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Explaining Neurodiversity

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Neurodiversity is the term for when people's brains process, learn, and/or behave differently from what is considered neurotypical. Brains are like fingerprints- no two are the same.

Some presentations of neurodiversity are disabling, some are remarkable strengths, and some are just simply differences. All are variations in how the brain works- such as different methods of learning and processing information. In an ableist and often inaccessible society, some of these differences become disabilities when they interfere with how one functions in the world. All of these differences exist on a spectrum- some symptoms may be more prominent, while some hardly noticeable. Every person experiences neurodiversity differently. Now that it is becoming better understood, the stigma is lessening. Increasing numbers of people are identifying with neurodiversity, revealing that it is far more common than previously believed.

One of the biggest challenges of neurodiversity is the feeling of not fitting into a society built around neurotypical standards, like a square peg in a round hole. It can be inherently traumatic because neurodivergent people are often:  

  • ridiculed or reprimanded for thinking or behaving differently

  • vulnerable to bullying/abuse

  • rejected for not following social “norms”

  • limited by the ‘one size fits all’ teaching methodology of the educational system

  • struggling with executive functioning, making even day-to-day tasks challenging

  • highly sensitive to sensory stimuli

  • experiencing strong emotions, sometimes without being able to identify/express them

  • scolded or mocked for stimming (ways of self-soothing)

  • misunderstood in many ways

  • masking their differences which requires an enormous amount of energy and is damaging to self-esteem

 

All of these factors create vulnerability to anxiety, depression, PTSD, substance abuse, suicidality, and a higher probability of health issues such as autoimmune diseases and other inflammatory conditions. Since these are often the most obvious symptoms and require more urgent attention, the bigger picture can get overlooked resulting in underdiagnoses or misdiagnoses- particularly for the BIPOC and LGBTQIA communities.

 

COMMON DIAGNOSES

Below are some of the most common diagnoses that fit under the umbrella of neurodiversity. Each of these have subsets, exist on a spectrum, often overlap each other, and/or are co-occurring. This is neither an exhaustive list, nor is every symptom is listed, and is not intended for diagnostic purposes.

 

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Characterized primarily by differences that affect social communication and behavior; often underdiagnosed in females as they are better at masking, and diagnostic criteria is based on presentation in males. Some symptoms can include a preference for solitary activities, difficulty with eye contact, obsessive interests, perfectionism, repetitive behaviors, distress at changes in routine, sensory sensitivities (food/clothing textures, loud noises, etc.), stimming behaviors for self-soothing, missing social cues, being very literal (difficulty with sarcasm), social anxiety, etc. Many diagnoses on this list commonly co-occur with ASD.

 

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Characterized primarily by executive functioning challenges. Examples of executive functioning challenges include difficulties with multitasking, organizing and planning, prioritizing and completing tasks, switching between tasks, problem solving, paying attention, controlling emotions/impulses, analyzing or processing information, and forgetfulness. Frequently co-occurs with other neurodivergent diagnoses.

 

Alexithymia

Difficulty with identifying, describing, and/or expressing emotions.

 

Dyslexia

Language-based learning difference involving reading and/or processing speed/working memory- often overlaps with ADHD.

 

Dysgraphia/Dyspraxia

Language-based learning differences involving fine motor skills for handwriting resulting in frustration and sore hand, poor handwriting, speech difficulties, and clumsiness; similar to dyslexia and can also affect a student's ability to learn and apply math skills.

 

Dyscalculia

Learning difference that affects a person’s ability to understand number-based information and math; includes inability to memorize math facts, difficulties solving math problems using alternative methods like algebraic formulas or understanding graphs and charts, heightened anxiety when required to use math.

 

Hyperlexia

The ability to read early and exceptionally well (often correlates with ASD).

 

Auditory Processing Disorder (APD)

Includes trouble understanding what is being said in noisy environments, following directions, telling the difference between words and noises that sound the same, slight delay between hearing information and the brain making sense of it.

 

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)

A condition that affects how the brain processes sensory information/stimuli; includes sensitivity to touch, clothing on the skin, textures/taste of food, bright lights, loud noises, poor balance/clumsiness, etc. Can result in sensory-seeking behavior, sensory-avoiding behavior, or a combination of both.

 

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Repetitive unwanted thoughts and fears that become obsessions resulting in behaviors and actions that are difficult to stop.

 

None of the diagnoses listed above are a measure of intelligence. Statistics measuring the prevalence of neurodiversity in the population are inaccurate. What is certain is that those who are most challenged by their differences, who seek evaluations, who make it through the extensive waitlists (or can afford expensive private evaluations), AND are properly diagnosed, are the ones that get counted. Even then, a diagnosis does not guarantee they will receive the support and resources they need to thrive.

 

IMPACT ON UNDIAGNOSED TEENS & ADULTS

Many teens and adults remain undiagnosed; however that does not mean they are unaffected by neurodiversity. They've had more time to learn how to mask and adapt, but not without a toll. Diagnostic criteria are centered around identifying symptoms primarily in young children, causing symptoms in teens and adults to be overlooked. Even worse, they have often heard criticisms such as 'lazy, unmotivated, unsocial, troublemaker, rude, slow, daydreamer, gullible, strange, and stupid.' When the source of these criticisms come from trusted adults and peers, it has long-term, devastating impacts. Shame causes people to internalize their struggles, to not seek help, and to blame themselves. These challenges could account for much of the anxiety, depression, substance use, and suicidality so prevalent in our society.

STRENGTHS

Some strengths commonly found in neurodivergent individuals include creativity, attention to detail, resilience, logical reasoning, pattern recognition, memorization, innovation, sensory perception, empathy, hyper-focus, information processing. Typically when there is a deficit in one area, there is a considerable strength in another. Sometimes a person's strengths can cause their challenges to be minimized by others. Severity of symptoms (whether strengths or challenges) can fluctuate in intensity from day to day or even moment to moment which makes them difficult to measure. Some symptoms even seem to contradict each other at times, but that does not make them any less valid.

 

WHY SEEK A DIAGNOSIS?

Knowledge is power. When you understand yourself better, you are able to better identify your needs and, therefore, advocate to get those needs met. Most educational and occupational settings will grant accommodations with proof of an official diagnosis. With a diagnosis, you are protected under The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which ‘prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in several areas including employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications and access to state and local government programs and services.’ In addition, if a person is suspected of having a disabling neurodiversity, it is ideal for them to receive a diagnosis prior to age 18 to be eligible for lifelong disability services through the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD).

 

Caveat: Some professionals are hesitant to diagnose ASD, and/or are not up to date with the latest information and scientific studies needed for diagnosing when it would be appropriate to do so. In addition, professional opinions can still be largely subjective. Science has made great strides over the last decade but the latest information does not always reach those who need it in a timely way. This is why it is necessary for those seeking a diagnosis for themselves or a loved one to educate themselves, be an advocate, and/or seek helpful supports that will assist them in this process.

 

VALIDATION MATTERS

Unless seeking a documented diagnosis for the purpose of receiving accommodations, a diagnosis is not required for validation. Although confirmation from a professional can make a difference for some people, validation can be achieved through educating yourself through researching reliable sources. Understanding why certain things have been so challenging can provide a sense of relief and even ease symptoms of anxiety and depression. It is also helpful for connecting with others who can relate to your experiences, and for finding and/or creating environments that set you up to thrive. There is healing in finding community you align with and who embraces you for exactly who and how you are. Some of these communities (as you will see in some of the resources listed below), will provide support even without an official diagnosis. You can begin to unmask, release shame, and heal. You can begin to embrace yourself and your differences, and discover your unique strengths. This information can also help family members and friends to understand you better so they can adjust their expectations and offer much-needed support and compassion. It might help them to understand themselves better, too, since ND is driven by genetic and environmental factors.

 

While neurodivergent individuals might be challenged in different areas of life, they are the independent thinkers that our world needs. They are inventors, healers, dreamers, creators, entertainers, composers, scholars, and difference-makers. They are less likely to conform to societal standards and rules of hierarchy, more likely to think outside the box, and the ones to pave new pathways for opportunities. They need validation, acceptance, inclusion, encouragement, and to be supported, heard, and valued.

 

WHAT CAN HELP?

  • Counselors/therapists who are trauma-informed and neurodiversity-affirming

  • Avoiding traditional behavioral modification (ABA) therapies which can cause more harm

  • Peer-led sources of support: Many neurodivergent individuals have made it their mission to create resources for others which include social connections, educational, and occupational opportunities

  • Support from close family, friends, teachers, professors, advisors, and mentors

  • Primary care physicians and specialists who are neurodiversity educated and affirming

 

LINKS TO RESOURCES AND ADDITIONAL INFO:

  • CDC SEED Study- An ongoing longitudinal study that began in 2007, consistently updated with the latest scientific discoveries.  

  • Embrace Autism- The ultimate Autism resource which also shares research and experienced-based information.

  • Society for Neurodiversity/Peer Support- Peer support by and for neurodiverse people.

  • Different Brains- A nonprofit with a mission to mentor ND adults to maximize their potential for employment and independence, increase awareness by producing interactive media, and foster ND self-advocates.

  • Neurodiversity Hub- Similar mission to Different Brains.

  • Neurodiversity Network- Resources for ND job seekers, students, employers, universities, & the community.

  • Neurodiversity Network of WNY- Provides support and resources to individuals, families, and caregivers in WNY. 

      (Check back for continued updates to this list.)

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