An introduction to neurodiversity

18 April 2023

The term neurodiversity describes the uniqueness in the way each individual person experiences and interacts with the world. It refers to the diversity of all people, but it's often associated with neurological and developmental conditions, such as autism, ADHD and dyslexia.

An introduction to neurodiversity

Dr Lisa Debrou, a Clinical Psychologist and Clinical Director at HelloSelf, shares an introduction to neurodiversity, including the different types of neurodevelopmental conditions associated with it and what is involved in an assessment.

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The diagnostic term for the different diagnoses is 'neurodevelopmental disorders', however we favour use of the terms 'neurodiverse' and 'neurodiversity'.

Neurodiversity is the result of each individual person's brain being unique, and how they process information may differ. Whilst neurodiverse conditions are life-long, they are spectrum disorders, so may not become obvious to us until later in life. For example, a life change such as becoming a parent, taking on a new role at work, or menopause.

There are a number of different types of neurodevelopmental conditions, including:

  • Autistic spectrum disorder (ASD or autism)
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Social communication disorder (SCD)
  • Learning difficulties, such as dyslexia and dyscalculia
  • Tourette Syndrome

Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

ASD describes the patterns of different ways people relate to others and their environment.

Someone with ASD may have different ways of developing, maintaining and understanding relationships, may favour clear expectations, and prefers if others are the focus of attention in group settings, for example:

  • They may prefer routine, plans and structure
  • Have special interests and be highly knowledgeable in that particular area
  • Be very aware of their environment, including busy spaces and different sensual experiences

The prevalence of ASD is more than 1 in 100 in the UK.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) refers to patterns of energy and focus. People with ADHD can experience difficulties with inattention, hyperactivity or both. For those with difficulties with inattention, they may:

  • Be quick to complete tasks with deadlines, see other ways of viewing information, and not focus on the details
  • Favour completing exciting tasks in favour of monotonous or multi-step processes
  • Experience fluctuating levels of engagement with shorter or prolonged bursts of energy

Someone with traits of hyperactivity and impulsivity may:

  • Have excess energy so need to move around more than others, preferring not to remain in one position for long periods
  • Be quick to answer questions
  • Be excited to share information with others, often jumping between topics of conversation quickly

The prevalence of ADHD in the UK is 3–4 in 100 among adults.

Social Communication Disorder (SCD)

SCD refers to differences in verbal and non-verbal communication. Someone with SCD may:

  • Prefers direct communication about rules for conversation or sharing information to participate more confidently
  • Favour clarity around ambiguous communications, such as inferences and non-literal meanings of language.

Learning difficulties

Dyslexia, dyscalculia and other learning difficulties describe the differences in how information is learned and processed. People with learning difficulties may:

  • Appraise, manipulate and express of verbal and visual information (e.g. speech, reading, writing, calculations) in a different way
  • Have particular areas of strength in cognitive profiles which may be used to compensate for differences

The prevalence of dyslexia in the UK is 1 in 10, and dyscalculia is approximately 1 in 20.

Tourette Syndrome (TS)

TS describes patterns of involuntary and repetitive movements, sounds or twitches. People with TS may:

  • Display differences in the ability to inhibit motor movements at rest (e.g. blinking, shrugging shoulders, humming, clearing the throat, yelling)

The prevalence of Tourette Syndrome in the UK is 1 in 100.

The role of gender

It is widely documented that more men than women are diagnosed as neurodiverse (for example, male to female ratio is 3:1 in autism and 4:1 in ADHD).

There are a number of theories as to why there is a gender difference, including that girls and women may be better at camouflaging or masking their neurodiverse traits. We must therefore remain mindful that whilst symptoms of neurodiversity may not be immediately obvious to others, the impact on the individual can be significant.

Getting a diagnosis

We must acknowledge that stigma regarding a neurodiverse diagnosis may prevent people from seeking a diagnosis. The choice belongs to the individual seeking it. However, the benefits of getting a diagnosis can include:

  • The individual having an understanding of their unique differences and an explanation as to why they may experience the world differently to others. A diagnosis does not define an individual, but it can be empowering to have a better understanding of their neurodiversity.
  • Reduced the likelihood of someone being misdiagnosed with something else.
  • Opening up access to expert professional help. For example, coaching or therapy for adapting to a diagnosis both in their personal and professional life. People with ADHD could also potentially benefit from medication to help with some of the traits that cause problems, such as inattention.

What's involved in an assessment?

Assessments for neurodevelopmental disorders (NDD) differ depending on the type of symptoms the person is experiencing. For example, an assessment for adult ASD is different to that for adult ADHD. Each assessment will involve a range of different tasks, activities or meetings with professionals who have expertise in neurodivergent conditions.

Assessments should follow best practice and National Institute for Health Care and Excellence (NICE) guidance and are sometimes multidisciplinary, which means they involve clinicians of more than one profession (for example, a clinical psychologist and speech and language therapist).

Below are some examples of things you might expect in an assessment:

  • Screening appointments with a clinician
  • Individual interviews with a clinician
  • Semi-structured standardised assessments which are facilitated by a clinician
  • Self report questionnaires
  • Interviews with family and friends about the individual
  • Computerised screening tasks
  • Multidisciplinary meetings to share findings
  • The assessing clinician may confer with another suitable clinician
  • A comprehensive report with a clear outcome
  • Feedback sessions on the assessment
  • Coaching or strategy sessions

If you're wondering if you or someone you know could be neurodivergent and want to know for sure, consider having an assessment and seek advice from your GP or another health professional. If you already know and need some guidance or support, you may want to seek out support in the form of ASD/ADHD coaching or psychological therapy.

About HelloSelf

This has been reproduced with the kind permission of HelloSelf.

HelloSelf are a team of Clinical Psychologists, Counselling Psychologists and CBT Therapists. They use science and evidence to help people to become and stay their best self.