What Is Neurodivergence?

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A behavioral therapist sits next to a child drawing with a colored pencil.The concept of neurodivergence often comes up in the field of applied behavior analysis. People who are neurodivergent are those whose mental functions deviate from what society deems as “normal,” or “neurotypical.” Neurodivergent individuals may have different strengths and experience different challenges than those considered neurotypical. This includes people diagnosed with autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, Tourette syndrome, and many other conditions.

Neurodivergence is closely related to the concept of neurodiversity, which refers to the notion that people’s brains develop and function in unique ways.

By developing an understanding of what neurodivergence is, behavioral professionals can better support people with unique behavioral needs. Promoting the concepts of neurodivergence and neurodiversity can also help increase support for communities of neurodiverse people, promote inclusivity, and make society more equitable and accessible.

Students who are interested in combating ableism (discrimination against individuals with disabilities) and supporting those who are neurodivergent may be interested in learning more about the role of an advanced education in achieving these goals.

Types of Neurodivergence

There are different types of neurodivergence, and their causes can vary. Neurodivergence can be genetic, induced by environmental factors, or a combination of the two.

Some of the most common types of neurodivergence include:

  • Autism
  • ADHD
  • Epilepsy
  • Down syndrome
  • Dyslexia
  • Tourette syndrome

People can also be multiply neurodivergent — meaning they have more than one form of neurodivergence, such as a person who is both autistic and epileptic,

Embracing Neurodiversity

Neurodivergence arose from the concept of neurodiversity, which recognizes and embraces the reality that there are individuals whose brains function differently. The neurodiversity paradigm affirms that individuals and communities have unique needs that should be respected and supported, rather than stigmatized or treated as disordered.

The term “neurodiversity” was coined in the 1990s by Judy Singer, a sociologist who herself is on the autism spectrum. The term describes a social category, she argued, that should be recognized and respected similar to gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic class. Singer also coined the term “neurodivergent.”

Advocates of the neurodiversity movement argue that neurological differences are normal and have existed throughout human history.

An understanding of neurodiversity further clarifies what neurodivergence is: the spectrum of neurodiversity includes both those who are considered neurotypical and those who are considered neurodivergent.

Two Models of Disability

The conceptual models that society uses to interpret and address neurodivergence can affect health outcomes for people who live with a disability. Consider two dominant models of disability and their potential for supporting neurodivergent people.

Medical Model

The medical model of disability treats disabilities as impairments to bodily systems and functions that need to be fixed. The aim is to treat the disability to bring the bodily system or function as close to “normal” as possible. In essence, the medical model of disability treats neurodivergent people as medical patients.

Social Model

The social model of disability treats disabilities as the result of a mismatch between a person’s environment (its physical, social, and structural makeup) and the disabled person’s needs when navigating their environment. The social model of disability aims to make environments and social structures more accessible and inclusive.

Approaches to Addressing Disability

Advocates of the medical model of disability may point out the challenges that people with disabilities face and the importance of using the full arsenal of medical resources, including medication and therapy, to help them overcome those challenges.

However, advocates of the social model of disability argue that medical interventions are not sufficient to support neurodivergent people. In addition to a minimal use of medication and other treatments, these advocates say structural changes to schools, workplaces, and public spaces must be made to affect the greatest positive changes for people with disabilities.

Neurodivergence and Applied Behavior Analysis

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is an empirically-based therapeutic approach in which a specialist works one-on-one with their client to improve:

  • Social skills
  • Communication skills
  • Skills for daily living, such as personal grooming and self-advocacy

As a behavior therapy, the aims of ABA include teaching and supporting skills to promote self-regulation and reduce negative behaviors such as self-harm. Experts have used ABA to support people with disabilities for many years, and it is considered one of the most effective interventions for people with autism spectrum disorder.

Those trained in ABA can engage in the neurodiversity movement to fight ableism. These trained experts can support people with disabilities by advocating against policies and practices that harm those who are neurodivergent. In doing so, ABA-trained professionals support the individual well-being of their clients as well as greater inclusivity for people with disabilities generally.

Support Neurodivergent People Through a Career in ABA

What is neurodivergence? Simply put, it describes individuals whose brains develop or function differently. Understanding this concept, as well as the concept of neurodiversity, is beneficial for those who aspire to support individuals with behavioral and developmental challenges. Promoting these concepts can also help increase support for communities of neurodivergent people and promote greater inclusivity.

Are you interested in learning more about ABA and its role in supporting neurodivergent people? Explore the Regis College online Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis program. With expertise in ABA, you can help people from all walks of life achieve their goals.

Recommended Readings

Applied Behavioral Analysis: Overview, Techniques & Cost

Autism Podcasts That Parents Should Follow

ABA Therapy Examples, Definition, & Techniques


American Association of Colleges and Universities, “Neurodiversity Is Diversity”

American Psychological Association, “Conceptualizing Disability: Three Models of Disability”

Cleveland Clinic, Neurodivergent

Disabled World, “What Is: Neurodiversity, Neurodivergent, Neurotypical”

Routledge, “Neurodiversity Studies: A New Critical Paradigm”

Psychology Today, “Neurodiversity”

Verywell Mind, “What Is Neurodivergence and What Does It Mean to Be Neurodivergent?”