What is neurodiversity? An interview with the host of “The Neurodiversity Podcast”
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The term “neurodiversity” seems to be everywhere right now — in the news, the workplace, and even in your podcasts. But what exactly does it mean?
In this episode, hosts Amanda Morin and Gretchen Vierstra talk with Emily Kircher-Morris, counselor, author, and host of The Neurodiversity Podcast. Emily has a unique perspective on neurodiversity: She’s a neurodivergent parent to twice-exceptional kids. Listen in to hear Emily talk about what neurodiversity means, how it applies to kids who learn and think differently, and why the language we use matters.
Amanda: Hi, I'm Amanda Morin. I'm the director of thought leadership and expertise for Understood.org. I'm a parent to kids who learn differently, and I'm a neurodiverse human.
Gretchen: Hi, I'm Gretchen. I'm an editor at Understood. I'm also a former classroom teacher and a mom of two. And this is "In It."
"In It" is a podcast from the Understood Podcast Network. On the show, we talk to parents, caregivers, teachers, experts, and sometimes even kids. We offer perspective, advice, and stories from and for people who have challenges with reading, math, focus, and other learning differences.
Amanda, I've heard your introduction a bunch of times, but I've never heard you introduce yourself as a neurodiverse human. That's a new one.
Amanda: Yeah. I thought it was a good segue into our conversation today about neurodiversity because the term "neurodiversity" seems to be everywhere right now. It's in the news. It's in the business world. But we really wanted to explore what it means.
And for the answer to this question and more questions, we thought it would be best to talk with my friend Emily Kircher-Morris, who's the host of "The Neurodiversity Podcast." She's also a fellow author, and her book "Teaching Twice-Exceptional Learners in Today's Classroom" came out in August.
Gretchen: Oh, hooray!
Amanda: Right. And Gretchen, like us, Emily has been a teacher. She's taught in gifted classrooms. She's been a school counselor. And these days, she lives in Missouri. She has a private practice as a licensed professional counselor, and she specializes in helping gifted and twice-exceptional kids.
Gretchen: Emily, welcome. I'm so happy to meet you.
Emily: Yes, I'm so happy to be here. Thank you for the invitation.
Gretchen: And Amanda just gave a great introduction of you, but it's my first time meeting you, so why don't you tell us a little bit more about yourself?
Emily: Well, I am also a neurodiverse individual, which is part of why I have the passion that I do for this field. I have three kids. The older two are identified as twice exceptional, and my littlest is only in first grade, but, you know, we'll see how that all goes. I think we can probably make some good predictions, but, you know, this is my life between the podcast and my clinical mental health practice and just kind of advocating and supporting neurodivergent and twice-exceptional people.
Amanda: So, basically, what you're saying is you live this the same way the rest of us do.
Emily: I do. And, and you know, it's interesting, you know, how people, like, refer to parenting experts or whatever, and I'm going, "Oh, please." I talk about it a lot, and I read about it a lot, and I'm very good at brainstorming solutions, but I do not have it all figured out. We're all in this together. We're all trying to figure it out as we go. And if we can collaborate and work together on it, then that's just best for everyone.
Amanda: And we thought who better to collaborate with on an episode about neurodiversity than the host of "The Neurodiversity Podcast." Right? I mean, it's literally in the name of what you do.
Emily: It's literally in the name.
Gretchen: Yeah. So speaking of that name, how would you actually define neurodiversity?
Emily: So. Neurodiversity really is a concept that allows for a lot of different disorders or diagnoses that people have and recognizes that it's not necessarily always a deficit.
A neurodivergent person has brain wiring that is atypical compared to the normative population, but that doesn't mean that they are dysfunctional or broken. So when we talk about autism or ADHD, these are things that are innate, that are in place since a person is born; they are not acquired. And there's nothing that you're going to do, like when I have kids come into my counseling practice, who are ADHD'ers or are autistic, like I'm not teaching them how to not have ADHD. Like I'm not, I'm not going to get them to not be autistic. Like that's just part of who they are. And neurodiversity really recognizes that, just like biodiversity in the natural world, having variation is good for the world, and it just kind of normalizes some of that while recognizing that these different neurotypes might operate in the world a little bit differently, but that doesn't mean that it's bad.
Gretchen: Emily, that's such a beautiful way to explain the need for this term. And I'm wondering if you can also get into a little bit about what specifically falls under the term "neurodiverse."
Emily: So we're talking about, like I mentioned, ADHD; I mentioned autism. We're talking about dyslexia, dyscalculia. Um, some people would put diagnoses like schizophrenia or bipolar or OCD in that category. Most people would not put diagnoses like anxiety, like generalized anxiety or, um, you know, major depressive disorder, but there's kind of like, in my mind, I visualize this Venn diagram where we have neurodivergent diagnoses and then we have mental health diagnoses, but there's definitely some overlap, like OCD, to me, I'm not quite sure where that should really fall.
Amanda: I would say neurodiversity. I actually have OCD. So, to me, it feels like it.
Emily: Well, it's, it's interesting because there's not necessarily an agreed-upon definition of what neurodiversity is or is not because I also, I agree with you on that, Amanda. But I also think there are some instances where, if the premise is that neurodiversity is something that somebody is born with, OCD is not always something that somebody is born with. It's like, depending on who you're talking to, you're getting different parameters for where things fall. And so, that's kind of why I say, I think it kind of straddles a little bit, depending on the individual.
And I would also say that for example, um, I would put cognitive diversity or cognitive giftedness in the category of neurodiversity, and I think that's one that doesn't get recognized quite often. And I would also say twice-exceptional individuals, who are gifted and have another one of those diagnoses or a mental health diagnosis, if they need additional supports, like, they are also then neurodivergent.
It's very broad and ambiguous is my point, but why I like the term. I do talk about my clients both as a group but also individually when I'm talking to their parents, I use the term "neurodiverse" as a way to explain and normalize their experiences, you know, because I feel like what happens is sometimes we fall into this, like, "Oh, well, they're just a little quirky." And I think more than anything, what that does is it minimizes a person's struggles. It disallows them access to accommodations. It enhances the stigma that surrounds those diagnoses.
And I'm very much a believer that let's just call something what it is. And if we don't know what it is, there are kids, especially in my practice, who maybe we can tell are neurodivergent, like, we just know, but is it ADHD? Is it autism? Like, what exactly is going on? It can be very difficult to tease out. Do we need a full psychological evaluation? Do we need it for an IEP or a 504? Do we need medication? If we don't need any of those things, is it useful just for the person to have a label? Sometimes that's empowering for people to know what to call something. But sometimes we can just go, you know, they're neurodivergent, their brain works differently, and we don't necessarily have to drill down much further than that. It can be kind of an umbrella term.
Amanda: That's super helpful. And also, as I'm listening to you say that, I had this moment because I realized when I talk about myself now, I talk about being neurodivergent. Diagnoses, labels, how that impacts me. But when I talk about who I used to be when I was a kid, I often will say I was a quirky kid. And I never thought about the fact that, that's actually, like, what I'm doing there is I'm minimizing who I was. Right?
Emily: And you were an unidentified neurodivergent learner.
Amanda: I was an unidentified neurodivergent learner. I wasn't just a quirky kid. There was actually something bigger there. I need to stop saying that. I need to stop saying I was a quirky kid.
Emily: You know, I also want to just address the fact, though, that there are a lot of folks who like to talk about neurodiversity as a superpower. And I think that is also kind of like talking about like being a quirky kid. I think it diminishes the needs that go along with it.
And there is nobody who is a part and really active in the neurodiversity movement who denies that being neurodivergent can be a disability. And what does that really mean? You know, Amanda, it's like, you know, I have glasses as well. It's like, I can see as long as I have the accommodation of my glasses. If you take away my glasses, I can't see anything.
Emily: So I am then disabled. I'm unable to function in the world as others do. And so if I am an ADHD'er and I need certain accommodations in order to be able to focus, or if I have certain sensory processing needs, I can still fulfill my potential. I can still live my life as long as those accommodations are put in place. But if the world refuses to put those accommodations in place, then I am disabled.
Amanda: And that's the social model. Like that's something that you and I talk about, know about, and I think I'm just going to like, take a pause and, you know, just for the listeners who don't —
Gretchen: Good idea, maybe for me too.
Amanda: The social model of disability is speaking about how you interact with the environment, and that the environment is what can cause you to feel more or less disabled. And it's not that you are inherently disabled, right? It's how the environment interacts with whatever differences or, you know, challenges that you have. You know, like, if we didn't have to read, the glasses wouldn't matter, right? If we didn't have to see each other, the glasses wouldn't matter. I just think it's important to note that that's sort of where that social model comes in is, is it's different than a medical model that says there's something inherently wrong with a person, right?
Emily: And the neurodiversity movement, and neurodiversity just in general, lives in the world of the social model of disability.
Gretchen: Emily, I've noticed you've been talking about people who may have ADHD as ADHD'ers, right? So that, I'm noticing, is different than some other language that I've heard where it's person first, and then the difference. And the way that you've been speaking sounds to me like the neurodivergent first. Can you explain that?
Emily: Absolutely. I am an ADHD'er; I have a diagnosis of ADHD. I was given that diagnosis, but without the ADHD, I am not who I am. I am no longer Emily. There is just so much of that that is inherent because it is part of my neurological wiring, and neurodivergent communities were not the first to embrace this.
The Deaf community — they use identity-first language: "I am a Deaf person." I believe that blind and visually impaired people also use identity-first language, because you can't separate it from how they interact with the world and how they see themselves. Autistic individuals. I am autistic. I'm not a person with autism.
It's not like you can just like, get rid of that pesky autism, and then everything's just going to, you know, work OK. And we don't want to, we don't want to get rid of those things. Like, the reason I have the ideas that I have, the reason I can have 12,000 million things going on all at once is because the way my brain works, and if my brain didn't work that way, I wouldn't be an ADHD'er, but I also wouldn't be me.
And there's an ownership to that, right? Like, this is who I am. I'm not perfect. I have strengths, I have struggles, but don't try to fix me because of the way my brain is wired. Somebody who is dyslexic, for example, what are the skills and the compensatory strategies that they build, and how does that influence their personality and how they interact with the world and how they see themselves? Like, you can't extricate that.
Amanda: That makes sense. I want to actually circle back to something because we touched on it a little bit — is the "twice exceptional" thing. Emily and I both are twice exceptional, which is such a strange phrase. Sometimes you hear it as 2e; I'd love for you to talk about what that means.
Emily: Yeah. So maybe I'll just go back and share a little bit about my story. So when I was growing up, my mom was a special educator in the school district where I attended school. And thank goodness, because I was a hot mess. And so she was on it, but she insisted, you know, when I was in second grade, that I was screened for the gifted program. She's like, this is not typical development, you know, with the things that I was doing and the questions I was asking and how I was learning. And so. Yeah, the district tested me and I was placed in the gifted ed program. But then by the time I was in fifth grade, I was really struggling. I mean, I have teachers who tell the story about having to dump out my desk to find my work. And we could get in a whole lot of different conversations about my experiences there, but, but the bottom line is I was really struggling.
And so my mom went and found a neurologist. This was at a time that ADHD was still pretty new. It was very rarely diagnosed in girls. And I had teachers who would say, "Well, we don't think she should be allowed to go to her gifted education program because she's not getting her work turned in. I'm like, "Well, you're asking me to write spelling words five times each and I already know how to spell those words." So I don't want to do that. And that was at a time that we didn't even have the terminology "twice exceptional." So, "twice exceptional" means gifted and another diagnosis. So when I started out as a teacher, I started in just the general education classroom. As far as executive functioning goes, that was a really difficult environment for me.
And so I quickly moved and got a master's degree in education with gifted education certification. And I've taught at both the elementary and the middle school levels in gifted ed programs. But when I got that master's degree, we didn't even talk about the term "twice exceptional." So this is like within the last 15 years that people have even really started to understand that somebody can have cognitive giftedness and have another diagnosis, and that they can still deserve and need services both for their cognitive ability to challenge them, but also special education services at the same time.
And this is like blowing people's minds in the education world. Cause they just don't know where these kids fit. And when I was taught in the gifted ed classrooms, like that's where, like I found the kids who I connected with and they were of course the twice-exceptional kids, and I wanted to do more to support them.
So I went back and got a second master's, in counseling and family therapy. And that's where I specialize with those kids. My mission is to protect those kids from some of the experiences I had as a kid, because it really sucked growing up in a world that didn't understand twice exceptionality.
Amanda: Absolutely. You know, there's nothing quite like knowing there are things that you are brilliant at doing, and there are things that you are falling down at doing, and not being able to know why they both happen at the same time.
There are some states now that look at gifted education as special education. And I think those are states that are doing it right, right? Because they're looking at the fact that it's specialized instruction, no matter why you need that specialized instruction.
Going back to the whole parenting experts thing. I do think that there's an expectation sometimes when you have a neurodiverse child, when you have neurodivergence in your home, when you have twice exceptionality, there's this expectation that you've got to get it right as a parent; that you know how to do this. And I am here to tell you, you have no idea. Like, I have no idea how to do this.
Emily: It changes day to day.
Amanda: It does. And I'm not automatically a better, more prepared parent because of the kids I have. I just think it's important for parents to know that just because you have a child who is neurodivergent, you have a child who's twice exceptional, it doesn't mean you have to be better at parenting than anybody. You're just doing your best, right?
Emily: You're parenting your child.
Gretchen: I like that. But I still will go to you for advice, Amanda.
Amanda: Well, you know, now you know Emily, so there we go.
Emily: There's not so much. I always feel like, people will say, "Well, what should I do?"
And it's not so much advice, but it's like, well, what have you tried? What other options are there? And like, let's just brainstorm it together. I might have more ideas just because I do this every day and brainstorm with people. And I've seen things that work for other families, but I am not the expert on your child.
You're going to know what might work for your personality and their personality for the specific thing that's going on. But sometimes you've just got to step back for a minute and kind of figure out, "What could I do differently? This isn't working. I need to do something different. What is that different thing?"
Amanda: Well, if you just recognize that you need to do something different is a big step too.
Emily: You know, one thing I would, I would say to that, Amanda — and this is another one of my soapboxes that I like to get on, especially when it comes to neurodiversity and parenting neurodivergent kids — is that so many of us were raised with very behaviorally based interventions, meaning disciplines, as far as rewards, punishments, those sorts of consequences.
You will not bribe your neurodivergent child into executive functioning. Like, that's just not how it works. And so taking things away from them or promising them whatever if they are able to do X, Y, and Z, it doesn't solve the problem. It doesn't teach the lagging skill. You might get some short-term benefit, but we have got to move away from behavioral solutions for neurological wiring difficulties.
I think we do so much damage to kids by giving them consequences for things that really — not that they can't control, but they don't know how to control.
Amanda: That's a soapbox I will stand on with you anytime. Well, Emily, thank you so much for talking to us today.
Gretchen: So great to meet you and talk with you today.
Emily: Thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure.
Amanda: You've been listening to "In It," part of the Understood Podcast Network.
Gretchen: You can listen and subscribe to "In It" wherever you get your podcasts.
Amanda: And if you like what you heard today, please tell somebody about it.
Gretchen: Share it with the parents you know.
Amanda: Share it with somebody else who might have a child who learns differently.
Gretchen: Or just send a link to your child's teacher.
Amanda: "In It" is for you. So we want to make sure that you're getting what you need.
Gretchen: Go to u.org/init to share your thoughts and also to find resources from every episode.
Amanda: That's the letter U, as in Understood, dot O R G, slash "in it." You can also email us at InIt@understood.org.
Gretchen: As a nonprofit and social impact organization, Understood relies on the help of listeners like you to create podcasts like this one to reach and support more people in more places. We have an ambitious mission to shape the world for difference. And we welcome you to join us in achieving our goals. Learn more at understood.org/mission.
Amanda: "In It" is produced by Julie Subrin, with special help this week from Anna Mazarakis. Justin D. Wright mixes the show. Mike Errico wrote our theme music. Laura Key is our editorial director at Understood. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick and Briana Berry our production directors. Thanks for listening, everyone. And thanks for always being in it with us.
is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the “In It” podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.
is co-host of the “In It” podcast and the parent of two kids with ADHD. She has a background in writing and editing content for kids and parents.
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