for example. As for the challenges, neurodivergent individuals are more likely to struggle with social interaction and executive functioning.

It should come as no surprise that these differences in neurological functioning and how they manifest in day to day life results in differences in perspective between the two groups. Neurodivergent individuals may see the world and approach problems differently than their neurotypical counterparts, and as such may have different needs and experiences.

You might have noticed how many times we’ve used the word differences, and there’s a reason for that—namely, to remind neurotypical folk that “neurodivergent individuals are not ‘broken’ or in need of ‘fixing,’ but simply have different ways of processing information and experiencing the world…and that we should strive to understand and accommodate these differences, rather than trying to force neurodivergent individuals into neurotypical molds,” says Dr. Hafeez.

In other words, the extent to which a neurodivergent person struggles in their daily life is more a function of society than anything else—and the best way to solve that problem is by neurotypical individuals making a concerted effort to challenge social norms and open their minds.

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