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Embracing Neurodivergence

In the therapy world, psychologists, therapists and psychiatrists are traditionally trained to diagnose people with “disorders” such as ADHD, autism, bipolar disorder, depression and more. There is a growing movement within the scientific, psychological and medical communities and those are served by these communities to acknowledge these labels, but also identify oneself as “neurodivergent”. Here’s why I think this is a huge, and important shift. The term neurodivergence, which means recognizing that people are born with different types of brains with different strengths, abilities and limitations, was originally introduced in 1998 by an Australian sociologist named Judy Singer. In an interview with Spectrum Suite Singer identified herself as “not quite disabled, and not quite mainstream,” and felt the pain of many others who had experienced societal rejection or systematic oppression due to neurological differences. For reference, neurodivergent people include people with autism, ADHD, depression, synesthesia, epilepsy, bipolar, dyscalculia, dyslexia, intellectual disabilities including down syndrome and many more people who have different or rare brain differences. One of my current favorite neurodivergent artists, Andy J. Pizza comments on his podcast Creative Pep Talk, that he does not view ADHD as a “disorder … or a superpower” but as a “different way of being.” As a person living with the same type of neurodiversity as Andy (ADHD) I recognize the ways in which I grew up feeling quite different than others throughout my schooling, struggling in some areas while surpassing others in random areas; many of my clients with ADHD report feeling similarly. Later, when I began psychology coursework and participated in research, I found myself psychologically railing against the idea of always measuring people in studies to find one common norm or even “truth,” rather than acknowledging natural human subtypes and variations in a population and their responses. Having awareness of my own natural differences both due to ADHD as well as other factors, and the differences of others around me helped me see these results as reductive and incomplete. For hundreds of years, our social and medical worlds have viewed differences in the human brain as “disorders” compared to regular “ordered” people. It's worth acknowledging that our current society, including universities like the one I did my psychology coursework in, is generally built for “normal” people or “neurotypical” people. But perhaps this can change, as our thinking changes. It's a beautiful and less reductive take to acknowledge the unique strengths and difficulties of actual human variances. This allows us to de-pathologize differences in the human brain, which also helps neurodivergent peoples’ sense of self-esteem, access to accommodations for differences and sense of community. There are real strengths and limitations neurodivergent people experience in daily life. For example, an employee with autism might struggle with sensory issues that neurotypical people may not understand or provide accommodations for, like feeling overstimulated by a loud coworking office, while they might be able to maintain incredible, meticulous records. A student with ADHD might struggle to stay on task with a repetitive unsupervised activity, but they could be hyper focused on an interesting task for far longer than neurotypical others could dream of. In addition, many neurodivergent people make incredible contributions to their fields, including math, art, music or computer science (among many other areas, though these are notable common strength areas). The key with naming neurodivergence is also recognizing different people require different accommodations in order to be successful in life. In the autism example above, an employer could provide a quiet space for their employee to work productively or allow for work from home. In the ADHD example, a teacher could suggest the student with ADHD adapt an assignment to a current interest area, or encourage the student to utilize body doubling with another student to stay focused and maintain more focus on their work. I hope to see more specific and destigmatized accommodations coming into the mainstream in the coming years, and to see people living as who they are born to be with pride and a sense of belonging. Some incredible communities working to further neurodivergence in this day and age (and provide resources, community, and resilience include): Neurodiversity Network


Melissa Lee Nilles, LMHC is a licensed mental health counselor and expressive arts therapist with a Master's degree from Lesley University’s Mental Health Counseling and Expressive Arts Therapy program. She is deeply passionate about self-exploration through the arts, mindfulness practices and therapy. She seeks to collaborate with her clients using the tools of person-centered therapy, mindfulness, meditation, trauma-informed body-oriented psychotherapy and expressive arts therapy (through music therapy, art therapy, and poetry/writing therapy). Melissa also employs CBT and motivational interviewing to help you transform your life. She prefers a holistic, eclectic and interdisciplinary approach to addressing client concerns.

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