Scientists Say: Neurodivergent

All brains are one-of-a-kind, but this word describes people whose brains work in more uncommon ways

an abstract painting with a medley of different shapes and colors hangs on a black wall; a woman in the corner of the frame gazes at the painting

Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, whose painting “Tensions calmees” is on display here, saw colors when he heard musical notes. He likely had a form of neurodivergence called synesthesia.

Tristan Fewings/Stringer/Getty Images

Neurodivergent (adjective, “Ner-oh-dy-VER-jent”)

The word “neurodivergent” describes a person whose brain works a little differently from most people’s.

Everyone’s brain is one-of-a-kind. But even so, some brains process information in more typical ways. Others in more uncommon ways. Scientists call more typical-working brains “neurotypical.” A person whose brain diverges from that average might be more neurodivergent. Many people fall under the category of neurodivergent. People on the autism spectrum, for instance, or people who have or ADHD. (ADHD is short for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.)

Neurodivergence is sometimes assumed to be a disability. But that’s not always true. For instance, consider the case of synesthesia. This condition affects someone’s senses. A person with synesthesia may see colors or patterns when they hear music. Or, as the late physicist Richard Feynman claimed, to see numbers as colors. This ability may very well have given him a gift for math. Modern artists including Billie Eilish and Beyoncé also have said they have this condition.

But sometimes neurodivergent people do face challenges. Someone with dyslexia, for example, processes text differently. So reading may take them longer than average. Epilepsy is a neurodivergent condition linked to seizures. Autism is a condition in which a person may interpret social cues differently from most or engage in repetitive behaviors. They may also have strong reactions to sensory inputs, such as sounds or textures. Those with ADHD may have trouble focusing or sitting still.

In a sentence

Robots that can chat and even give hugs may provide some neurodivergent people with a safe way of practicing their social skills.

Check out the full list of Scientists Say.

Katie Grace Carpenter is a science writer and curriculum developer, with degrees in biology and biogeochemistry. She also writes science fiction and creates science videos. Katie lives in the U.S. but also spends time in Sweden with her husband, who’s a chef.

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