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Marisa Kofke

This module aligns with the following DSE tenets:

  • contextualize disability within political and social 

  • privilege the interest, agendas, and voices of people labeled with disability/disabled people

  • promote social justice, equitable and inclusive educational opportunities, and full and meaningful access to all aspects of society for people labeled with disability/disabled people

  • assume competence and reject deficit models of disability (Connor and colleagues, 2007).

The term Neurodiversity has become commonly used in education, but what does it mean and where does it come from? This learning module will provide a brief history of Neurodiversity, review terminology, trends and issues, and briefly discuss how teachers can engage in Neurodiversity-affirming practices.

Neurodiversity definition and history

Neurodiversity means the diversity of human neurology and minds (Walker & Raymaker, 2021). This term was first cited in 1998 by Judy Singer, an Australian autistic rights advocate, in her undergraduate thesis and also by journalist Harvey Blume when he first wrote about this topic in the Atlantic (Armstrong, 2015). However, autistic people had been discussing the concept of neurodiversity in online forums prior to the official citation (Kapp, 2020, Walker & Raymaker, 2021). They realized that the deficit narrative for autism needed to be reframed and acknowledged their neurology represented another form of diversity. Singer’s definition connected the concept of neurological diversity to nature and ecology where she determined that similar to all the forms of diversity found occurring in the natural world, there is also natural diversity in the neurology of human brains (Milton, 2020).

While autistic self-advocates, activists, and community organizers were responsible for the origins of neurodiversity, it has become an umbrella term for many kinds of neurological differences and disabilities. ADHD, learning disabilities like dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia,  Tourette’s, and Down Syndrome are some examples of the diagnostic categories that fall under the neurodiversity umbrella (see image below). Neurodiversity has increased the understanding that neurology is diverse and should be celebrated instead of pathologized and remediated.












Image Description: A light purple profile of a human head facing to the left with the word Neurodiversity typed inside. Around the profile are overlapping purple and green bubbles with diagnostic categories labeled in each one. Strength-based descriptions of the overlapping categories, as well as the individual category, are included. See Appendix for a detailed description of the image.

Conceptualizing Neurodiversity

There are several commonly used terms and frameworks that clarify the impact of Neurodiversity on neurodiverse populations, which stem from listening to their experiences. The term neurodivergent refers to individuals who have a brain that diverges from what is known as typical (or Neurotypical) by societal standards (Neurodivergent K, 2015). The Neurodiversity Movement refers to the political realities and oppressive conditions happening to neurodiverse people. It is a social justice movement seeking full inclusion in society for neurodivergent people (Kapp, 2020; Walker, 2014). The Neurodiversity Paradigm is an ideological framing of Neurodiversity that connects justice-oriented neurodiversity concepts in opposition of the pathology paradigm, which seeks to medicalize and pathologize neurodiverse populations (Walker and Raymaker, 2021; Walker, 2014). The experiences of neurodiverse populations are considered valuable and societal changes should occur in order to promote more equitable conditions for neurodiverse populations.

There are several actionable ways to indicate support the Neurodiversity Movement and Neurodiversity Paradigm. With regard to autism, using identity-first language (“autistic person” or “autistics”) promotes the neurodiversity paradigm and most autistics advocate for the use of identity-first language (Botha, et al., 2021). Some other neurodiverse communities are also taking up the use of identity-first language (e.g. ADHDer, dyslexic, dyscalculic, etc.). Autistic people of color have discussed the intersectional nature of neurodiversity. The intersection of racism and ableism increases structural and social barriers for neurodiverse BIPOC (Onaiwu, 2020). There is also an increased intersection of neurodivergence and LGBTQIA+ (George & Stokes, 2018; Sala et al., 2020) who experience homophobia and transphobia intersected with ableism and racism if they are also BIPOC. Understanding these experiences and responding with equitable and inclusive practices is an important way to demonstrate support of Neurodiversity.

There has been a recent and misleading trend promoting neurodiversity as a difference instead of understanding the nuances of how neurodivergent people are disabled (Den Houting, 2019). The term Neurodiversity should not be applied as a euphemism for disability. Neurodivergent people are also disabled and require accommodations and modifications within ableist systems and societal structures that do not affirm neurodiverse perspectives. Neurodivergent people mask (or camouflage) their neurodivergent traits. Masking means either intentionally or unintentionally acting neurotypical in order to fit in better at school, make friends, and have meaningful employment. The research on masking shows corresponding mental health issues occur as a result. This includes lack of identity, depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation (Miller, Rees, & Pearson, 2021). Autistic adults have discussed the need to learn about masking for their survival, as they would not be embraced or understood as their authentic selves in schools or the workforce and are at a higher risk of victimization (Pearson & Rose, 2021).

Neurodiversity and Education

Educators who ascribe to a neurodiversity paradigm understand that alternative neurology is not a deficit, but a natural part of the human experience. They do not seek to remediate, fix, or rehabilitate their students. Rather, educators who understand the nuances of neurodiversity have a strengths-based approach to teaching and supporting their students (Armstrong, 2015). They also should seek out the first-person narratives of neurodivergent people in order to understand their students better and provide neurodiversity-affirming supports. Neurodiversity is discussed openly in school and celebrated by these educators. They also provide resources for the general school population to learn how to interact with their neurodivergent peers.

Neurodiverse students require accommodations and modifications, to support executive functioning, sensory needs, and corresponding mental health issues related to masking, need to be provided with opportunities to make choices, and universally designed instruction, in order to create access to inclusive education. There should be opportunities for students to engage in neurodiversity mentorship programs between neurodiverse youth and adults.  Neurodiverse youth should also be encouraged to participate in neurodiverse communities – either in-person or online (Acevedo & Nusbaum, 2020).

If you would like to learn more about Neurodiversity, check out these resources:



Above the profile is a purple bubble with the word Dyscalculia. Underneath is Verbal skills, innovative thinking. To the right it overlaps with Dyslexia. Creativity is in the overlapped area. Underneath Dyslexia is visual thinking, creativity, 3D mechanical skills. To the right it overlaps with ADHD. Authenticity is in the overlapped area. Below ADHD in small print is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, then underneath that is creativity, hyper-focus, energy and passion. Rotating around the back of the profile, underneath AHDH is Tourette Syndrome. In the overlapped area is hyperfocus. Underneath Tourette Syndrome is observational skills, cognitive control, creativity. To the lower left is Acquired Neurodiversity, which is directly below the profile. In the overlapping area is innovative thinking. Underneath Acquired Neurodiversity is adaptability, empathy. To the left is Mental Health. In the overlapped area is resilience. Underneath mental health is depth of thinking, expression. Above is ASC, which is located to the left of the profile. In the overlap is sensory awareness. Underneath ASC is Autism Spectrum Condition in small print, then underneath that is concentration, fine motor processing, memory. Above is DCD/Dyspraxia. In the overlap is honesty. Underneath DCD/Dyspraxia is verbal skills, empathy, intuition. To the right is the top of the profile, coming full circle back to dyscalculia. In the overlap area is verbal skills. 


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