Neurodiversity Is an Identity, Not a Disorder

Personal Perspective: We must reckon with how we see ourselves.

Posted January 14, 2024 Reviewed by Tyler Woods


  • Neurodiversity and being Neurodivergent are identities, not medical labels.
  • Living as a Neurodivergent person is more than living with disability. There is exceptionality and community.
  • Neurodiversity is, to many of us, what Black, Jewish, or Latin are to people who embrace those identities.

Identity springs from how we internalize what we are, starting with our parents and continuing with what we learn from friends and teachers in school. Being Cajun ties us to a culture. Blackness comes from race, and Jewishness is an expression of our faith. All are widely recognized, though they mean different things to different people.

If those identities define who we are, other identities define what we are. Humans have long been recognized for their skills, be they hunters, blacksmiths, or engineers. Kids often find paths to adult vocations in childhood, giving them life goals to feel good about. They have a thing they want to be and an identity they wish to embrace.

Unfortunately, our schools have evolved in such a way that some kids learn what’s wrong before they have a chance to see what’s right. Feeling broken or defective can overshadow all other identities and leave us in a very difficult space where it’s impossible to build a good self-image. We have reached a point in America where brokenness is the largest identity community of all, though hardly anyone wishes to embrace that. Millions are proud to be Mexican, or Catholic, or just American. Who wants to grow up Broken and Deficient? Especially when written in capital letters, because that’s how we write identities? Yet that is the designation school functionaries and medical professionals assign to one in seven of us.

It’s tricky the way this happens. Teachers say, “Johnny is a little slow,” and “Mary needs special help.” Even at four years of age, we are wise enough to know there is nothing good for us in those words. Of course, teachers and parents see it differently when they later recall how we learned to read, or even to speak. They don’t see the psychic costs for us, being singled out in front of all the other kids.

School psychologists used a divide-and-conquer strategy, calling some of us dyslexic. Others were said to have ADHD. Some have autism, and others, PDD-NOS. Just saying we “have” these things makes it clear how undesirable they are. Those names put us in a dozen individual silos and prevent our coming together. Psychologists unwittingly added to the harm when they told parents, “We don’t know how this happens,” and parents assumed the worst, which was that their child’s difficulties were a result of their bad genes or their bad parenting.

Over the past 30 years, all that has led to the formation of two unhealthy identities: a generation of Broken Kids and the Warrior Moms who raised us. It has taken our growing of age to figure out what’s happened, and “Neurodiversity” is the result. Neurodiversity, and Neurodivergent people, are this community’s response to the one-sided medical models of autism, ADHD, and other inborn neurological differences that evolved in the 1990s with DSM-IV. According to the latest CDC statistics, one or more of these diagnoses is bestowed on almost one in seven children in America. Make no mistake: these labels are meant to define what’s wrong. But can so many people possibly be wrong? Might we simply be different? Might it be that it’s easier to marginalize us today, and let us fail, than help us be productive members of society, as we have been for thousands of years of human history?


I believe we will look back on this moment—the emergence of neurodiversity—and see this as the moment we began to correct a wrong that was perpetrated on millions with the best of intent and the worst of results.

Today, our voices are too loud to ignore, and the educational and medical communities are grudgingly acknowledging the errors they made. They were correct when they identified problems many of us had in engaging other people or progressing through school. Where they failed was in seeing the exceptionalities that are also part of so many of us. They were quick to call us out as “too sensitive” when it came to the flickering lights in class or the hard sounds reflected by concrete walls. They failed to see how those same sensitivities made us stars as adults, from conducting music to engineering lasers. We’ve been called out for failing to progress in school, not because we are not capable, but because we have different learning styles. Rather than support us, schools have taken a “conform or else” approach, which has failed us badly.

Seeing our failures, critics double down, saying, “Not every neurodivergent kid will grow up to be a star.” That’s true. Nor will every Jewish kid be a star, but that need not take away their identity and their pride in what they feel they stand for. We are all deserving of respect and human dignity. Jewish kids have their own schools, and schools for Neurodivergent kids are now appearing. We can all thrive where we are supported. It’s not necessary or desirable to jam us all into one box.

As an adult Neurodivergent person, I recognize that some of my peers have greater skills, just as I have skills others lack. That observation is true for all of us, wherever our abilities may lie. We all deal with disability as we progress through life. Neurodivergent people, by virtue of our different brains, face disability from the beginning, as we struggle to communicate and interact with others whose brains work differently from ours. By recognizing our neurodiversity, we can grow up secure in the knowledge that we are more than just our disabilities. That does not mean we should not face our disabilities—we must do that—but we should do so while also building our strengths, for it is those that will make us stars.


The Neurodiverse: Feeling Safe Being Me

Mad Pride and Neurodiversity

The medical and educational communities thought they were helping us by identifying what was wrong. I believe they meant well, but it’s time to move on. The one-track public school teaching plans and the bestowing of psychiatric diagnoses to so many are not leading to the outcomes any of us hope for. It’s time to support how we learn best and celebrate our best selves instead of focusing on wrongness while forcing conformity.

One way to accomplish that will be to put more Neurodivergent people in roles that shape public policy, and that is happening slowly. It’s a long road, but I believe we will get there.

Reference: Neurodiversity Is an Identity, Not a Disorder | Psychology Today (

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