Neurodiversity and neurodivergence

10 February 2023

An introduction

Everyone's brain works slightly differently. But while people whose brains function in a similar way to most other people's brains are often referred to as neurotypical; those whose brains function very differently are considered neurodiverse, or neurodivergent.

Know your numbers

According to the UK charity ADHD Aware, up to 15% of the population have neurodiverse traits.1

As the human brain is such a complex organ, a huge number of different neurological conditions come under the umbrella of neurodiversity. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD (also referred to as Asperger's Syndrome)
  • Dyslexia
  • Tourette's Syndrome
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD
  • Dyspraxia or DCD
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or OCD
  • Dyscalculia
  • Anxiety

Often, neurodivergent people have more than one of these conditions. For example, 50% of people with ADHD also have dyspraxia2, and a high percentage of people with ASD experience symptoms of insomnia, epilepsy, or anxiety.

Did you know?

The term neurodiversity was coined by Australian sociologist, Judy Singer, in a paper published in 1998.

What makes a person neurodivergent?

The conditions above are often associated with certain behaviours or traits, but there is not a defined list of characteristics that makes a person neurodivergent.

Neurodivergence can be either innate/genetic, or can arise through experience, for example due to brain injury, illness or a health disorder.

Many neurodivergent people can attend mainstream schools and live and work independently as adults - although those with significant learning difficulties or co-occurring physical health problems sometimes require full-time care.

They may also demonstrate characteristics such as exceptional attention to detail, pattern recognition, and spatial awareness; characteristics that have helped neurodivergent people make remarkable achievements in numerous fields, from science to the arts.

However, some people have neurological conditions which result in atypical behaviours, such as "stimming" which may lead to difficulty in social situations, at school or at work.

Sadly, anxiety and depression are therefore more common among the neurodivergent population, despite a better understanding of neurodiversity in general.

What is “stimming”?

Many neurodivergent people use certain behaviours to help them cope in situations they find challenging.

Self-stimulatory behaviour, known as "stimming", is a repetitive behaviour of this kind that might include:

  • Rocking, swinging, jumping, or pacing
  • Hand flapping, finger flicking, rubbing, or scratching
  • Repeating sounds or phrases
  • Staring at things, e.g. lights or spinning objects

Fact or fiction? Autism can be "cured"

Fiction: medical experts agree that there is no cure for autism, despite the availability of numerous supposed "treatments"

Is my child neurodivergent?

Getting a child tested for neurodivergent conditions is not always straightforward, especially as many of those with one condition will also experience symptoms of another one or more.

Clear behavioural traits can sometimes appear in younger children, while in others they are more subtle and will not be perceived until later in childhood.

It should also be noted that the same condition can manifest differently in boys and girls, and that there is a wide range of acuteness and characteristic types.

If you're concerned about a child in your life, a three-stage approach is often advised:

  • Note down any characteristics shared with one or more of the conditions listed above. If the child is struggling in certain situations, for example, list what sort of situations are difficult and how the child behaves as a result.
  • Talk to either the child's teacher or SENCO (Special Educational Needs) specialist, or for pre-schoolers, the health visitor. The family GP could also be a useful resource.
  • Visit a psychiatrist for a mental health assessment. This can be done through the NHS, but if there is no locally available specialist clinic then you can request an "out of area" referral or a local private clinic.

ASD is also referred to as a developmental disorder as well as neurological because the symptoms generally appear in the first two years of life.

Know your numbers

It is estimated that 50% of neurodiverse people are not aware of their condition.3

Can adults be tested for neurodivergence?

Understanding of, and support for, neurodivergence is improving all the time so, for today's adults, growing up neurodivergent may have resulted in unhelpful labels or diagnoses such as "difficult" or "different", rather than a neurodiverse diagnosis.

However, more adults are now going for tests after becoming aware of neurological conditions and recognising shared traits of conditions such as autism.

For an adult assessment, the first point of contact is your GP, followed by your community mental health team who can refer you to a specialist psychiatrist for an official diagnosis.

For initial guidance, you can also try online tests and quizzes designed to help you identify characteristics of certain conditions.

If your neurological condition is not causing a major problem on a day-to-day basis, then it may be possible to self-manage it with support from family and friends.

However, a formally recognised diagnosis from a psychiatrist is essential to access workplace assistance, benefits from the government, and/or medication.

ASD and neurodivergent presentations are often misattributed to, or obscured by, comorbid mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety disorders especially OCD. If one suspects an underlying ASD condition, doing an online test such as The Ritvo Autism Asperger Diagnostic Scale-Revised (RAADS-R) would be helpful.

Mental health and neurodiversity

Characteristic traits linked to neurological conditions can be perceived as an advantage or a disadvantage.

However, the challenges that neurodivergent people often experience dealing with social expectations can become frustrating and even overwhelming.

Navigating challenging social situations at school or work, or with family and friends, without the necessary support and understanding, can therefore lead to mental health problems such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Eating disorders

*Whether you have a neurological condition diagnosis or not, it is important to see a GP about mental health problems to get the support and/or treatment you need.