What it means to be neurodivergent
To be neurodivergent means consistently processing the world in a different way than “normal” (or neurotypical). It is not a temporary phase, but a difference in the way the world is experienced which is pervasive over a person’s whole life.
It describes someone who’s divergent (or different) way of thinking and responding can make them stand out in a world which was created by (and for) the neurotypical.
Being neurodivergent is not necessarily a bad thing, people who are neurodivergent can exceed at certain tasks in a way that the neurotypical cannot.
But often, being neurodivergent can be a struggle. This is especially true if those around them do not wish to understand, are unwilling to change their expectations, or have no desire to learn how to support them.
Distinguishing between neurodiversity and neurodivergence
Neurodiversity is the acknowledgement that the way in which people think and process their world is not always the same.
Recognising neurodiversity is the same as recognising any other type of diversity. It is only when we acknowledge that we have unique, individual experiences that we can hope to understand these differences and work together in a way which shows respect for them.
Causes of neurodivergence
As many who are neurodivergent do not see their divergence as something to be “cured”, the topic of a “cause” can be somewhat controversial. Instead, many neurodivergent people prefer to see themselves simply as an extension of what is deemed “normal” (or neurotypical); they are part of a neurodiverse population.
It is possible that like a variation in genetics which dictates skin colour, hair colour, or any other distinguishing factor, neurodivergence simply “is”. That being said, many of the conditions linked to neurodivergence are deemed to be disabilities in the UK.
This means that the condition makes it more difficult for the person to participate in society. As such, some of these people will want to know what the “cause” of their disability is and hope to one day find a “cure”.
To a large extent neurodivergence is considered to be genetic, as conditions associated with neurodivergence tend to run in families. However, it is not fully understood what effect these gene variations have.
Whilst some evidence points to structural differences in the brain of those who are neurodivergent, other evidence suggests neurotransmitter abnormalities (nontypical levels of chemicals in the brain).
But even though this perspective sounds very scientific, it may be a little too simplistic. For years, scientists have questioned the extent to which nature versus nurture plays in mental illness, and today that question is extended to neurodiversity.
Whilst it may seem that brain structure and neurotransmitter differences are controlled by genetics, there is strong evidence to suggest that environmental influences and even mental illness can cause these seemingly “nature controlled” differences. This interaction shows us that understanding the neurodivergent brain is more complicated than we may have thought at first.
Examples of neurodivergence
Neurodivergence is commonly thought of in terms of the conditions it is associated with. Below are just a few of those conditions:
- Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Tourette’s Syndrome
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Autism Spectrum disorder is a relatively new term which covers a wide range of conditions associated with autism.
You may have heard of some of the older terms such as Asperger’s. Asperger’s was generally considered to be “high functioning” autism. An individual who was diagnosed with Asperger’s would likely have normal or high intelligence, with some people displaying great talent in some areas (such as drawing, coding, or science).
However, these people were deemed to be neurodivergent largely due to their difficulty forming and maintaining relationships with others. Individuals may focus almost excessively on a particular topic, struggle to take turns in conversations, fail to recognise social cues, struggle to maintain eye contact, struggle to understand their own emotions and the emotions of others.
Other symptoms associated with this condition included struggling with changes to routine, repetitive behaviours, becoming overstimulated by (or having less of a response to) sensory inputs (such as sounds, smells, lights, textures) and difficulty with time management.
On a more positive note, those with Asperger’s were also often considered to have a strong attention to detail and a strong ability to focus on a task (such as software engineering).
Of course, Asperger’s is only one of the separate conditions which was replaced by Autism Spectrum Disorder. Autistic Disorder had many of the same symptoms as Asperger’s but was generally considered to be the most severe.
A high level of cross over between the symptoms of each condition and a lack of consistency in symptoms led to individual diagnosis being replaced by an overarching one, with an individual’s condition being deemed on a spectrum (or scale) of severity.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a condition which can not only impact on the way a person thinks, but also how they process emotion, how they behave, and on the way they pay attention to things.
Much like Autism Spectrum Disorder discussed above, ADHD is a condition associated with neurodivergence but its affects are much more far reaching than simply the way someone thinks.
Attention Deficit in ADHD
Struggling to pay attention or focus on tasks is a common symptom of ADHD. Struggling to focus often leads to:
- Forgetting to do something or losing things (which can look like poor organisation),
- Procrastination or putting off doing a task (which can look like laziness), (and)
- Tasks taking longer due to becoming distracted (which can look like inefficiency).
People with ADHD therefore often struggle at school as children, and in the workplace as adults. Their behaviour is misunderstood as an indication that they are disengaged with their work, when in reality it is not the work but the way they are being asked to work that is the problem.
People with inattentive ADHD symptoms may also struggle to focus on conversations, seeming “spaced out” or like they are not listening to what others have to say.
This can cause problems in relationships as others become frustrated with their apparent lack of interest. But again, it is not the person’s choice, ADHD can make it difficult to be fully present in a conversation, even when the person really wants to be.
Attention Deficit Disorder
Because Someone with ADHD can have difficulties with attention and social interaction but not have hyperactivity, there was once a separate diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).
A child with ADD was considered more of a “daydreamer”, whereas a child with hyperactive impulsive ADHD was considered more of a distraction to others. Nowadays, regardless of if someone presents with both attention deficit, hyperactive impulsivity, or both, they are diagnosed with ADHD. And rather than being seen as distracted or unruly, there is greater understanding of the condition.
Hyperactivity in ADHD
Hyperactivity and impulsivity in behaviour and speech is another core symptom of ADHD. Constant fidgeting, a need to be doing something physical, interrupting others when they speak and talking a lot are all ways this can manifest.
A child with ADHD is unlikely to be able to restrain themselves from their hyperactivity. An adult may feel the “need” to be moving constantly, but many will learn to adapt to the neurotypical world in which they live. Even if it causes them mental pain, they will try and suppress their hyperactivity.
On the other hand, some adults with ADHD manage to create or find a way of working which is more in-line with their hyperactive tendencies. A businessperson who seems to be always “on the go” may be admired for their dedication, even if it a necessary response to their neurodivergence.
Dyslexia is a difficulty in the processing of words. Spelling, writing, reading, and pronouncing words can be so difficult for those with Dyslexia that they are assumed by others to be “stupid”. When in reality, being dyslexic does not affect the person’s ability to understand a concept or their intelligence overall.
If someone with Dyslexia is not given tools which make a world designed for the neurotypical more accessible for them, they may struggle to learn. But if given the correct support such as software which allows them to dictate rather than type, and software which reads words on a screen, people with Dyslexia are capable of achieving undergraduate degree level education and higher.
Like Dyslexia, Dyscalculia is considered a “Specific Learning Difference” and is deemed a disability in the UK. Dyscalculia is a difficulty with numbers. People with Dyscalculia may struggle to learn the rules of maths such as how addition and subtraction work, struggle to do maths in their head (mental maths), struggle estimating quantities, and struggle to recite multiplications.
Dyscalculia is not to be confused with a lack of general intelligence, people with dyscalculia are often very capable in other subjects. In addition, as technology has improved (for example, most people have a calculator on their phone), the negative impact of Dyscalculia on someone’s life can be reduced.
Dyspraxia is covered under the UK Equality Act (2010) as a developmental co-ordination disorder, however there is less awareness of this disability than some other neurodivergent related conditions.
Dyspraxia affects a person’s control over their body, they may struggle with balance, hand-eye coordination and to control small objects such as a pen or the mouse and keyboard for a computer. Dyspraxia can make it difficult for people to carry out the parts of a task in the right order as they struggle to pay attention to, remember, and follow instructions.
Tourette’s is a condition which can cause a person to make involuntary noises (such as words, phrases or grunts) and movements. These involuntary actions cannot be stopped completely, they are called “tics”, and can be alarming to people who do not understand. Having tics can make it difficult for the person to find a job where their condition is accepted.
Synaesthesia is a relatively rare condition (compared to the other conditions on this list). A person with Synaesthesia experiences their senses (touch, taste, sight, hearing and smell) differently to others. A person with Synaesthesia may experience a combining of senses such as seeing the number 5 and hearing a musical note, or “seeing” colour when they hear words.
As with other conditions linked to neurodivergence this different experience is involuntary. But unlike the conditions listed above, Synaesthesia is not considered a disability in the UK. This is because it is believed having Synaesthesia does not make living life more difficult.
Comorbidity of neurodivergent associated conditions
Comorbidity is a way of saying that if one condition is present, it is highly likely that another will be too. When it comes to conditions associated with neurodivergence, it is common for people to have more than one. For example, those with Dyslexia often have Dyscalculia and ADHD.
People who have struggled all their lives with a disability, or a way of thinking which does not fit well with the world in which they live, are also likely to experience chronic mental illness.
Neurodivergence and mental illness
Whether or not mental illness can be used to class someone as neurodivergent is unclear. Some people struggle with the same mental illnesses throughout their whole lives. Mental illness can also have a serious impact on an individual’s ability to fit in to a “normal” world. And yet, the term neurodivergent is not as strongly associated with chronic mental illness as it is with the conditions mentioned above.
If mental illness were to be deemed neurodivergent, then quite possibly the word itself would lose its meaning. Because such a large percentage of the population would be classed as neurodivergent either under a neurological / neurodevelopmental condition such as those mentioned above, or under a mental illness, it could likely stop being seen as “divergent” at all.
One differentiating factor in whether a mental illness is deemed neurodivergent could be the length of time an individual has experienced their mental illness.
However, if an individual has one of the above conditions, they are likely to also be diagnosed with a mental illness such as depression or anxiety.
It would make sense therefore that if their (commonly thought of) neurodivergent condition as well as the mental illness were present from childhood, it could be argued that the mental illness does not make the person neurodivergent, but their other condition does.
So far, we do not know what the likelihood is that a person could have a mental illness all their life but not a condition typically associated with neurodivergence. We also do not know for sure if those with a neurological condition also always experience mental illness and if they are diagnosed with both at the same time.
There is obviously a lot more to learn about neurodiversity and what it means to be neurodivergent, but by beginning to have conversations around what these terms mean, we can help increase each other’s understanding and become more aware of each other’s needs.
If someone you care about is neurodivergent, aim to understand the world from their perspective.
As you have probably realised from the list of common conditions associated with neurodivergence, there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to understanding how “the neurodivergent” think.
It is not helpful therefore to assume that someone diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum experiences the world the same way as someone with dyslexia, or even to assume that two people who are somewhere on the autistic spectrum experience the world the same.
But don’t be discouraged from trying to learn what is “typical” for someone with one of these “atypical” thinking patterns. Increasing your knowledge of what the person you care about MAY be experiencing will likely make it easier for you to understand them when they talk to you about the way they actually experience the world.
Knowing some of the behavioural and cognitive (thinking) differences the person you care about may be experiencing can help your relationship with that person.
For example, if they very rarely make eye contact with you, you may well perceive this as them being untrustworthy. But after reading about the condition they have, you may realise that actually they are being honest with you, but that maintaining eye contact causes them a lot of stress.
By understanding the possible reasons for their “atypical” behaviour and ways of thinking, you can learn to adjust your own responses to them. This can result in you experiencing less frustration and having a healthier, more understanding relationship.
You may also want to use your newfound knowledge about neurodivergence to suggest ways you can support someone you care about.
This may mean communicating in a different way, suggesting lifestyle or behavioural changes, or even recommending they seek professional help.
But remember, (unless you have legal guardianship over them because they lack capacity or they are a child), you can only make suggestions. Neurodivergent people can, and often do, support themselves. They likely do not want you to take control of their lives or have your guidance forced on them (no matter how well intentioned it may be).
It is also important to acknowledge that your assumptions about what that person’s needs are may not be correct. Regardless of what you have learnt about their condition, it is always a good idea to ask them what they believe they need.
Aim to understand the world from their perspective, so you are not forcing your ideals of “normality” on them and remember that being supportive means respecting them and their decisions as an individual.