Neurodiversity – Part 2 – Divergence

Last time [link] we covered that the concept of neurodiversity is to accept that humans are varied – such as eyes colour, height, blood type and thought types. Neurodiversity is the aspect of how we think that varies from individual to individual, where most humans are called neurotypical and a proportion of individuals are considered neurodivergent.

As the concept is relatively new and many people are working on this field from around the world, we started off with some terminology in brief. I highly recommend that you take a review of it to get the main terms so that we are speaking the same language.

In this Part we are going to look at divergence from the norm and what that means.

Neurotypical vs Neurodivergent – What it Means

The average IQ for humans is 100. However most people who fill in an IQ test won’t get 100, they will get around it. If your result is 105, does that make you atypical? No. Average IQ is a range of scores that most people fall in. For IQ, the standard deviation is 15 points. If you score between 85 and 115, you are considered to be average, or typical. For IQ specifically, 68% of the population is considered to be “average”. We could refer to this average population as IQ-typical.

To represent this, we use a bell curve. It is a useful concept to understand how must people fit in to this “average” space, and some of the population are outside of it.

Bell curve showing that most people are neurotypical but not all
More people are neurotypical than not, but not all people are neurotypical

It is hard to determine the percentage of the population that is neurotypical. When the neurodiversity concept was first being tossed around, it was originally picked up by autistic people as a way to redefine the definition of autism from the stigma of disorder (something is wrong) to different (variation is ok). While neurotypical was being used as shorthand for “not autistic”, it was 99% of the population. As other thinking styles have been added to the umbrella of neurodivergent the population of who is not neurotypical has expanded. When ADHD was included in the definition of neurodivergent, the percentage jumped quite a bit, from 1% (autism only) to about 12%.

As the definition of neurodiverse varies, this ratio of neurotypical is going to move.

There are good points to making the neurodivergent definition more inclusive of those who are clearly not neurotypical. If only 1% of the population requires special consideration, this small minority group is easy for governments to shrug off. The larger that “minority group” is, the harder it is to ignore.

There is also a problem with neurodivergence being adopted by everyone. If everyone is neurodivergent, then what does it mean? How does this help us? We might as well say that you are human. In a way, that is true – you are human. We all are. How does you being human help me understand who you are? Another aspect of this is that if you are in the population labelled as having ADHD, that doesn’t make you the same as my other friend also who has ADHD, so the label is not a definition of you, but might give me some clues about what you need to feel comfortable and function well over and above the label “human”.

Some labels have some fairly heavy stigma attached to them. Autism is often seen as a non-functional socially inept individual. Fortunately that is starting to shift a bit as more people with autism come out who previously blended in or are seen as quite functional.  ADHD is often ascribed to as “naughty” or “misbehaved” rather than “has troubles prioritising” and “very active”, mostly because the “treat everyone the same” teaching and parenting methods fail to take into account the thinking pattern that people with ADHD have, with the consequence that they act out. Psychopathic people are also being considered as neurodivergent and the stigma attached psychopathy is “ruthless murderer”. The majority of people who have compromised compassion feedback loop aka psychopathy, are not murderers and are just trying to get on with their lives. The stigma of some of these diagnoses means that it can feel uncomfortable being considered under the same umbrella as the other diagnoses – I may be neurodivergent, but I don’t want to carry the stigma of that other condition, my own is enough.

How to Measure Divergence

Another point to consider with the term is how different does someone have to be to be considered divergent versus typical? While I appreciate that dyslexia is a difficult brain difference to manage, does it really make someone neurodivergent?

Depending on the type of dyslexia, written words can have quite a different pathway to conscious thought. My form of dyslexia means that I say each read word “out loud” within the confines of my head, hearing the written word rather than just knowing the written word. I will also sometimes substitute a word in my head for what is on the page, actually seeing that substituted word – a form of optical delusion. Another aspect of my dyslexia is that when I construct a sentence to write, I see what I have constructed in my mind on the page (an optical delusion), not necessarily what my hand has written – which can be radically different. This makes proofreading particularly tricky. Clearly this changes the way that I process written words, but does that make me neurodivergent, or just on the edge of neurotypical? How divergent does your thinking need to be to be considered outside of neurotypical?

This is reflected in the IQ scale. Technically an IQ of 101 is above the mean average, but because IQ range isn’t measured on the mean, it actually falls within the standard deviation and is considered to be average. In a similar way, thinking a bit differently may not make you neurodivergent, just odd.

There are many people who are neurodivergent that appear neurotypical. Often this is because they have worked hard to appear that way. Their personal struggles have lead to a hard life and a great deal of adaptation problems, but they have finally managed to blend in. There are also many people who are neurodivergent that are obviously not neurotypical and are quite dysfunctional.

Defining neurotypical and neurodivergent based on functionality seems to be a mistake. It is more important to look at how the separation of how the different ways of processing and thinking places a person away from the neurotypical average. It is often said that the school teaching methods for primary and high school is ideal for 1/3 of students, adequate for another 1/3 of students and not helpful for the last 1/3 students. I posit that the last 1/3 of the student population listed above are likely to be neurodivergent, where the teachers attempting to explain in a typical way how a thing works does not computer for most of the last students. Some of this 1/3 of students are also just poorly behaved due to other reasons.

Part 3 – Living with Neurodivergence

Next time we will look at what it is like to be neurodiverse and not know it.