Neurodiversity: The theory, movement, issues and controversies

“The lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact.”– Shakespeare 

Neurodiversity is a recent theory and movement that wishes to reclassify mental illnesses and conditions as natural neurological variations. 

There is a wide variety of views and approaches to the topic, including within the medical field and amongst the mentally ill and their advocates.  As is the case with many social movements and theories, there are areas of controversy and strong disagreement. This article looks at neurodiversity, and key issues and different perspectives around it.

You are welcome and encouraged to think about the topic, perhaps research it more, and form your own opinions. Many questions don’t have objective, simple or single answers. 


Neurodiversity is a recent theory and movement that wishes to reclassify mental illnesses and conditions, or at least many and some degrees of them, not as mental illness or medical conditions, but as natural neurological variations. The supporters see legitimate human thinking as a broad spectrum of variations. They say that many of what are currently called medical conditions or mental illness are natural and legitimate variations that fall outside the parameters of normalcy.

This movement has traditionally been associated with autism but has been broadened to include many other ‘different ways of thinking’ including dyslexia, ADHD or attention deficit syndrome, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, PTSD, or post-traumatic stress syndrome, and schizophrenia.

People who think differently, such a autistic and bipolar, are called neurodiverse.

The term was coined by Australian social scientist and autism advocate Sally Singer, and was first published in a 1998 The Atlantic article by journalist Harvey Blume.

There is a variety of reasons and thinking behind the theory. The key reason is the genuine belief that many ways of thinking that are now pathologized– meaning categorized and treated as abnormal and unhealthy– are just different legitimate ways of thinking.  

Psychiatry and psychology have traditionally treated, say, autism as a disease or disorder that must be fixed or cured.  However, neurodiversity advocates disagree with this approach. They say the different ways of thinking are perfectly natural not something to be cured.

And, while autism, bipolar disorder and other conditions often involve various mild to severe side effects, functional issues and troubles, the neurodiversity idea that there are different than normal but legitimate ways of thinking is correct.  


Many mental conditions and illnesses involve both functional deficits and unique, positive, practical skills. All forms of thinking, including normal ways accepted by society and tradition, have trade-offs, good and bad qualities, positive and negative aspects, strengths and weaknesses. And what are good and bad qualities, positive and negative aspects, is subjective and in the eye of the beholder, and in part dependant on the situation, context and culture.

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, is a range of neurological disorders that has many functional disabilities that range in intensity. Symptoms include difficulties in communication and understanding language, learning disabilities, lack of empathy and understanding of social cues, social withdrawal, repetitive movements, inappropriate social actions and self-abusive.

However, autistic people can have great skills, including at mathematics, memory, focus  and pattern recognition. The great physicists and mathematicians Paul Dirac and Issac Newton were autistic, and their autistic way of thinking was integral to their academic success.  


Isaac Newton was autistic

When the autustic’s special needs are accommodated, tech businesses have discovered that the autistic have unusual skills, such as processing data and pattern recognition.  Some autistic tech workers have said that their technology co-workers are the impaired ones as they cannot focus and work with data and numbers as well as the autistic.

“Recent data and my own personal experience suggest it’s time to start thinking of autism as an advantage in some spheres, not a cross to bear,” — Dr. Laurent Mottron, psychiatry professor at the University of Montreal (link). 

Dyslexia is a learning disorder that affects areas of the brain that process language. Symptoms include difficulty in reading, poor spelling, mispronouncing words, difficulty in memorization and doing math. 

However, dyslexia involves unusual skills. These include creativity, big picture and holistic thinking, high reasoning skills and understanding complexity, independent thinking and seeing things others do not.  Dyslexics have better peripheral vision, meaning they literally get wider views of scenes.

Famed for their creative, original, outside the box thinking, dyslexics have included Leonardo da Vinco, Walt Disney, Richard Branson, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison and Picasso. Leonardo was a horrific speller and Einstein was slow to speak as a child, both common signs of dyslexia.

Albert-Einstein jpg

Albert Einstein was dyslexic, had mystical experiences and a schizophrenic son

My father was dyslexic and an engineering professor.  He had to be careful when writing down numbers, including on the classroom chalkboard. However, he was known by his colleagues for his ability to see the big picture. He said that being dyslexic growing up, he had to learn how to do things in different ways which aided his intellectual development.

“You can’t overcome it (dyslexia); you can work around it and make it work for you, but it never goes away. That’s probably a good thing, because if dyslexia went away, then the other gifts would go away too.”– Beryl Benacarraf MD, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston

Schizophrenia is a serious and sometimes debilitating mental disorder where people interpret reality abnormally. Symptoms include hallucinations and delusions, disordered thinking and speech, and behavior and social disabilities that impair daily life.  Many schizophrenics appear to be out of touch with reality.

However, schizophrenia is associated with creativity and original thinking.  Famous schizophrenic artists include Syd Barret, jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden, Jack Kerouac, Brian Wilson and Veronica Lake.

The Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash’s schizophrenia caused him great social and functioning troubles, including dropping out of society, hallucinations, delusions and being involuntarily hospitalized. However, he said when the bad effects and delusions were under control, his unique way of thinking contributed to his mathematical discoveries.

According to Oxford University psychiatrist Neel Burton, as schizophrenia is genetic it is also related to having mentally healthy relatives who are creative, different thinkers. Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and James Joyce who had schizophrenic children. Burton wrote that research has shown that “healthy siblings of people with schizophrenia are overrepresented in creative professions.” (link)

Mystical experiences

Mystical experiences are temporary neurological events where the functioning of the brain normal cognitive structures of the brain are suppressed and the brain processes sensory information using the emotional parts of the brain.  During mystical experiences, people experience and perceive the world and themselves in radically different ways and often feel they gain profound intuitive knowledge about reality and the physical world. Though temporary and happening with mentally healthy people, the instances are similar to schizophrenia.

Many famous scientists, academics, artists and thinkers have had mystical experiences that influenced their work and world views, including Richard Feynman, Jane Goodall, Albert Einstein, Huston Smith, Walt Whitman and Wassily Kandinski.

University of Pennsylvania medical professor Andrew Newberg said that many of our “Aha!” epiphany moments are mini mystical experiences or changes in the brain’s perception where we see things from a new perspective.

Physics Nobel Prize winner Charles Townes said that many of his scientific ideas, including that led to the invention of the laser and maser, came to him in mystical experience-like epiphanies. 

Bipolar disorder is a serious disorder that at its extremes involves psychosis, delusions and hallucinations.  However, it is also genetically associated with high intelligence and creativity.

A University of Lancaster (UK) study showed that bipolar participants “described a wide range of internal states that they believe are experienced at far greater intensity than those without the condition, including increased perceptual sensitivity, creativity, focus and clarity of thought.” (link)

 Great artists who were dipolar include Van Gogh, Beethoven, Virginia Woolf, Kurt Cobain and Edvard Munch. 

Edvard Munch said, “I can not get rid of my illnesses, for there is a lot in my art that exists only because of them.”


Vincent Van Gogh was bipolar

Vincent Van Gogh was bipolar

Along with being autistic, I am type 1 bipolar and have been since I was a young child.  While it has posed numerous challenges that have had to be addressed and overcome, I like the way I think. I say that it doesn’t involve perceiving this more or less accurate than others, just differently. However, being able to see things differently has been a great advantage to me academically.

When I was young, my engineering-professor father said to me, “You have a strange mind.”  He followed that up by saying that, as a professor, he meant that as a compliment in that I thought about subjects that never even entered most peoples’ minds and saw topics from unique viewpoints. It didn’t surprise him that I became a philosopher.

Artists Vladimir Nabakov, Franz Liszt, Duke Ellington, Charles Baudelaire, Vasily Kandinsky, Arther Rimnad and had synesthesia.  Synesthesia is an unusual and curious condition where one’s sense is simultaneously perceived but another, often multiple, sensest. For example, a person with synesthesia may experience sounds or letters or numbers as a color, smell or flavor.  It is often associated with artists and creatifity

Franz Kafka is called the Patron Saint of Schizoids, a mental disorder genetically related to schizophrenia. The person is interpersonally aloof and cold in the extreme but has imaginative and often elaborate inner lives. Along with his obviously highly creative novels and stories influenced by the disorder, he wrote extensive letters to his longtime fiance but rarely, and only for very short periods, would meet her in person


What is interesting from the several examples I’ve given is that not all of the examples are pathologized.  While schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism are pathologized as mental disorders, synthesis and mystical experiences are not.  Synthesis and mystical experiences are considered unusual but harmless ways of thinking. 

Thus, the question of what should be pathologized and what should be considered perfectly natural and fine, has long been a topic.

“Whether you are regarded as disabled or gifted depends largely on when and where you were born. In other times and other places, there have been different disability/ability diagnosis depending upon cultural values. . . .  We should not regard diagnostic labels as absolute and set in stone, but think, instead, of their existence relative to a particular social setting.”– Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D., American Institute for Learning and Human Development (reference)

I am certainly not at all saying that someone people with illness or conditions are all geniuses or advanced thinkers. The neurodiverse can be as dumb or silly as normal people, and mental illness and conditions often involve serious symptoms, deficits and problems.  Paranoid schizophrenics and people in bipolar manic phases can have clearly delusional thinking.

However, people who advocate for neurodiversity say that thinking differently isn’t, or is necessary, a deficit.  It may involve problems and issues and side effects that must be addressed, but the different ways of thinking should be respected and appreciated.  


Including not wanting mental illnesses and conditions pathologies, the neurodiversity movement wants to remove the social and personal stigma of having conditions.

It often is framed as a human rights or social justice issue, where the mentally ill should be considered whole people with normal human rights and considerations.  They often consider it important for a mentally impaired child to grow up with self-confidence and feelings of self-worth, rather than being cataloged as damaged or not whole humans.

No matter who or what they are or what condition they have or don’t have, I often say the best thing you can do for a child is teach them self-confidence 

An important aspect of the neurodiversity movement is about the treatment of the mentally ill, and how to organize schools, business and social organizations to cater to their needs and help them flourish.

Many feel treatment of many conditions should not be about eradicating the condition or disease– which may be impossible anyway–, but a look for more humane, accommodating ways.  Working to alleviate bad symptoms, while preserving and embracing the different way of thinking.  They believe standardized and intelligence testing should take into context the different ways people think and express themselves.

Rather than trying to persecute and fix conditions, if students and employees with conditions are treated as different or unique people with potential great skills it is better for learning and the world, makes for better people and more productive companies, schools and societies.  

As we all know, normal people have different ways of learning and working, and making everyone work and learn the same exact way is problematic for everyone.

I have worked with museums, and know that museums intentionally design exhibits and educational problems to cater to people of different ways of learning, people with different abilities and disabilities, and people with different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds.  They know that people learn and experience in different ways, and museums want to be inclusive.


Much of what I have said so far may seem reasonable to you and you may wonder where the controversy is.  However, there are various controversies involving at times dichotomous ways of looking at the issue

The key controversy is about the very idea and debate of whether conditions should be treated pathologically as illnesses or mental deficits, or, instead, natural and fine ways of thinking.  People disagree about this, often strongly. You likely have your own opinions about this.

Some believe that autism, for one example, is genuine mental illness and a deficiency and should be treated as such.  These people search for cures, hoping eradicated it as one would want to eradicate cancer. In extreme cases, kids with the condition are depicted as kidnapped and unwhole human beings.

Many neurodiversity advocates say the autistic and are not mentally ill and there is nothing to cure, Many go as far as to say there should be no research into a cure and chastise parents of autistic children who search for a cure.  They believe that curing a mental illness is equivalent to eugenics. Some advocates and autistics in this camp can be zealous and treat people who believe differently derogatory.

Especially when zealous about their beliefs, these two come into conflict. However, for the majority of people interested in this topic, there is much common ground.

Whether they label autism a disease or mental illness or strongly disagree with that labeling, many agree that the autistic should be treated well, be accommodated, given education and work situations that cater to their disabilities and help them thrive.  

Most people also say there is no one size fits all theory or rules. The mentally ill are individuals and cases different from person to person.

There are high functioning autistic people, people who do well in school, hold fulfilling jobs and have satisfying social lives.  However, there are autistic people who have severe issues, including the inability to communicate, function normally and have great social troubles that cause them unhappiness. Most from both camps believe in addressing and fixing many of these issues.  A neurodiversity advocate would have to be a true zealot to say those issues shouldn’t be addressed and medical fixes research.


A key area to understanding the neurodiversity issues, and a source of much philosophical and political conflict, is about the human brain, functioning and society. 

Despite common sentiment, the human brain has evolved not to identify truths and facts, but to function and survive as a species. Humans have evolved as a species to think in a particular and convoluted way in order to function and survive as a species in their particular physical and social environment. 

Part of this functioning and species survival is about social groups and working as groups,  relationships and societies. Humans are social animals, and their brains have evolved to think and act in a social environment.  

People who think abnormally often have issues with fitting into society and functioning.  This can range from ‘being weird’ and being isolated to people who have serious functional issues, unable to hold a job or stay in school to being unable to communicate and even function in their day to day lives.

Famous mentally ill and neurodiverse people often have functional and social issues. 

Physics Nobel Prize winner and autistic Paul Dirac required his wife to take care of the details of his daily life so he could not focus on his work.  He was one of the great scientific and mathematical intellects of his era– widely acknowledged as an academic genius– but needed assistance to live his life. He was well known for his social and communication deficits and eccentricities.


Physics Nobel Prize winner Paul Dirac

Many unique thinkers and artists– Van Gogh to Jean Genet — were outsiders to society.  Van Gogh was unable to fit in with society and art communities and committed suicide. The great French novelist and playwright Jean Genet had longtime troubles with the society, including being imprisoned and living a “deviant” life as defined by society.

This also points out that societies and cultural norms are about functioning as a social group, about functioning and not about many other things such as knowledge and new information.  And, in fact, the powers that be are often scared of and suppress new knowledge and information that might cause troubles with the social norms.  

Scientists with new ideas, inventors and original artists almost by definition are people who think outside the social norms and traditions.  Great scientists, thinkers and artists have long gotten into conflict with society. From Galileo to Socrates to Caravaggio. 

A revolutionary religious painter lauded during his lifetime, Caravaggio was mentally troubled and called “extremely crazy” even by his close friend. He had a long list of arrests, disputes and physical fights, killed a man in a barroom brawl, and spent his last years on the run from the law, continuing to paint his famously visceral paintings all along the way. 


Caravaggio’s ‘The Arrest of Jesus’ (1602)

In fact, some visionary artists, such as Marquis de Sade, Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Paul Gauguin, have aspects that lay outside of today’s accepted social norms and rules.

So functioning, and fitting in with society, is a constant issue, a  real issue and one to be considered. These issues here are a big source of conflict in debates. It can often be political, and how one views the individual versus the society.  The function of society versus the rights of the individual.


Neurodiversity is a theory and movement that wishes to reclassify mental illness as natural and fine ways of thinking.  And, in fact, different ways of thinking– all ways of thinking– involve both positives and negatives, deficits and unique skills.  

 How to consider and define mental illnesses and disorders, what language to use to describe conditions, how to treat conditions, how to organize society, workplaces and educations systems. make up an ongoing debate and will be for a long time. Your opinion and input are welcome.

It is also important to note that, as with any demographic, there is a wide variety of opinions, views and philosophies amongst the mentally ill and neurodiverse  There is no single voice. Part of respecting and understanding any demographic is to know and appreciate that there is a wide variety of views, opinions, political persuasions and philosophies.  

A saying about the autistic people is, “If you’ve met one autistic person you’ve met one autistic person.”

 And, whatever one’s stance on the topic, part of the neurodiversity movement is understanding and welcoming that people have different ways of thinking, and thus different ideas, viewpoints and perspectives– which I think most of us agree is a good thing.