Divergent Mind by Jenara Nerenberg Book Summary

Divergent Mind, Thriving in a World That Wasn’t Designed for You by Jenara Nerenberg


Jenara Nerenberg uses personal narratives, scientific data and expert testimony to examine the discrimination that women with ADHD, autism and extreme sensitivities face daily. She dissects how the world favors so-called “normal” individuals with their “neurotypical” brain functions. Nerenberg makes the case for neurodiversity, a movement celebrating the wide range of brain processes and perceptions. Her insightful and empowering book provides solutions and suggestions to benefit everyone.


  • Employers are more likely to fire “neurodivergent” employees.
  • Historically, researchers excluded women from studies of autism and ADHD.
  • Masking – hiding one’s neurodivergence – can lead to depression, anxiety and even suicidal ideation.
  • Obsolete stereotypes dominate discussions and diagnoses of ADHD and autism.
  • The “neurodiversity” movement highlights and applauds divergent brain patterns.
  • Highly sensitive people comprise at least 20% of the population.
  • Office and school design affects the well-being of neurodivergent people.
  • A range of therapies, self-care and accommodations can improve the lives of neurodivergent people.
Divergent Mind Book Cover

Divergent Mind Book Summary

Employers are more likely to fire “neurodivergent” employees.

Work history is a thorny topic for author Jenara Nerenberg. During her 20s, she was fired from a journalism post. She launched a freelance career and flourished while self-employed. Next, she accepted a position as a senior editor, but her pink slip arrived after only six months. Her brain fog played a role in that termination. Twelve months later, an artistic organization hired her, but administrative chores overwhelmed her, and she lost her job in four weeks. Experiencing puzzlement, she sought answers.

“When society is not equipped to hold an accurate mirror up to you, you end up interpreting your reflection according to available lenses, structures, and terminology. But they’re often wrong and misleading, or, worse, harmful.”

Her search brought her to “neurodiversity.” Nerenberg realized that, like other neurodivergent people, she was more likely than “normal” employees to endure termination from traditional workplaces.

“Neurodivergent” describes people who process sounds, sights, smells and tactile information differently than the general population. Individuals classified as neurodivergent include those with Asperger’s and other forms of autism; attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD);????? and sensory processing disorder (SPD), among many other traits.

Workplaces, schools and other societal structures first accommodate “neurotypical” people. That reality can lead to depression and anxiety among the neurodivergent, particularly when their neurodivergence hasn’t been recognized or diagnosed. This scenario is especially true for women, who suffer more misdiagnoses or are more likely to remain undiagnosed.

“Its no wonder that we women walk around with unnecessary amounts of shame, guilt, depression, and anxiety. Our reality has not been properly validated.”

Nerenberg felt her colleagues misunderstood and underappreciated her. But her feelings of confusion, worthlessness and loss diminished after she researched neurodiversity as a journalist. Ultimately, she benefited from making connections within the neurodivergent community, including corporate executives, community activists and creative artists.

Historically, researchers excluded women from studies of autism and ADHD.

In 2015, author Steve Silberman published NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. His book, while pivotal, primarily profiles males with autism. Other books about autism and ADHD similarly tend to overlook women.

Researchers, writers and activists have written multiple articles highlighting the omission of adult women in research and clinical studies about autism and ADHD. Author and activist Maria Yagoda shared her personal story in The Atlantic. Yagoda chronicled her time as a student at Yale, where she battled her poor management of time, money and personal possessions. Did she have ADHD? No one believed that was possible because Yagoda was “so smart.” After her diagnosis, she worked to advocate for other women with ADHD.

“Many such neurodivergent women are suffering, as many times these traits occur along with anxiety and depression, especially if the underlying sensory differences go undiagnosed.”

One publication about women and girls with autism featured the experiences of Maya, a young adult who battled with extreme anxiety and related issues until the recognition and acceptance of her diagnosis of autism. Other research studies document high levels of anxiety and depression in high-achieving women who show symptoms of autism or ADHD.

Masking – hiding one’s neurodivergence – can lead to depression, anxiety and even suicidal ideation.

What underlies the underdiagnosis of ADHD in women? Formal studies and anecdotal information indicate that women are adept at “masking” signs of autism, Asperger’s and ADHD. Due to gender-based socialization and education, a woman may mask her neurodivergence consciously or unconsciously. From their youngest years, girls are schooled to accommodate and fade into societal norms. Too often, adults dismiss girls’ signs of extreme sensitivity as typical feminine feelings. But masking can exact steep costs and lead to anxiety, emptiness and depression – all of which can contribute to suicidal ideation.

Nerenberg knows about masking. Growing up, she grappled with high levels of sensitivity and inquisitiveness. She eventually learned that directing a barrage of personal questions at other people did not help her make friends. Through trial-and-error, she learned to tailor her interactions and mannerisms to mirror other girls’ behavior. Adaptation leads to masking. Those who fail to conform face the risk of being called oversensitive, anxious, or even hysterical. Some women spend a lifetime masking their true selves, including the telltale signs of autism, ADHD or other neurodivergent sensitivities.

“Women are usually diagnosed much later in life than men/boys, and the societal pressure to mask is much bigger for girls. Autism and other neurodivergent traits thus become expressed differently in men and women.”

The psychological dangers of masking emerge in the narrative presented by Isabel, a woman with Asperger’s. She grew up as a gifted child in an unconventional family of artists. Growing up, she did not feel disabled or untraditional. That sense of self changed when she went to college, where the competitive, quick-moving environment overwhelmed her. Feeling uneasy, she returned home and resumed her studies on another campus. Marriage and motherhood subsequently sparked more personal upheaval for Isabel, who lost the ability to function.

Ultimately, one of her children was diagnosed with ADHD and Asperger’s. Her son’s diagnosis prompted Isabel to acknowledge the neurodivergence she’d masked for years. During that period of recognition, she came to understand the enormous physical and emotional costs that masking extracted from her life. After she stopped masking, Isabel’s mental and physical health improved significantly. Other women tell similar stories on social media.

Obsolete stereotypes dominate discussions and diagnoses of ADHD and autism.

Antiquated stereotypes dominate conversations and studies about ADHD and autism. Neurodivergence displays itself across a broad spectrum of behavior. Regarding boys, stereotypes about ADHD typically involve descriptions of fidgeting and distraction. That stereotype excludes deeper issues. Misconceptions muddle the basic definition of ADHD. For example, the “AD” in ADHD stands for attention deficit. But ADHD is not a deficit in one’s attention span; it’s the difficulty or inability to control or regulate attention. One of the hidden gifts of ADHD is the ability to “hyperfocus,” a form of extreme concentration on a subject, object or activity.

Other characteristics of ADHD include intense curiosity, sensitivity to judgments and criticism, extreme self-criticism, high levels of frustration, and emotional meltdowns due to an overload of information, sensation or emotion.

Stereotypes and misperceptions wrongly label ADHD and autistic individuals as remote or socially awkward. They may appear aloof, but are actually hyperaware during emotionally charged situations. Overwhelmed by feelings or by empathy, the highly sensitive person retreats behind a barrier that superficially resembles indifference or disconnection.

“The more people feel okay about being sensitive, the better they’ll do in a stressful situation because they show up as their full self, instead of being full of self-doubt.”

Physicians carrying stereotypical views overlook women and girls when diagnosing or discussing ADHD, autism and Asperger’s. Academic researchers often don’t study neurodivergent girls and women. Also, doctors misdiagnose females with ADHD because they often flourish in school and tend to be labeled “smart.”

The “neurodiversity” movement highlights and applauds divergent brain patterns.

The civil rights movement delivered recognition of racial, gender, sexual preference and lifestyle differences. Activists in the neurodivergent community seek the same level of acknowledgement for neurological differences and “inner lives.” The neurodiversity movement recognizes and salutes different brain processes. Too often, advocates say, medical practitioners view neurological differences as pathological variances.

“Who is disabled? Who is disordered? Who defines normal?”

Neurodiversity activists want to revise the practice of dividing the population into camps of typical/normal-functioning brains versus abnormal or flawed brains, so that there is more acceptance. They argue that ADHD, SPD and Asperger’s are not simply deficits but are differences and strengths. Those conditions, instead, represent “neurodivergent” brain traits that perceive and process information differently than so-called normal or neurotypical brains.

Highly sensitive people make up at least 20% of the population.

Elaine Aron coined the acronym HSP to facilitate discussion of highly sensitive people. In her 1996 book, The Highly Sensitive Person, she reports that HSPs make up about 20% of the world’s people.

Experts define high sensitivity as intensified responses to sounds, sights, events, emotions, light and other environmental dynamics. Many women display high levels of empathy and sensitivity, traits that are markers of ADHD, Asperger’s, HSP and other neurodivergent brain processes.

“As in the case of many other neurodivergences, the gifts of HSPs are vast. They tend to excel in psychology, writing, art, and music and as entrepreneurs. Because their nervous systems are more attuned to subtleties in the environment, they excel in perception, detecting nuances, and understanding others.”

With the passage of time, the trait of increased sensitivity has been codified as a pathology. Advocates of neurodivergence reject the pathologization of heightened sensitivity as a form of mental illness. Experts argue that people experience a wide spectrum of sensitivity. This leads advocates to question why heightened sensitivity is considered an abnormality or a disorder. In the animal kingdom, enhanced sensitivities translate into improved survival benefits, including better navigation skills. Why is daily life built to accommodate only those who are less sensitive? Perhaps the world would benefit if schools, workplaces, and indoor and outer lighting catered more to the reactions of the hypersensitive.

Office and school design affects the well-being of neurodivergent people.

Grace Malonai, a therapist, cares about her office décor and layout. She works with highly sensitive clients, who represent a broad spectrum of neurotypes, including ADHD, HSP and autism. To cater to this client base, Malonai’s office includes warm colors, pillows, weighted blankets, sand, stress-reduction toys, soft fabrics, table-top lamps instead of overhead lights and noise-reducing designs and features.

Beyond the therapist’s office, other institutions and organizations acknowledge how more accommodating designs can benefit the broader population, including neurotypical students and workers. Sensitive architects are building gyms and other spaces to enhance everyone’s mental health.

A range of therapies, self-care and accommodations can improve the lives of neurodivergent people.

A mother, Jen, was not aware of her own neurodivergent traits until her young son was diagnosed with SPD. He began occupational therapy when he was under two years old. When Jen filled out the forms to enroll him in treatment, the inquiries baffled her. She thought the checklist of symptoms seemed universally applicable, but her husband disagreed.

“The common cluster of symptoms described within SPD primarily includes overreactivity or underresponsivity to stimuli such as touch or noise. In both cases, the polarized response can interfere with how a child or adult interacts with others.”

During her child’s intake process, Jen confronted her own sensitivity to touch, loud noises and crowds. She started occupational and talk therapy. The talk sessions with her therapist helped Jen to identify environmental features that triggered her anxiety. Thanks to occupational therapy, she recognized the value of exercise. Weightlifting served as her antidepressant and helped to prevent anxiety.

Experts in sensory work recommend the following self-care steps: be mindful of crowds and bright lights, consider sensory-friendly clothing materials, exercise, participate in occupational, somatic or talk therapy and arrange for work-at-home accommodations and other adjustments where possible. Use self-calming techniques, such as counting your heartbeats and measuring your pulse.

“Instead of your difference being what holds you back, its gifts can be uncovered. Some refer to this as unlocking a kind of superpower, and discerning difference as power can be invigorating.”

Openness, conversations and learning about neurodivergence can lead to personal growth and healing. Knowledge and understanding can deliver much relief to those who know, or might suspect, that they are neurodivergent. ?????

About the Author

Jenara Nerenberg

Writer and entrepreneur Jenara Nerenberg is the founder of The Neurodiversity Project. She lectures on neurodiversity, psychology and empathy and has written about mental health, gender bias and related topics.

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