Cognitive Health

Neurodiversity – what is it?

Cognitive Health

Neurodiversity – what is it?

When it comes to physical abilities, it’s easy to accept and celebrate that we all have different strengths. Some people are good sprinters, others run long distances, some people lift heavy weights and others are happy to stay away from sports altogether. These differences are widely accepted as part of being human. What would happen if we took a similar approach to the way our brains work? What if we saw differences in thinking or learning not as problems that need to be fixed or cured, but simply as variations of the human brain?1

Neurodiversity is a movement that recognises the wide spectrum of human behaviour and promotes our differences as beneficial.1 People experience and interact with their environment in many different ways – and there is no single ‘right’ way of thinking, learning or behaving. Some people are great at social situations and others excel at problem solving. Some people thrive in a rigid school environment and others find it difficult to focus, no matter how hard they try. Our differences are not deficits – and in recognising neurodiversity in schools, workplaces, and healthcare settings, we can begin to see the unique strengths that come with neurodevelopmental differences.1-4

Neurodiversity and early learning

In the classroom, it is common for teachers to manage a diverse range of learning preferences and abilities.4 Almost 20% of the global population is neurodiverse. Neurodiversity can be expressed in a number of ways including dyslexia, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dysgraphia and dyscalculia (or a combination of these). Of these conditions, dyslexia is the most prevalent affecting an estimated 1 in 10 children.5

When the school environment is not sufficiently inclusive, neurodiverse children may unfairly face preventable difficulties.4 Navigating school social environments can be challenging for many children, and to improve the school experience of all children it is important to bring inclusivity and understanding into schools.4 Schools have often made neurodiverse students feel and believe that they do not belong, and their abilities and potential remain unrecognised and undervalued. However, neurodiverse students are often specialised thinkers with unique strengths that can be an asset in the classroom. For example:2,4

  • People with dyslexia are known for general inventiveness, creativity and pattern-spotting.
  • People with autism may be experts at problem-solving and analytical thinking.
  • People with ADHD may show insightfulness, creative thinking and problem-solving as well as an ability to multitask and take calculated risks.

A strength-based approach could help peers and teachers to respond more positively to neurodiverse students and foster more inclusive education systems.

Neurodiversity in the workplace

Many workplaces are changing their methods of recruitment to gain a more diverse workforce.3 These changes reflect the benefit for an organisation to employ minds that ‘think differently’. Of course, neurodiverse people already exist in most professions and always have. However, the unique strengths of a neurodiverse workforce have not been recognised because societies traditionally reinforce the idea that successful people and university graduates cannot possibly have ‘learning difficulties’. In fact, Albert Einstein, Leonardo Da Vinci and Mozart are considered to have had combinations of autism, ADHD and dyslexia.3 Thus, an inclusive approach in the workplace can not only create a more equitable environment, but employers may also gain a competitive edge.3,6

With the growing recognition of neurodiversity in the workplace many workplaces are also modifying spaces and systems to accommodate different needs. Lighting, temperature, noise levels, interior design and clear type fonts can all be used to create a more inclusive space for employees or customers.6

Neurodiversity in medicine

In a traditional medical model, diagnostic criteria are based on perceived deficits. However, a more well-rounded approach recognises strengths as well as deficits. Recent medical language reflects this.7 For example, the condition that used to be known as ‘autism spectrum disorder’ is now commonly called ‘autism spectrum condition’ or simply ‘autism’, reflecting the growing recognition that differences are not always disorders.7

Conditions such as autism and ADHD occur across the lifespan, but they may look different at different stages of life.7 Efforts to improve early diagnosis are important because they can lead to the person receiving the appropriate support early in life.7 However, presentations missed in early childhood may also be detected at a later stage.7 Improving the experience of healthcare for neurodiverse people can also mean making changes to the healthcare journey – from making an appointment through to the clinic environment itself. For example, healthcare clinics can be experienced by people with autism as bright, loud and overwhelming.7

Further reading

Understanding neurodiversity in communities, schools, workplaces and healthcare settings can improve inclusivity for all people. It is important for all of us to foster an environment where neurodivergent people can grow and share their strengths. If you would like more information on neurodiversity visit the sites below.


ADDA (Attention Deficit Disorder Association)


Worldwide community offering support and education:

ADHD Foundation Australian volunteer-run foundation servicing a national ADHD helpline:

Autism Awareness Australia Australian organisation promoting inclusivity for people with autism:

Autism Spectrum Australia Australian resource for education and advocacy:

ADHD Association Danish resource for education and support:

South Africa
ADHASA South African resource for education and support:

ADHD Foundation UK-based health and education service:

CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) US-based ADHD education and advocacy group:



  1. Doyle N. Br Med Bull 2020;135:108–25.
  2. 2. Armstrong T. (2012) Neurodiversity in the classroom: strength-based strategies to help students with special needs succeed in school and life. ASCD.
  3. Brinzea VM.  Scientific Bulletin – Economic Sciences 2019;18:13–25.
  4. Burns T. (2016) Trends Shaping Education 2016, OECD Publishing. Available at: Accessed June 2022.
  5. Griggs K. (2021) This is Dyslexia. London. Penguin Random House.
  6. Austin R, Pisan G. (2017) Neurodiversity as a competitive advantage. Harvard Business Review.
  7. Taylor G. Aust J Gen Pract 2021;50:101.


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