In recent years, there has been a surge in public awareness of neurodiversity and the many diagnoses that are encompassed in this term. Increasingly, public spaces such as schools, workplaces, public transport, and other venues are making adaptations so that neurodiverse individuals can feel physically and psychologically safe.
Neurodiversity has remained poorly understood for decades, and only recently have there been strides forward in both the recognition of the challenges that neurodiverse individuals face and in terms of increased visibility of neurodiverse people, including better awareness in schools and characters representing neurodiversity in film and television.
What is Neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity is a concept that recognizes and celebrates the natural variation in human neurological and cognitive functioning. It emphasizes that there are normal differences in brain functioning that are as essential to the human experience as other forms of diversity, such as gender, ethnicity, or physical abilities.
Neurodiversity challenges the idea that there is a single “normal” or “typical” way for the brain to function. Instead, it promotes the understanding that individuals have a wide range of neurological differences. Neurodiverse conditions include autism, Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, and more. These differences are seen as variations rather than deficits. They can give rise to unique strengths, talents, and perspectives in people, communities, and workplaces.
Common Neurodiverse Conditions
These common neurodiverse conditions are characterized by variations in brain development, structure, and functioning:
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
ASD is a developmental disorder that affects communication, social interaction, and behavior. Autism is known as a “spectrum” disorder because there is wide variation in the severity and nature of the symptoms individuals experience. Individuals with ASD may experience widely differing degrees of challenges in social interactions, communication, and repetitive behaviors. The spectrum is often misunderstood as representing a sliding scale of autism symptoms from mild to severe. However, it is often more complex. One tool that autism-affirming practitioners may use is the “autism wheel” or “autism pie chart” that allows us to clearly visualize each autistic person in all their uniqueness and complexity. The pie chart acknowledges the way symptoms may change and develop through time and is particularly important for acknowledging the challenges of those with ASD who have less visible or recognizable symptoms.
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
ADHD is characterized by difficulties in maintaining attention, controlling impulses, and regulating hyperactivity. It can affect both children and adults and may lead to challenges in academic, work, and social settings. ADHD often affects males and females differently, particularly in adolescence and adult life, and many women, in particular, go undiagnosed as a result. ADHD has high comorbidity with other neurodivergent and mental health conditions. As many as 2 in 3 people with ADHD have autistic spectrum traits, and people with ADHD are eight times more likely to meet the full criteria for an ASD diagnosis.
Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that affects reading, spelling, and writing. Individuals with dyslexia may have difficulty recognizing and decoding words but may excel in areas aside from reading and writing.
Also known as developmental coordination disorder, dyspraxia affects fine and gross motor skills, coordination, and planning of movements. It can lead to challenges in activities like handwriting, sports, and everyday tasks.
Tourette Syndrome is characterized by repetitive, involuntary movements and vocalizations known as tics. These tics can range from mild to severe and can impact an individual’s social interactions and daily life.
Sensory Processing Disorders
Sensory processing disorders involve difficulties in processing and responding to sensory information from the environment. This can result in heightened or diminished sensitivity to sensory stimuli.
Mental Health Challenges of Neurodivergent Individuals
It is estimated that up to 15% of the population is neurodiverse1, although this is difficult to quantify. The remaining majority of the population is referred to as neurotypical. As neurotypical minds are in the majority, society has been built to cater to their needs, and our understanding of the human experience is generally built around the neurotypical experience. Historically, neurodiverse minds were seen as either extremely gifted or in some way challenged. There remains a great deal of stigma surrounding neurodivergence, and many people learn to mask and hide their neurodiverse thoughts, behaviors, or experiences, in many cases very successfully. Many adults today who struggled with dyslexia, ADHD, or autism in school lived with feelings of inadequacy, disappointment, and failure for years as their conditions went undiagnosed and the education system struggled to address their needs. One of the most commonly shared experiences across the wide spectrum of neurodiverse conditions is the feeling of shame and failure for not fitting into the mold expected of them. This lack of acceptance and persevering sense of disappointment may not be shared by all neurodiverse people, but it is thought to be a significant driver of the increased rate of mental illness and substance use in neurodivergent individuals.
How We Can Support Neurodivergence
Schools, workplaces, and public spaces can all make adaptations and accommodations for the needs of neurodivergent people. Communities can educate themselves on neurodiversity-affirming language and behavior, and the media can continue increasing the visibility of neurodiverse people.
Therapy is another area where adaptations can be made to embrace the needs of neurodivergent children and adults and provide them and their families with the skills, tools, and strategies needed to improve their experiences at school, home, and in play environments. The idea of neurodiversity-affirming therapy is relatively new, yet incredibly easy to adopt.
Neurodiversity-affirming therapy embraces the following principles:
- Understanding the unique needs of neurodivergent children and adapting the environment accordingly.
- Respecting and accommodating diverse communication styles.
- Validating feelings, identifying triggers, and teaching calming strategies.
- Acknowledging the importance of processing time and providing safe spaces.
- Recognizing and addressing individual sensory sensitivities.
- Fostering neurodivergent listening skills rather than favoring neurotypical ones.
- Assisting in the development of self-advocacy
- Enhancing children’s understanding of emotions, behaviors, and communication in their social interactions.
- Encouraging healthy self-regulation, including stimming behaviors.
Neurodiversity-affirming therapy does not involve:
- Promoting masking or suppressing one’s authentic self.
- Setting goals aimed at eliminating neurodivergent traits or behaviors.
- Discouraging stimming behaviors.
When a therapist is neurodiversity-affirming, they recognize that neurodivergence is not a problem or flaw that needs to be corrected, healed, or fixed.
Neurodiversity-affirming therapists recognize that neurodivergence can come with its own set of strengths. While the coping mechanisms that a person may have developed to feel safe in a world that doesn’t fully understand or accept their mind may be causing them problems, it is not their condition that is at fault but rather the negative attitude toward their experience.