Why you should think twice before throwing around terms for neurodivergence

Sometimes our words carry unintended baggage, causing harm where none was meant. Sam Cox explores why we should be considerate in how we use the words meant for different neurotypes.

Better Connections

How often have you heard someone describe their desire for a neat desk as ‘OCD’, or their bad mood as ‘totally depressed’? They might say that an energetic kid has ‘a touch of ADHD’ or describe someone who struggles socially as ‘on the spectrum’. This way of speaking might seem harmless – sure it gets the point across, doesn’t it?

The problem is these terms specifically refer to neurodivergence. It’s estimated that more than a billion people worldwide meet the criteria as neurodivergent, so it’s essential that we develop a greater understanding of what this language means.

It might seem tricky, especially given that neurodivergence is, in itself, a pretty new term. Coined in 1997 by Judy Singer, it refers to the fact that, while all brains are different to a certain degree, some function in substantially different ways. These instances were usually regarded as a form of disability, which is something that the neurodiversity movement is trying to change.

‘Neurodiversity’ refers to the full spectrum of brain differences in humans, while ‘neurodivergent’ specifies someone who isn’t considered ‘neurotypical’ in terms of brain functioning. Examples of neurodivergence are autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia. They are conditions that affect how information is processed, and can result in traits such as increased sensory sensitivity or differences in how people focus.

As the term itself is relatively recent, who is encompassed within the umbrella of neurodivergence is still changing and evolving. An expansive definition includes people with mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depression and anxiety. As always, how particular people and communities identify with the term comes down to personal preferences. The crux, however, is that we recognise that some people experience the world differently in very real ways, and that this needn’t be labelled as a problem.

Jenny’s story

One person I know to have extensive lived experience with neurodivergence is Jenny Cox. Jenny was officially diagnosed with ADHD last year, although she suspected it for longer. She currently works as a senior security engineer for Tenable and also does extensive work as an advocate for women in tech alongside supporting neurodiversity in the workplace. She also happens to be my stepmum, and is someone that I have huge admiration and respect for.

We often hear of parents learning their children are neurodivergent, but in Ireland today, many parents are also discovering a whole new way of considering their own identity. Any shift in identity can be challenging, but I saw Jenny take it in her stride. For her part, she attributes her ease with her adult diagnosis to the fact she was very comfortable with her life and career at the time. She explains that some people do get upset, and that this has less to do with the diagnosis than with the timing of it.

“A lot of people, when they find out, they go through mourning,” she says. “They mourn for the life they should have had and the things that they could have achieved if this had been something that was diagnosed earlier.”

And not just diagnosed, Jenny says, but supported and understood. Once she was assessed by a clinical psychologist in 2023, she quickly signed up for one of ADHD Ireland’s courses. Given that psychology services in Ireland are incredibly strained, Jenny highlights that ADHD Ireland is a fantastic resource, regardless of who the person is or how much they can pay.

These courses are designed to help adults manage their traits while also providing education around what an ADHD diagnose might entail. For instance, Jenny is very vocal about her recurring bouts of burnout, which she attributes to her masking (when someone suppresses certain behaviours in order to blend in with a neurotypical society). She’s also vocal that language around neurodivergence shouldn’t be misused.

“People say, ‘I’m a little bit ADHD, don’t mind me. I’m a bit scatty today.’ No, you’re a bit scatty today. You’re not a little bit ADHD because of that,” she attests.

Jenny tells me that it is overwhelmingly common to hear people use these terms flippantly, without much consideration. While she understands there often isn’t ill intent, it does invalidate how difficult some things are for her. Like when she’s engaging in scores of things at once – she isn’t doing so for fun, but because it is how she needs to operate.

“It’s hard,” she explains. “It’s so draining and it’s so exhausting. And it eats at your confidence and your self-value because you’re thinking, how come he can make dinner and not do 40 things at once? And I managed to burn dinner because I got distracted by one of those 40 things for one second too long. Why can’t I do it the way that they do it?”

A glimpse inside a neurodivergent mind

Jenny is doing more than her part to bridge the gap of understanding. In talking about her ADHD, she hopes to validate those around her, be they co-workers or others in the same industry.

Take, for instance, a recent talk she gave in Cambridge. Standing at the top of a conference room, she asked the audience to repeat a simple sentence: The cat sat on the mat. She asked those willing to partake to keep repeating the sentence, maintaining the same volume and tone.

Next, she began to introduce more tasks. “Take out your phones. Hold them in the air. Put your arm down at a 90-degree angle. Move them to the left. Move them to the right.” Very quickly, participation dropped off. Some people stopped following altogether. Others started to lower their voices, or slow down their assigned sentence. Jenny quickly told them that they didn’t get to slow down or speak more quietly – they were expected to keep up.

Once finished, she asked who could follow the instructions, and two people raised their hands. One was directly in front of her, and so found it easier to concentrate on Jenny’s instructions. The other was at the back of the room, and had indeed managed. Jenny caught her after the talk and, while trying to stay respectful, asked if she was comfortable sharing whether she had any experience with ADHD. The woman laughed – she had been diagnosed a few years previously.

For the audience, Jenny felt it was a huge success and was very satisfied, telling them: “That’s what it’s like inside my head. Except today you only have two things to listen to. One is the words that are coming out of your mouth and one is the thing that I’m telling you to do.” For Jenny, that’s multiplied so many times over, and these thoughts are all competing for the same amount of attention.

Elaborating for her audience, she explained: “If you want to do a really good job at the words that you’re speaking, then you have to work so much harder, because you also are trying to give the other job that you’re doing the same level of attention. It’s really exhausting to do that, but on the outside, you’re just saying the words that I’ve asked you to say, at the volume I’ve asked you to say it.”

Jenny says that as a child, she was described as “wild”. When she was a teenager, it changed to “high energy”. Then, as an adult, she was always “quirky”, and that was the case right up until her diagnosis. Now, there’s a reason for Jenny’s ‘quirks’, and the words to describe that reason. Words which, unlike their predecessors, start to do her justice.

These words belong to those they represent, and neurodivergent people deserve to claim back their language.

Learn to communicate with greater awareness and empathy for others in our masterclass with expert communicator Camilla Long.

Sam Cox
Sam Cox is a full-time geek and part-time writer based in Louth. When he’s not binging HBO, he also works as an assistant psychologist, and is particularly passionate about trauma-informed care and community initiatives.

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