What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is an umbrella term covering a number of neurodevelopmental conditions.

These are:

Some professionals and organisations recognise Tourette Syndrome as a neurodiverse condition, but the Neurodiversity Assocation does not.

All of these conditions are neurodevelopmental, which means individuals are born with them and they don’t go away – although neurodiverse people may well get better at coping with their condition(s). That’s a key difference between a neurodiverse condition and a mental health issue – mental illnesses can fluctuate a great deal and it is possible to recover from them. But neurodiverse differences are lifelong.

There are no reliable statistics on how many people have a neurodiverse condition, but most people will have several neurodiverse people in their workplace, social circle and family. Diagnosis rates vary between countries, as do diagnostic criteria. Women and girls are much less likely to be diagnosed, particularly with autism and ADHD. Race can play a part too, with black people less likely to get an accurate diagnosis. Some people don’t find out until quite late in life that they have a neurodiverse condition, and some never discover it at all.

Is neurodiversity a disability?

People with neurodiverse conditions are usually classified as disabled, and they do fall under the legal definition of disability as defined in the Equality Act. Neurodivergents (people with neurodiverse conditions) are also categorised as having special needs, learning difficulties or disorders. Some individuals identify with these labels and others do not. Many subscribe to the social model of disability. All neurodiverse people have individual needs and most will require reasonable adjustments at work.

Additional conditions

It’s possible to have more than one neurodiverse diagnosis, and it’s also possible to have additional conditions, such as learning difficulties or a physical disability. All neurodivergents have challenges with executive dysfunction, which means they have trouble doing tasks, activities or projects which most neurotypical (normal) people would not find challenging.

Common characteristics

The following characteristics are very common in neurodiverse individuals, regardless of what specific condition they have.

  • Sensitive
  • Empathetic
  • Honest
  • Creative
  • Innovative
  • Good at solving problems
  • Mental health issues
  • Difficult early experiences
  • Difficulty fitting in
  • At risk of manipulation
  • People-pleasing
  • Masking (concealing neurodiverse traits in order to fit in)
  • Differences in processing/understanding information

Variations within neurodiversity

Every neurodiverse individual is different, and the conditions can vary a lot from person to person. While the conditions are present all the time, the symptoms can vary depending on support, coping strategies, other factors (such as stress or life changes) and so on. A person with a neurodiverse condition will always have the defining characteristic of that condition, but other characteristics may be stronger or weaker. Some neurodiverse people won’t disclose their conditions and others may be unaware that they have a condition – this tends to be more common the older the person is.

Neurodiversity and mental health

Everyone’s neurotype (the presence or absence of neurodiverse conditions) will be influenced by other experiences; for example, one’s upbringing, family background, how one was taught and treated at school, social experiences and so on.

About half of people with dyslexia, ADHD or autism have depression and/or anxiety. Negative experiences because of the conditions are almost universal, so almost all neurodiverse people will be carrying emotional “baggage”, even if they don’t have a defined mental illness.

Many neurodiverse people who have not disclosed their condition (or don’t know they have one) will take steps to avoid situations where their condition may be apparent. This could involve avoiding specific tasks, masking (trying to copy others to fit in), attempting to cope, taking longer over tasks, and anxiety. This can be very stressful which can then worsen symptoms and/or mental health conditions.