Case Study: Neurodiversity and Disability—Reflections

Catherine Holloway, Giulia Barbareschi, Dafne Zuleima Morgado Ramirez
April 11, 2023
Case Studies and Reports

There is a prevailing controversy about how to use the term neurodiversity [354] and what it means. Neurodiversity refers to both strengths and disability. Misinterpretations of the term neurodiversity enable distorted and over-simplified arguments [27,58]. The act of valuing neurological differences or complementary cognition  [386] is about acknowledging and accepting disability and ability of human beings [25,201]. Thus, dedicating time to understand the origin and use of terms used by neurodivergent [354] people, along understanding their experiences, should be a standard procedure for anyone designing interactions with and for neurodivergent people. It is estimated that a quarter of the world population is neurodivergent. For instance, between 5% and 20% of the world has dyslexia, 6% have ADHD/ADD and 2% are autistic [47]. Similarly, in the recent #WeThe15 campaign it was highlighted that approximately a quarter of the world population has a disability [460]. Coincidence? Moreover, it was recently  suggested that the human species has adapted and evolved cognitively, analogous to evolution at the genetic level, thus we complement each other through cognitive specializations and effective collaboration [386]. That is, the human species neurodiversity is a result of evolution, and we are meant to work together leveraging our different cognitive abilities. Yet, humans have created cultural systems and practices that undermine our complementary cognitive capacity as a species [157], such as diagnostic labels for learning and neurodevelopmental disorders and neurotypical expectations. Thus, we must ask, is disability/neurodivergence what we are looking at? Or, is complementary evolutionary cognition? Or, is it complementary cognition and we must acknowledge that cognitive difference has strengths and disabilities? And, thus, the neurodiversity concept helps us to capture well the complementary cognition and disability.

Terminology is critical and so I provide some key definitions to aid future researchers:

  • Complementary cognition: Theory that the human species adapts and evolves through a collaborative system of collective cognitive search. It is a consequence of individual neurocognitive specialization. The theory implies that the neurocognitive capabilities of individuals differ and these support search and the balance of information search towards efficiency [1].

  • Neurodivergence: Neurologically different to 75% of the human species typical neurology. An individual can be neurodivergent.

  • Neurotypical: Neurologically typical compared to the quarter of the human species that is neurodivergent. An individual can be neurotypical.

  • Neurodiversity: Neurological diversity. Neurological refers to the nervous systema and diversity refers to the variety and variability of life. The human species is neurodiverse. One can refer to a species as neurodiverse but not to an individual as neurodiverse. An individual would be either neurotypical or neurodivergent.

This case study was excerpted from Disability Interactions: Creating Inclusive Innovations by Catherine Holloway and Giulia Barbareschi,, pages 130–131.