Neurodiversity is essentially the radical notion that not everyone has a brain that works the same way. The concept of neurodiversity originated in the autistic rights movement, possibly because autism is one of the easiest-to-see examples of “not broken, just different,” but it applies much more widely.

Some people have brains that work better than other people’s– they might be able to grasp mathematical concepts much more easily or easily visualize complex three-dimensional shapes. Some people have brains that work less well than other people’s– they might feel sad constantly for no reason or constantly hate themselves. Some people’s brains work better in some ways and worse in other ways– ADD has benefits (multitasking like whoa!) and downsides (“where did I put my keys again?”). Some people’s brains aren’t better or worse at all, just different– for instance, autistic people or trans people.

The problem for all these groups is that society is set up for the norm. People assume that neurodivergent people work the way everyone else does, and that when they object to a food or physical touch or a room they’re just being fussy and need to learn to put up with it. Schools and workplaces are often very reluctant to offer accommodations that will help people do their work because it would be “special treatment.” Friends, family, or romantic partners of neurodivergent people are often complemented about how brave and strong they are for putting up with neurodivergent people. Lots of people think of neurodivergent people as monsters, with “awwww so inspirational” condescension, or as neurotypical people who are just pretending to be neurodivergent. All of this creates a lot of unnecessary trouble for neurodivergent people.

Here’s the thing: people are different. Different people have different needs. For instance, I need people not to yell at me, I need classes that move relatively fast, I need to have directions written down instead of told to me verbally, and I need specific training about how to deal with my emotions. As long as these needs are met, I’m fully capable of talking about things I did wrong, not getting bored, following directions, and not exploding into a sobbing pile of “I AM THE WORST PERSON ALIVE.” My needs are not any less real because they are different.

People’s refusal to acknowledge neurodivergence hurts people. Neurodivergent people are very often told that they’re lazy or broken instead of being taught coping mechanisms for their neurodivergence. Even when they’re taught coping mechanisms, they’re often not about having a happy and functional life while neurodivergent, but about how to pretend to be normal so you don’t threaten or upset people.

Incidentally, that also provides a neat solution to the whole “but we are overmedicating people and medicalizing ordinary variation!” problem. Medicalizing ordinary variation is only a problem if you think the purpose of treatment is to make people normal. So you have one side going, “We’re fine with you turning those people normal, they’re really weird! But some of those people you’re diagnosing with things are practically normal already. We don’t want everyone to be totally the same, just same enough that we don’t feel threatened or have to change anything to accommodate them.” And the other side goes, “Yes, but if we try to make all the people normal, then we get more money! Braindrugs for everyone!”

Telling people their experiences are real, helping them find people who are like them, teaching them coping mechanisms for their neurodivergence (which may include medication, but doesn’t always), helping them find accommodations… all of those are good things which the mental health system could do. Sometimes it even does them.

Finally, one of the big mistakes people make with the neurodivergence model is that they assume that because a lot of the trouble that comes from being neurodivergent comes from lack of accommodation, ableism, stigma, and other badnesses, therefore all the trouble that comes from being neurodivergent comes from those things. For some people, this is true.

On the other hand, there are lots of neurodivergences that lead to people hurting themselves or others, losing touch with consensus reality, or being unable to function in everyday life even with accommodations, and those pretty much suck balls. (Those are the ones I call “mental illness,” usually.) It is okay to acknowledge that some ways people are different suck; it’s not okay to treat people worse because of it.