What is Neurodiversity? Does it Exclude People with Severe Disabilities?

Neurodiversity – the idea that neurological differences (Autism,  Tourette Syndrome, ADHD, Dyscalculia, Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, and others) are natural variations in the evolution of the human genome.

Neurodivergent people have brought many great things society.  Attempting to “cure” future disability by preventing neurodiverse people from being born would be tremendously harmful to humanity.

Opponents of neurodiversity argue that neurodiversity conveniently ignores people on the spectrum who need extra help and cannot live on their own or are more severely handicapped by their neurological differences.

First off, many of us aren’t high-functioning enough to benefit from depathologizing autism. The neurodiversity movement doesn’t have much to say about lower-functioning autistics, who are decidedly less inspirational.

Gwendolyn Kansen – Pacific Standard

I want to clarify here why Neurodiversity does NOT ignore or exclude anyone.

What about people who are severely affected? How can that be a natural variation?

Thing’s aren’t that simple and I feel a strong urge to clarify what I’ve uncovered on this topic.

Neurodivergent people, myself included, tend to be more sensitive to chemicals and other environmental contaminants than the rest of the population.

Science suggests that autistic people may have weakened blood brain barriers, allowing toxins to flow into the brain during development.

People who are chemically intolerant often have serious reactions to common chemicals and some become too sick to carry out routine functions. Chemical intolerance affects about 10 percent to 30 percent of the U.S. population. Developmental disorders such as autism and attention-deficit disorder affect one in six children in the United States.

Read the full article here on Science Daily

This puts autistic children at greater risk for chemical brain injury than typically developing children.

Though exposure to chemical may not be the leading cause of brain injury, it can be dangerous to healthy brain functioning. It is not easy to accept the fact that by just being expose to chemicals which are available in the places where we work, in the house, in the garden and in almost every place where we go.

There are different classes of chemicals that could produce substances which could be lethal on the brain.

Full article here at the Brain Injury Institute 

Mothers with chemical intolerances are 2-3 times more likely than other women to have a child with autism or ADHD, according to a 2015 study.

If you’ve been following autism research in recent years, you have probably read—many times—that familial, or inherited, risk is seldom the whole picture. A few inherited genes are sufficient by themselves to cause autism. But most so-called “autism genes” only increase the risk that an infant will go on to develop this developmental disorder. As is the case in many complex diseases, it appears that autism often results from a combination of genetic susceptibility and environmental triggers.

This is where epigenetics comes in. Epigenetics is the study of the factors that control gene expression, and this control is mediated by chemicals that surround a gene’s DNA. Environmental epigenetics looks at how outside influences modify these epigenetic chemicals, or “markers,” and so affect genetic activity.

Alycia Halladay, PhD, Autism Speaks director of research for environmental sciences

People with traumatic brain injuries often develop symptoms of Autism and other comorbid conditions such as sensory overload. The similarities are undeniable and the effects look very similar to autism and other natural neurological differences (although they tend to be more severe).

What does it all mean? 

Some supporters of neurodiversity argue that people who are truly disabled by their brain differences pulled the short straw and are just unlucky in the neurodiverse spectrum, but this theory has never felt quite right.

Being neurodivergent does seem to be genetic and it may put you at a greater risk of chemical intolerance and brain injury. Neurodiverse children may be extra sensitive to chemicals in their environment – this could explain why some children develop more severe complications and comorbidities than others.

Only time will tell as modern science uncovers more and more information regarding the human brain and how it works.

So why do we need neurodiversity? More thoughts on the importance of this concept here in a post titled Why theWorld Needs Neurodiversity.




87 thoughts on “What is Neurodiversity? Does it Exclude People with Severe Disabilities?

  1. It’s a complicated issue for sure. I’ve still not decided which side I fall on. I’ve seen both make good arguments. All I know for sure is that nobody should be made to feel bad for being who they are, wether they have a “disability” or not.

  2. I like your username…so if one is a neurodivergent who rebels does that make them Neurotypical? 😉 lol

    I think the issue to this article is straight forward in the sense that whatever one chooses to refer to themselves as is what is right for them. Certainly, no one needs to refer to themselves as autistic and can choose alternate verbiage if they so choose. In the end, I suppose it depends on the person and what makes them comfortable! I reverse numbers sometimes and by default will always think to the end of a problem and work backwards with the end goal in mind, but when tested by a medical professional, did not have the qualifiers to be considered officially dyslexic. However, I still will refer to myself as “dyslexic” when I am dealing with people I find to think differently to make them less intimidated by new train of thought and to explain re/check numbers. I am not one for labels especially when people who are not qualified attempt to diagnose, but think whatever you wish to call yourself, regardless of what that is, is your prerogative and can aid people in understanding more about you!

    1. Thank you for your thoughts. I think the most important thing here is acceptance. Cure culture can be very damaging because having someone telling you that you are “defective” your entire life is hard on your self esteem (specifically how we talk to our differently abled children). To quote Temple Grandin – “We are different not less.” Neurodiversity insists on this fact and says – I am me, I was born this way and I am not ashamed. It’s time to lift up people and tell them – you are amazing because you are YOU!

  3. Fascinating topic! I agree that it doesn’t help to label and judge people simply because their brains are wired a little differently – everybody has unique gifts to bring to this world! I just think it’s so important to try and find a lifestyle that works for YOU. Not everyone fits the classic school-college-corporate job-buy house and car-start family model…and nobody should be required to squeeze themselves into a box that doesn’t fit. Here’s to freedom, understanding and the beauty of diversity! 🙂

  4. Your more than welcome and I agree more positive is essential Im literally am reading conversations with God by Neale Donald Walsh if you haven’t read it I think you should really consider it it’s an amazing book with so much positive influence

  5. Thanks for stopping by and following! I’ll return the favor.

    Anyway, interesting perspective here. I go back and forth on the topic myself as due to having autism I am shut out of my dream career (airline pilot) because the FAA does not tolerate such afflictions. Sometimes I wonder if I were to be “cured” if my life would be better; others I wonder if maybe the powers that be (in this case the FAA) are the ones who need to change. At any rate, this is food for thought here.

    1. “the powers that be (in this case the FAA) are the ones who need to change.” – YES. You are NOT the problem, sounds like the rules are the problem. It’s unfair discrimination. This is exactly why we need more awareness of neurodiversity – to defeat the stigmas and false assumptions people have. Thank you so much for adding to the conversation!

      1. “YES. You are NOT the problem, sounds like the rules are the problem. It’s unfair discrimination. This is exactly why we need more awareness of neurodiversity – to defeat the stigmas and false assumptions people have.”

        Preach it, Wise One! 😊❤️👏🏼

  6. Great post! My opinion is that everyone in this world is disabled in some way, for instance, I’ve seen stereotypically successful people brought down hard by personal flaws. Thus, instead of finding endless lists of real or supposed shortcomings, we should focus on promoting each person’s strong points. And for those who are indeed wholly beset by all sorts of limiting conditions, then we should exercise compassion and respect.

  7. Happy to see someone mention epigenetics. I’ve made passing reference to it, also read up on it at Wikipedia. But I never really had the time or patience to spell it out. Also, I would add that neuroplasticity is another key idea.

    I believe this can really help when we try to “train” ourselves into some kind of desired behavior… even without a mental injury. Sorry if you mentioned this idea here or elsewhere. I’m short of time right now! 🙂

      1. I read your article last night but was so rushed that my mind wasn’t processing all of it as carefully as had I read it slower. So I thought maybe you just phrased it differently. Live long and prosper! 🙂

  8. I would argue with some of these scientific “experts” that with some neurodiverse individuals the negative traits of their condition (having trouble focusing on things of no interest as a trait of ADHD for example) are balanced by enhanced abilities that are born and developed as a result of this (such as having hyperfocus on playing guitar and becoming proficient with the instrument as a result of this).

  9. Would anxiety, severe depression, etc., be included under the neurodivergent umbrella? This is the first I’ve heard the term “neurodivergence,” and I’m fascinated by everything mind/brain-related. I’m so glad that you found me and liked my blog post!

    1. I think so. Thomas Armstrong includes anxiety, depression, bipolar, mood affectiveness and schizophrenia in his definition of neurodiversity, as do a few others. The debilitating and heavily stigmatised nature of mental illness, however, makes a lot of people reluctant to talk about them in a positive light in terms of the beneficial worldviews such experiences can potentially impart. It’s a touchy subject, but one that I think has a lot of value. I have Aspergers and a severe mood affectiveness and anxiety that makes life both awesome and horrifying depending on the circumstances. I’d like to hear more talk about recognising and harnessing the strengths of such experiences…a lot of the discourse focuses on the negatives and I feel I get bogged down in that kind of talk an awful lot because it draws my focus and keeps it there. One of the best things I have experienced in terms of personal growth and coping was having anxiety framed to me as something that in addition to being a horrible restriction on life also allows me to consider things automatically from all perspectives and possibilities, making me an excellent planner and problem solver!

    2. You know, I am not an expert on anxiety and depression. Generally neurodiversity includes any brain type that someone can be born with. Typically categorized are people with Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Dyscalculia, Autism, Tourette, etc. – hope that helps.

      1. This was wonderful to read. My daughter has ADHD and sensory processing disorder SPD. She reacts strongly to food dyes, sugars, noises, heat/cold. I am the mom who has chemical sensitivities. I noticed somethings were “off” since she was a baby. She wasn’t anything like my other daughter and no amount of consoling would help. I really had to learn how to navigate life around all these things that bothered her. It was a guessing game and her dr wasn’t helpful. It wasn’t until I was lead to a therapist through synchronicity that I was able to start getting her help!

  10. Hey there, really interesting post. I’ve been writing a paper on neurodiversity in academia recently and some similar questions were raised for me. I couldn’t help but wonder how useful the concept of neurodiversity is for those who struggle a lot more than what I do. I guess my thought in this regard is that it seems a lot of the struggle is due to a restrictive, inflexible and exclusionary social framework. Most of the difficulties I personally encounter have less to do with my ‘symptoms’ and more to do with the fact that the world today is not built to accommodate people with my particular experiences. It’s like swimming against the tide most of the time. I think rather than framing ‘neurodiversity’ as a movement that seeks to normalise neurological difference, the focus should perhaps be more on challenging the social frameworks so that they become more aware, understanding and accepting of those differences with the ultimate aim of creating a more enabling society. We are always going to struggle, I think, but there is a lot that could be done to reduce how much of a struggle we have to face.

    1. And also – as part of that ‘enabling’ society, actually ensuring that is an ‘engaging’ society. By this I mean, giving neurodiverse people the chance to have their experiences valued as worthy view points and contributions rather than just offering the token sense of sympathy that tends to come with ‘inclusion of disability’ policies.

      1. Thank you SO much for adding to the conversation! Great thoughts for sure. I think more than anything we all need to speak up and learn to advocate for ourselves. People think you are crazy when you tell them that fluorescent lighting literally makes you sick – like REALLY sick. Still a LOT of us have this problem and this horrible lighting is used EVERYWHERE! Awareness would be a start accommodation without skepticism would be even better.

        1. It is even used in university lecture and tutorial rooms…something that has been an issue for me for years. I actually had to have a long conversation with the university disability officer when my lecture attendance fell dramatically. I asked her why I would subject myself to a 2 hour lecture that I couldn’t follow, hear or understand because of the buzzing, eye-destroying lights, and then go home with a subsequent headache that would put me out of commission for at least 24 hours, when I could just listen to the lecture recorded online at home? She thought I was just being fussy. It took me 2 years for them to take it seriously, and by that time I only had one year of my bachelor degree left! Public speaking was another issue…I struggle to speak aloud a lot of the time. It just got chalked up to anxiety for years, then we discovered that me passing out when speaking in front of groups was a combination of anxiety and extreme tactile and proprioceptive synesthesia triggered by the sound of my voice! Again…everyone thought I was just making far out excuses. It’s been really hard, and so I hope the paper I am writing now goes a long way towards challenging academia to be a bit more mindful of this kind of stuff, and also to engage these experiences as ways to contribute as well as acknowledge them as serious difficulties.

  11. I appreciate the resources. In an era of limited fact checking, providing them helps us along in the conversation. I may use some in classes I teach, so thank you for sharing resources!

    1. Wow – thank you so much! I will always try to provide links to information on this blog whenever possible. A lot of the information I’ve been researching for a while now and some MAY be in books so if I can’t link the original source I will do my best to find SOMETHING. 🙂

  12. I am almost 75 and have had a neurological disorder since I could crawl, probably since birth. I live with pain daily, but gave up doctors years ago (they were useless) in favor of meditation and the occasional Advil. I was not familiar with the term neurodiversity until this very moment, but have been expressing some of these…symptoms? ideas?…for some time (i.e., ‘triggering’, etc.), so I am cheering you on from afar. I rarely follow blogs due to time limitations, but I will be following yours. I have found throughout my life that once a person understands something, it is easier to change it, sometimes even heal it. The things you are sharing really need sharing, so I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

    1. WOW! Thank you SO much for your thoughts and kind words. I am honored that you have chosen to follow along with my blog. If I help even one person then all the work is worth it. #maketheworldbrighter

      1. You are very welcome. I have had a look at the links in your blog and am amazed (horrified?) that I fit almost everything, especially where over-stimulation is concerned. Thanks again. Knowing is the first step to changing (and it’s never too late).

  13. I have used that term neurodiversity for many years when I refer to my ADHD. I think it is great that you mentioned this in your article! Great observations!

  14. I am neurodivergent and probably more severe due to ADHD and depression along with mild dyslexia (can read backwards and upside down, like Davinci). I too am unsure about those that are unable to be independent or have severe cases that cause such limitations. I never thought of chemical intolerances being linked. My family and I would fall under that though we can take OTC meds fine but it is prescription meds that can be the harshest, like prednisone, macrobid, Bactrian, vancomycin, and the like. Thanks for the articles and references. I appreciate it.

  15. Neurodivergent Rebel,

    Excellent post and great thoughts! I like your well-referenced explanations for the effects of chemical sensitivity and environmental sensitivity some people experience. In my view, it is actually better for the human species to have diversity, not only genetically, but in our abilities, including the potential for those with heightened sensitivities to be helpful to the population at large. Rather than look at neurodivergent people as those that need greater help to accommodate to the mainstream lifestyle, neurodivergents may be evolutionary canaries in the coal mine, warning us all of potentially harmful or toxic environmental issues. Fluorescent lighting, excessive chemical use and neurotoxic pesticides may effect neurodivergent people more quickly and to a more debilitating extent than neutotypicals, but that does not mean that these environmental stressers are benign overall!

    When it comes to ADHD, for another example, those with ADHD may have a harder time coping with distractions and lack of physical exercise that is common in our current Western culture. Modern offices have “open” floor plans and excessive noise, which makes it harder for anyone to concentrate, but especially those with ADHD and other neurodivergencies. And sitting all day is difficult for those with the hyperactive type of ADHD.

    I am glad I found your blog and will keep reading!

    Sue Shekut, LPC, LMT

  16. Thank you for this article. The way you define this is a great help to me who has at least two conditions, probably three. I really nerd out on the mental health issues associated with psychosis. Most people I work with as a licensed psychotherapist find me trustable and innovative and effective. I have learned to be authentic and helpful. But in the politics of social change, I get bullied and minimized in manners that are extremely painful. As you suggest some people suport neuro divergence and some people try to extinguish this as in eugenics and intolerance. But if one doesn’t understand the hatred people have angled against them, they can continue to be harmed by people trying to compete against them and they can become hobbled and hurt to the point where they give up. Then they lovelessly decline and suffer in our social instituions. I point this out to people who are against neuro divergence as I think it is really a eugenic and godless stance to take. Many great and intelligent people become impoverished. The haves hate the have nots. I see it at work everyday and it is a cruel thing to behold.

    Thank you.

  17. Thank you for liking my post. “Neurodivergent” is a new word for me, but it does seem to fit me in a way. I’m glad I read this. It made me feel a little less different and cut off from other people. Maybe I have something meaningful to contribute after all. Thank you again.

  18. Interesting correlation between TBI and sensory overload. I had never experienced it before the accident… I knew that non-epileptic seizures had a strong tie to TBI and that the overloads are triggers for episodes; I should have linked the two experiences together.

  19. To see people as labels walking around is not to see the unique beauty that is each and everyone of us – regardless of whatever else forms part of the package that is ‘me’

  20. Um, in short. Hidden disabilities. Yes, perfumes! I don’t care how much you spent on that perfume. You wasted money. Because it’s giving me a miagraine. Cheers,H

  21. I personally dislike the neurodivergent term. I have worked with a lot of people as a RN for 20 years now and I have honestly never met anyone who is “neurotypical.” What I don’t like about the term is that it reinforces that idea that we are something apart from other people when we are not. How much someone is effected by the disorder largely determines how much help they need in life, but this is no different then someone with back problems or those who have had a stroke. I rather like focusing my energy on meeting people where they are. Everyone is different so we are all divergent. As far as the cure conversation goes, I think it is amazingly complex. Does my ADHD and OCD need to be cured? Would I want one if it was available to me? I don’t know. I’m not sure that question is any more clear for those more effected. I have worked with plenty of people who have treatment options but choose to stay as they are, untreated. But I will say, that I have sought treatment for myself because my functional level was so low and if asked then about a cure, I would have taken it without hesitation. So, like anything in health care, I think that we need to make options available and then let people choose for themselves. But I think that the core solution to most of this is simple tolerance. Humans tend to be resistant to things that are different then they are. We are rather egocentric like that. It isn’t because we hate each other, we just have a difficult time getting outside our own box. Humans are funny creatures…

  22. While few people would opt to acquire a disability, studies have shown that those living with a disability are not more unhappy than others. I might add that God values people whatever their physical or mental capabilities. That, in any event, is the Christian viewpoint.

  23. I find your article very interesting and informative! I still have an open mind about this, as you well said, we still have to unravel the “mysteries” of the human brain. As parent of one of those kids that may be considered “severe” (I disagree with this though! hehe) I’m very thankful this conversation is happening. I believe it’s very important specially from the self-advocates point of view as this was one of the most contradictory and confusing “loose ends” in self-advocacy ideology. And I found it sad because, for me, self-advocacy was the beginning of me really understanding my child and, despite I might not agree 100% with what is said, I respect them and thank them for everything I’ve learn that has empower me to fight for my child rights and challenge others about my child abilities. It’s so refreshing to see how this subject is more reflectively thought! It’s not as simple as some try to put it… but only reasonable and well inform discussions may get us to a better understanding. Thanks for posting this… I loved it! – Marta

    1. Thank you! This piece means a lot to me. It was the first thing that I really felt like I “needed” to write it. Also, I think it is good to learn from others all over the spectrum. Two books stand out to me, and I would love to recommend them to you (unless you have already read them) . They are Carly’s Voice and Life Animated, very inspiring.

      1. No really, thank you for adventuring in such a tricky territory with your well researched post. I know about Carly, she’s such an inspiration! I didn’t know about life animated but look awesome! I will check it later. I also like “the reason I jump” (Higashida) and the book “Neurodiversity” by the lovely and funny Barb Rentenbach. I love to see so many autistic (many of them non-verbal) getting the word out there, give me so much hopes for the future…

  24. My blog (Asperger Human) focuses on the “dark side” of the autism industry in the U.S. My objection to lumping together “ASD people” regardless of the origin of their “symptoms” is that it is a convenient way for medical doctors and hospital corporations to “hide” mistakes and malpractice that cause brain damage during pregnancy and delivery, especially by promoting premature births, artificial reproductive interventions, multiple births and pregnancy in older parents, and caesarean sections, often merely for convenience. By labeling the child as “autistic” they dodge lawsuits and moral and ethical responsibility for exceedingly profitable but reckless practices.
    No one wants to face this truth, but to ignore it is a tragedy for children and families across the U.S.

  25. Very interest concept – the idea that neurodiversity is genetic while impairment or severity is more environmentally based. I need more time to mull it over, but I think you provide enough evidence to really take this idea seriously.

  26. I like having Asperger’s and would not be me without it. I like seeing colours my way (intensely), hearing my way (confusingly sensitively), thinking my way (divergently) and being me. Without the mix of genes and environment I would not be me, a valuable and valid human being. Thanks for the blog and post.

  27. This is fascinating. I wrote a paper for grad school on how the original gene for higher intelligence was linked to mood disorders––perhaps the earliest case of neurodiversity that affected primarily mental states. I’m sure you’ve read Oliver Sacks’ description of the immensely competent surgeon with Tourette’s.

    Personally, I think that, while in the earliest days of our evolution, the “us vs. them” thinking was warranted for survival, we have now let it turn itself against our better interests. Those of us with qualities or conditions not considered “normal” have long been able to contribute more and differently to humanity. The above comment from someone with Asperger’s is a case in point. He or she has probably had extra training to make the world less confusing; but, as an artist and human being, the contribution of a mind able to perceive intensely and think differently makes the world incredibly richer.

  28. I’ve been diagnosed with moderate to severe autism. My take on neurodiversity is disability is a natural part of life. Also all brains are valuable and have their own talents so why am I any less than someone that’s higher functioning than me?

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