- The book explores the concept of neurodiversity, which refers to the different ways that people perceive, process, and respond to the world, and how it affects women in particular.
- The book features interviews and stories from women with various neurodivergences, such as ADHD, autism, high sensitivity, synesthesia, and more, and shows how they cope, thrive, and contribute to society with their divergent minds.
- The book also provides practical advice and resources for neurodivergent women and their allies, and calls for more awareness, acceptance, and inclusion of neurodiversity in society.
Divergent Mind (2020) is a groundbreaking look at neurodiversity in women and girls, with a particular focus on the impacts of late diagnosis and the overall lack of clinical research.
Introduction: Discover neurodiversity beyond the masculine mainstream
Table of Contents
Autism and neurodiversity have been at the forefront of very public debates surrounding vaccination and medical harm in recent decades. This has, in turn, sparked increased research and study into neurodivergence – research almost entirely carried out with male subjects. The sparsity of information specific to neurodiversity in women and nonbinary individuals has led to an invisible population struggling with a variety of divergences, without any clear idea of why, or how to handle them.
With diagnoses like autism, ADHD, Asperger’s, synesthesia, and sensory processing disorder still carrying significant stigma, many neurodiverse women have become adept at masking their differences, and often suffer isolation, guilt, anxiety, and depression as a result.
The first step toward embracing neurodiversity in humans is to empower everyone to recognize, accept, and integrate their particular neurology with self-compassion and awareness. Only then can they take on a world not designed for them, and encourage the kind of systematic change to cultures and living environments that could make the world a better place for everyone.
But if you’ve ever wondered about neurodiversity in general, or the experience of neurodivergent women in particular, this summary to Divergent Mind by Jenara Nerenberg is for you.
A word before we begin. This summary isn’t medical advice for any particular individual, nor is it a substitute for diagnosis or treatment by a professional.
A broader spectrum
In the late 1990s, Australian sociologist Judy Singer coined the term neurodivergent as an umbrella category encompassing diagnoses like autism, ADHD, dyslexia, bipolar, and sensory processing disorders. The term was a first step away from the pathologizing of diverse neurological individuals and toward more inclusive language for those with unique information or sensory processing characteristics. In contrast to a neurotypical world, the term provides a collective category that accounts for about 20 percent of the human population who have neurological or information processing differences that significantly impact their lives.
But while neurodiversity is now more clearly on the radar of schools, medical professionals, and parents, most of this information has been gathered from the study of males. This reflects the general history of medical research, which has long eschewed female study subjects, fearing their hormones and reproductive cycles make them complicated subjects for controlled studies. Neuroscience is no exception.
The lack of adequate information about neurodiversity in women and nonbinary individuals means that many go undiagnosed, and thus untreated, for decades. Far worse, many have internalized their sensory processing differences as failure, brokenness, or inadequacy. Seeking help for burnout, anxiety, or meltdowns from sensory overload, their symptoms may have gone unrecognized by doctors or therapists who are far more familiar with expressions of neurodiversity in males.
Masking – the mental and behavioral effort that many neurodivergent individuals perform to mimic social norms – further prevents nonmale neurodivergence from being recognized or diagnosed. By adulthood, this masking may have become so second nature that it goes unrecognized even by the person doing it. The long-term consequences of masking include social isolation, imposter syndrome, depression, and anxiety. Even in highly successful or academically gifted women and girls, these consequences can be severe.
For neurodivergent mothers or partners, sensory processing challenges can manifest as additional relationship or parenting difficulties. Common characteristics of neurodiversity in males, like an aversion to touch, or difficulties processing noisy or chaotic environments, are often interpreted in women as rudeness, emotional dysregulation, or poor motherhood “instincts.” Those going through the experience may feel extreme guilt or shame about it and drive themselves to burnout or breakdown trying to appear normal.
Just becoming aware that these characteristics exist outside the masculine may come as an enormous relief. Understanding how and why they manifest can empower experiencers to adapt and overcome, as we’ll see in the next section.
A sensitive subject
Every human brain contains nervous system cells called neurons, which are incredibly adept at translating electrochemical signals into all the brain activity we rely on to live our lives. These neurons are further grouped into structures like the hippocampus or amygdala and make up both our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
For some, about 20 percent of the population, these systems may have quirks, sensitivities, or processing challenges not seen in the other 80 percent, but even within this grouping there’s a striking diversity of ways in which these challenges manifest.
Anyone finding themselves extremely sensitive to external stimuli or influences may notice that they take longer to process information than those around them. Perhaps they need to read things several times to really process the information, or find themselves having difficulty speaking on topics spontaneously in an organized way. They may find exposure to chaotic environments exhausting, too powerful smells debilitating, or become overwhelmed when exposed to other people’s intense emotions.
The term Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP, entered common parlance in 2010, after the publication of psychologist Elaine Aron’s book of the same name. For many women, the term was a bridge to begin acknowledging their neurodivergent traits.
For HSPs, their sensitivity to their environments is driven by an intense level of processing of sensory stimuli, not emotional dysregulation. When not pathologized, this deep processing can represent an evolutionary advantage, particularly in situations where deep contemplation and analysis can solve complex problems or invent innovative solutions.
Synesthetes, or those whose neurology includes both heightened sensory processing, as well as a crossover between senses, represent another form of neurodivergence. This may manifest as numbers having corresponding colors, music being visible as shapes, or the emotions of others having a texture or taste. Interestingly, women appear to be more than six times more likely to be diagnosed with synesthesia.
These symptoms also overlap with those diagnosed as Sensory Processing Disorder or exhibit extreme neurological reactions to what others might consider normal environments or social stimuli. Those with SPD may have intense difficulty functioning in groups, concentrating in booming lecture halls, or navigating crowded, open-plan offices.
Environments like these, designed for neurotypical individuals to flourish, present unique challenges for synesthetes, HSPs, SPDs, or other sensory processing neurodivergents. Encountering daily life through these challenges can feel overwhelming and isolating, particularly when they go unnoticed or acknowledged by neurotypical partners, colleagues, or friends.
A broken mirror
Of those neurons which make up the human brain and nervous system, we have special ones, called mirror neurons that explain a lot of complex human behavior. First discovered in primates and later confirmed in humans, mirror neurons fire in the human brain simply by watching others perform a task. The same neurons will fire in the brain of the observer as if they were doing the same action as the person being observed.
The great number of mirror neurons in humans goes a long way toward explaining our social structures – humans look to mirror the behavior of others, whether or not it feels natural or normal within themselves. In female circles, where social interaction and collaboration are paramount from a very young age for social success, the desire to mirror and be mirrored by others is overwhelming.
For many women displaying characteristics of autism or ADHD, this social mirroring is distorted. But rather than blame the mirror, the tendency is generally to blame themselves for their perceived failure to live up to expectations.
They may live for years with the dread of simple errands like the grocery store because they find themselves unable to stick to a list or know the bright lights, loud sounds, or myriad of colors will give them a headache. They might blame themselves for starting tasks without completing them or being unable to foresee the steps necessary for a complex task like budgeting or taxes.
Some might blame themselves for every emotional meltdown they have had when their plans got upended by an unforeseen event, whether they understood the trigger or not. Others may have avoided intimate relationships for fear of negotiating around physical touch, or expressions of emotion, fearing their intense sensitivities made them a bad partner.
Over time, this inability to account for, and strategize around, neurodivergence can lead to burnout, dissociation, and a failure to thrive because these women aren’t living authentically. Acknowledging, understanding, and accepting one’s unique neurology is the first step toward repairing the broken mirror and embracing the unique, divergent self.
Connecting with others who have similar experiences, whether online or in person through support or community groups, can also go a long way toward validating diversity and driving awareness. Knowledge is the first step toward acceptance, and with acceptance, the healing can really begin.
A better way
When neurodivergent individuals start to unmask or stop trying to behave like everyone else, something remarkable can happen. Suddenly free to express their unique experiences, negotiate their sensitivities, and connect with others around them, they begin to thrive. No longer isolated, they can consult with fellow neurodivergents about coping strategies, and feel empowered to manage negative stimuli like noise, smells, or chaotic environments for their comfort.
Consulting with an occupational therapist familiar with sensory processing disorders can provide many additional coping strategies. From weighted blankets in a darkened room to soothe overstimulation, swings and hammocks designed to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, or rest-and-digest mode, there are many techniques to help stave off unwanted reactions.
Simply having language to communicate around one’s sensitivities can help deepen relationships for neurodivergent individuals. A partner being aware that touch is a sensitivity can be more mindful that the rejection of a hug isn’t a personal rejection. With such transparency, couples can begin to communicate more openly around ways to accommodate their partner’s sensitivities to help them cope.
These benefits go beyond the family, too. Those who feel empowered can begin to impact their environment in ways that help others experiencing neurodivergence. Speaking up about the difficulties of working in a chaotic office, for instance, can lead to workplace discussions and identifying options like working from home or designated quiet spaces. These benefit more than just the neurodivergent and can help others come forward about their own challenges.
Being able to communicate openly about neurodivergence also goes a long way toward fighting the stigma associated with such diagnoses, and begins to shift the perception of these labels away from pathology and toward difference. Judging those whose internal experience of life is different from that of others, punishes individuals for their uniqueness instead of embracing it as evidence of human diversity.
Given their high degree of sensitivity, many neurodivergent individuals are actually more sensitive to the emotions and needs of others, rather than less. The stereotype of someone who has ADHD or autism as a person without empathy or deep emotions, is a fundamental misunderstanding of their behavior as it relates to their inner world. Creating opportunities for these individuals to share their observations and experiences can provide a voice for deep empathy and compassion in an increasingly diverse world.
A divergent world
When neurodivergence is accounted for within social, cultural, and institutional contexts, whole new groups of individuals can participate, and the whole culture thrives. If urban planning took more consideration of things like noise or visual pollution, access to natural areas, or small, quiet spaces to retreat for decompression, the world would become a friendlier place for many.
In recent decades, some supermarkets and shopping centers institute quiet hours for shoppers with sensitivities, and many find these hours easier and more pleasant to navigate. Giving travelers access to quiet pods in train stations or airports has encouraged them to care for themselves during long trips, and they also provide a lifeline for the sensorily challenged to decompress.
If urban planning took into account the needs of neurodiverse citizens more broadly, cities might look quite different. A common misconception about neurodivergent individuals is that they are overstimulated by the crowds and noise of urban environments, when the exact opposite may be true. Nature isn’t silent or minimal or still, it’s an ever-moving whirlwind of activity, sights, smells, and textures. Yet exposure to nature and exercise in natural environments is a must for many with sensory processing challenges because it soothes the nervous system almost instantaneously.
If anything, many sensitive individuals aren’t overstimulated by office or institutional environments but understimulated. Miles of beige walls or gray cubicles dull the senses, while bare walls and fluorescent lighting create sensory monotony. But neurotypical folks suffer in these environments, too, and time in nature provides stress relief and relaxation along with a deeper connection to the natural world for everyone.
Interiors designed with neurodiversity in mind might include more colorful forms of lighting, aesthetic color palettes, textured fabrics, and soft furnishings to stimulate the senses. They’d feature lots of plants and decorative elements to aesthetically imitate the sensory experience of the natural world. They’d eliminate unnatural sounds like humming fans, machine noise, and automobile traffic in favor of water features or nature sounds.
And it isn’t just the neurodivergent who’d benefit from these changes, either. More access to nature, stimulating interiors, or colorful lighting bring many a sense of well-being and comfort. Small, cozy interior spaces to retreat to can help anyone feel more connected to themselves and their inner world, regardless of neurology. Access to natural areas represents a lifeline for many seeking to soothe the stresses of urban life.
Having access to calming activities like swinging in a hammock or rocking in a chair can help everyone soothe themselves, too. As neurodivergent individuals speak up about their effectiveness, and these accommodations become more common, everyone benefits. As these accommodations bring more awareness to everyone’s embodied experience, they create opportunities for us all to live with more awareness of our sensory world.
Neurodivergent conditions like autism, ADHD, synesthesia, high sensitivity, or sensory processing disorders have long gone under researched and diagnosed in women and nonbinary people. Frequently masked, the consequences of these conditions when left untreated can be enormous, leading to burnout and broken relationships or careers. Given the lack of information in the medical and psychological community, finding information or an accurate diagnosis may be difficult, but connecting with others who have similar experiences can help. Embracing one’s unique neurology and challenging the stigma around neurodivergence by speaking up, can go a long way in helping to create more inclusive environments for everyone.
JENARA NERENBERG lectures widely on neuroscience, innovation, sensitivity, leadership, and diversity. Selected as a “brave new idea” presenter by the Aspen Institute for her work on re-framing mental differences, Jenara is also the founder and host of The Neurodiversity Project. She holds degrees from the Harvard School of Public Health and UC Berkeley. Her work has been published in Fast Company, New York magazine, Susan Cain’s Quiet Revolution, Garrison Institute, Elaine Aron’s HSP, Healthline, KQED, and elsewhere. In addition to her work as a journalist, Jenara is a frequent workshop facilitator, speaker, and event host for institutions including the Stanford Graduate School of Business and elsewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Science, Health, Nutrition, Society, Culture, Nonfiction, Psychology, Autistic Spectrum Disorder, Mental, Adhd, Self Help, Disability, Women, Employment, Women in Business, Counseling, Medical Mental Illness, Medical Psychology Pathologies
Table of Contents
Part I Inner Worlds
Chapter 1 The Female Mind Throughout History 23
Chapter 2 Reframing Sensitivity 35
Part II Outer Frames
Chapter 3 Autism, Synesthesia, and ADHD 53
Chapter 4 Sensory Processing “Disorder” 85
Part III Something New
Chapter 5 Well-Being 115
Chapter 6 Home 143
Chapter 7 Work 163
Further Reading 227
The book is a personal and professional exploration of neurodiversity, a term that encompasses the different ways that people perceive, process, and respond to the world. The author, Jenara Nerenberg, is a journalist, entrepreneur, and mother who discovered that she had ADHD and autism in her thirties, after years of struggling with anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. She realized that many women like her were misdiagnosed or undiagnosed, due to the gender bias and stereotypes in the medical and educational systems. She also learned that neurodivergent women have unique strengths and gifts that are often overlooked or suppressed by society.
The book features interviews and stories from women with various neurodivergences, such as high sensitivity, synesthesia, sensory processing disorder, dyslexia, misophonia, and more. Nerenberg shows how these brain differences affect their lives, relationships, careers, and creativity. She also challenges the common misconceptions and myths about neurodiversity, such as the idea that autistic people lack empathy or that ADHD is a disorder of attention. She argues that neurodiversity is not a problem to be fixed, but a natural and valuable variation of human experience.
The book also offers practical advice and resources for neurodivergent women and their allies, such as how to communicate effectively, how to design supportive environments, how to find community and support, and how to celebrate and harness their divergent minds.
I found this book to be very insightful, inspiring, and empowering. As a woman who identifies as neurodivergent myself, I felt seen and validated by the author’s personal journey and the stories of other women. I learned a lot about the different aspects of neurodiversity and how they can manifest in women. I also appreciated the author’s positive and holistic approach to neurodiversity, which emphasizes the strengths and potential of divergent minds.
The book is well-written, engaging, and accessible. The author combines scientific research, personal anecdotes, and interviews in a balanced and coherent way. The book is organized into three parts: Part One introduces the concept of neurodiversity and the author’s own story; Part Two explores the different types of neurodivergences and their implications for women; Part Three provides practical guidance and resources for living with a divergent mind.
The book is not only informative, but also inspiring. The author showcases the achievements and contributions of neurodivergent women in various fields, such as art, science, business, education, activism, and more. She also encourages neurodivergent women to embrace their uniqueness and creativity, and to pursue their passions and dreams.
The book is also empowering. The author advocates for more awareness, acceptance, and inclusion of neurodiversity in society. She calls for a paradigm shift that recognizes the value and diversity of human brains. She also urges neurodivergent women to connect with each other and form supportive communities.
Overall, I think this book is a must-read for anyone who is interested in learning more about neurodiversity or who identifies as neurodivergent themselves. It is also a great resource for parents, educators, health professionals, employers, friends, and family members of neurodivergent people. It is a book that celebrates the beauty and power of divergent minds.