Here are some definitions for some terms you may encounter as you research Neurodiversity. These are not intended to be authoritative or definitive — these are my own attempt to usefully summarize and synthesize my understanding. But I’m open for user feedback — please feel free to submit corrections or new terms on the
page and definitions and I’ll grab the ones that seem most helpful and integrate them into this document.
There is a lot of specialist vocabulary related to neurodiversity, and some of these terms are still in flux. This page is going to do its best to summarize and define some key ideas as generally and correctly as possible without bogging down in minutia.
Neurodiversity — as coined by Doctor Singer, Neurodiversity is a subset of Biodiversity. Just as there are many varied configurations of physical traits that are all valid ways of being a member of a species there are also varied configurations of neurological traits. Neurodiversity is just the idea that different kinds of brains exist and that difference is not deficit.
Neurotype — a specific individual’s neurological configuration. Neurodiversity means that the presence of different neurotypes within one species is expected and valid.
Neurodivergent (ND) — an individual is said to be “neurodivergent” if their neurotype differs from what is considered Neurotypical.
Neurotypical (NT) — The most common shared human neurotype. Most human beings are “Neurotypical” in most ways.
Divergent Neurotypes — Often more than one of these conditions exist within the same person. Note that these are very high-level summaries and nothing in this document is intended to be diagnostic. My intention has been to represent these conditions in non-pathologizing terms, which is a conscious choice made to reduce stigma. Also note that while we’re pretty sure most neurodivergent traits are inborn, there are also a few acquired neurotypes which are included with notes.
Autism — A neurotype that differs from Neurotypicality in some specific ways around pattern recognition, sensory experience, attentional regulation and a need for routine. See
cPTSD — An acquired neurotype characterized by hypervigilance to threats and susceptibility to fight-or-flight responses to triggers. Rather than concrete events, CPTSD is acquired through sustained exposure to feelings of unsafety. You don’t flashback to the time X happened, your body and nervous system flash back to the time when they felt unsafe. See
OCD — A neurotype characterized by the obsessive need to be absolutely certain of some things, leading to compulsive behaviors to ensure certainty. (Note: the compulsive behavior can present as cognitive, so intrusive thoughts that keep coming back can be a form of OCD). See
PTSD — an acquired neurotype resulting from experiencing a traumatic event. Your body and mind need to process the trauma in order to release it; until then you can be triggered into a flashback by anything that reminds you of the event. See
TBI — An acquired neurotype that can present in various ways as a result of a traumatic brain injury. Basically: physical damage to your brain can cause your neurotype to change in unpredictable ways. See
Useful Terms — Every domain comes up with terms of art that take on specific nuanced meaning within that domain, and disability and neurodiversity are no exception. Here are some words and phrases you might here in discussions about neurodiversity.
Disability — This is a big one. Disability isn’t a dirty word and it isn’t something to be ashamed of. 25% of all people are disabled, and most people will be disabled at some point in their lives due to injury or age or other constraints. Don’t think of disability as in any way a failure of an individual - a disability is a place where a person’s capabilities are not accommodated by that person’s environment. Note that impaired vision, for instance, is easily treated with glasses and not generally considered to be a disability; without glasses, though, it would be.
Impairment — A way in which function is decreased as a result of some process. Things like being nearsighted, being non-speaking, being deaf can be considered impairments but that doesn’t intrinsically make them disabilities. We don’t consider near-sightedness a disability because accommodation is generally available in the form of glasses and contact lenses.
Ableism — A set of biases that society reinforces against disabled people. Ableism, like misogyny or racism, can be invisible to those people who don’t experience it until they learn to see it, at which point it’s hard to unsee. Combating ableism means accommodating peoples’ needs without holding it against them; it means challenging ableist language like “crazy” or “easy”; it means constantly putting yourself into the intersectional shoes of people whose lived experiences are different than yours.
Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria — A lot of ND people are highly sensitive to feeling socially rejected. This is either a trauma response or a specific neurological predilection common in ADHD and autism, but regardless of the source the outcome is the same. When a person feels rejected — because someone explicitly denied their bid or because someone didn’t laugh at their joke or for any other reason. Rejection feels terrible, like a threat to the self - this is because we internalize that we need to make sure people around us are happy with us. We learn that it’s not enough for us to be satisfied and content, because other people will make us miserable if they’re not happy too. Feeling rejected triggers almost a fight-or-flight response, and it’s incredibly isolating and difficult to deal with. See
Autistic Inertia — Autistic people tend to get really into whatever we’re doing. Once we start doing a thing we want to keep doing it and will resist being pulled out of it. By the same token sometimes it’s hard for us to start a thing because starting a thing is a huge commitment.
Hyperfocus — This is a term most often associated with ADHD, but autistic people experience a form of it as well. It’s the ability to focus completely and for an extended period on some topic or task, and while it can be pathologized it’s often one of the great strengths of neurodivergent life. It allows us to look closer, build more complete understandings and more nuanced mental models than many of our peers.
Masking — This is the performance of a “false” or constructed identity for making interactions with Neurotypical people easier. There are high invisible costs associated with masking that we comment on
Samefood — A lot of ND people have restricted diets for a variety of reasons - we can have complex needs around flavor and texture, and we often have sensitive digestive systems. So often when we find a food that works for us we have no compunction about eating it 5-7 times per week. This is also something people are often shamed for, but there’s no reason for shame — you’re listening to your body.
Alexithymia — Latin for “inability to read emotions”, people with alexithymia have difficulty understanding what they are themselves feeling. It’s a difficulty naming feelings with any specificity beyond “good” or “bad”, and it makes it difficult to process emotions because you first have to learn to recognize that you’re feeling them. I believe alexithymia can be overcome, because it’s a form of literacy — you work on it by learning to feel things in your body, and then associating those embodied states with emotions. “I feel like my chest is pounding and my arms and legs want to move” → that’s ANGER, you feel ANGRY, what do you feel like has been taken from you? See