The language of neurodiversity has now been with us for some time. Judy Singer coined the word “neurodiversity” more than two decades ago, and Kassiane Asasumasu (formerly Kassiane Sibley) gave us the term “neurodivergent”º. However, the language of neurodiversity is still not being used in a standard way, neither in the community, nor in practice, nor in research.
One particular mis-usage – at least in my opinion, is the word “neurodiverse” to describe a single individual. For example, a teacher might ask for “any advice for supporting a neurodiverse pupil in my class?” or a parent might say that they are “proud of my neurodiverse son”.
These examples are incorrect on a basic linguistic / grammatical level. Diversity is a property of groups. It requires variability between things. You only have a diverse range of herbs in your cupboard if you have lots of different ones. Lovage is not “diverse” while parsley is “typical”. “Diverse” is not a synonym for “rare”. Rather, lovage, basil, thyme and parsley make up a diverse group of herbs.
Therefore, instead of referring to an individual as neurodiverse we should describe them as neurodivergent.* The image below summarises this more eloquently than I ever could – with thanks to @scrappapertiger
But these mistakes in usage of the language of neurodiversity are more problematic than just grammar. Two comparisons are instructive here.
First, “special needs”.
There is a long and depressing history of language used to describe neurodivergent people, and disabled people, becoming a slur through association with pre-existing stigma. Thus “special needs” – a term imposed with the best of intentions to try to undermine stigma and prejudice – quickly became co-opted as an insult. People were described as “a bit special” if they behaved in ways that seemed unpredictable or foolish to most onlookers.
Neurodiversity already has an advantage in the challenging-stigma game, because it was created within the community it describes, rather than being imposed by well-meaning others. But if we start to use neurodiverse only to describe people whose neurotype differs from the neurotypical majority, we recreate the Us and Them boundaries that lead inexorably to ableism. Neurodiverse becomes a synonym for “you are different from me” (where “me” is the neurotypical) when it should mean “we are different from each other”.
One of many positive and powerful things about neurodiversity is that the lexicon encompasses ways to capture the individual differences between us all (sources of neurodiversity) and to recognise category boundaries (sources of neurodivergence) in one unified framework. Of course, we can’t be sure that “neurodivergent” won’t just become the latest playground insult. But my hope is that in this case the stigma will struggle to take hold because neurodivergence is so closely yoked to a phenomenon that encompasses us all – neurodiversity.
This brings me to my second lesson from history.
Let’s think about ethnic diversity for a moment. This is a concept that should bring people together but has instead reinforced existing prejudices through misuse.^ Ethnic diversity is a property of the whole human race, but all too often white people use both the word “ethnic”, and the word “diverse” to refer exclusively to people of colour. Consider phrases such as “the diversity hire” to describe a non-white person employed in a majority-white company. While at least a dictionary definition of “ethnic” includes reference to being in a culturally-distinct minority, there’s no such excuse for “diverse”.
What we see when someone from a majority group (neurotypical people, white people in the UK) uses “diverse” to mean “unusual” is an eradication of the ethnicity or neurotype of the speaker. They do not class themselves as a part of diversity because they do not recognise the relative unusual-ness of their own identity. Instead, they think of themselves as “normal” and hence everyone else as “diverse”. The desire to other is strong enough to overcome the fundamental meanings of the words in question.
Of course, none of this is meant to instruct individuals how they should identify personally. The language of neurodiversity might not be right for you, or your loved ones. There is often value in using more specific language – such as “I am dyslexic” or “I have ADHD” – but in any case everyone is entitled to their own preference. If you do choose to use the language of neurodiversity, however, let’s try to get it right and avoid repeating the mistakes that have been made in the past.
º Many thanks to a reader who noted that an earlier version of this post incorrectly credited Judy Singer as the sole creator of the language of neurodiversity. I made the mistake of failing to credit Kassiane Asasumasu for her crucial contribution to the language discussed in this article – she coined the words neurodivergent and neurodivergence. The opening paragraph of this article was updated in January 2022.
* If you’re not keen on ‘divergent’ as a suffix – personally I think it’s fine but not everyone agrees, and I can see how it could be uncomfortably close to ‘deviant’ for example – then perhaps neuro-atypical, or “from a minority neurotype” might be more up your street.
^ I am not an expert on the language of racism, either by personal experience or professional training. I have tried to make this point from an educated perspective but if I have got any of this grossly wrong then please correct me and also forgive me.