ADHD, autism and LGBTQ+ identities - the neuroqueer experience

Neurodiversity, encompassing conditions like autism spectrum conditions (ASC) and ADHD, and queer identities are both unique facets of the human experience. While seemingly distinct, there's growing recognition of their significant intersection, often referred to as the "neuroqueer" experience.

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More common than you might think: Neurodivergence in queer communities

Recent research from the University of Cambridge found that people with ASC are eight times more likely to identify as LGBTQ+ and The Brain Charity reports that in the wider neurodivergent community, significantly more people are likely to identify as LGBTQ+. Why? Well, there are a few ideas:

Shared genetic factors

Emerging studies suggest potential genetic links between various neurodevelopmental conditions like ADHD and ASC, and variations in sexual orientation or gender identity.

The weight of the world

LGBTQ+ individuals often face stress and discrimination due to their identities, which could trigger or intensify neurodivergent traits.

Self-discovery journey

People exploring their sexuality or gender can also be more open to discovering other parts of themselves, such as neurodivergence. This can lead to more diagnoses of ADHD within these communities.


The challenges: Masking, stigma, and more

Folks who identify as neurodivergent and queer, including those with ADHD and/or ASC, often face a unique set of challenges, including the following:

Masking and fitting in

Alex, a young non-binary person with ASC and ADHD, talked to me about the constant effort to hide their neurodivergent traits and conform to society's ideas about gender and behaviour. "It's exhausting," they shared, "Honestly, it feels like I'm always putting on an act, gotta be someone I'm not just to fit in. I'm constantly second-guessing everything I say and do, just hoping people won't think I'm a total weirdo." This pressure to mask can be a real barrier to self-acceptance and lead to burnout.

Dual stigma (double trouble)

Imagine facing prejudice and misunderstanding not just for one aspect of your identity, but two or even more. This "multiple stigma" can feel isolating and make it harder to find acceptance and support. For example, a Black autistic lesbian woman may face discrimination based on her race, sexual orientation, neurodivergence, and gender, creating a complex and layered experience of marginalisation.

Missed or mistaken diagnosis

Symptoms of neurodivergence can be misinterpreted or overlooked, especially in marginalised groups. For instance, social anxiety or sensory sensitivities in autistic individuals might be misattributed to personality traits, while ADHD symptoms in queer people might be dismissed as anxiety or depression related to minority stress. This can lead to delayed or inaccurate diagnosis, hindering access to appropriate support. Read more about the minority stress model.

Believing the negative hype

Negative stereotypes and misconceptions about neurodivergence and queerness can be internalised, leading to feelings of shame, self-doubt, and low self-esteem. It's crucial to challenge these harmful narratives and embrace neurodiversity as a natural and valid part of the human experience.

Relationships and intimacy

Neurodivergent individuals, including those with ADHD and ASC, may have different communication styles, sensory needs, and ways of expressing affection. Navigating relationships can be challenging, but it also presents opportunities for unique connections and understanding.


The awesome power of neuroqueerness: Resilience and creativity

There's a flip side to the challenges, too! The neuroqueer experience can also be incredibly positive:

Bounce-back power

Facing adversity can build resilience and inner strength, along with a unique outlook on life. Many neurodivergent queer individuals have developed coping mechanisms and resilience strategies that can be valuable assets in navigating life's challenges.

Think outside the box

Neurodivergent folks often have amazing creativity, problem-solving skills, and a talent for thinking in original ways. This can be a huge asset to LGBTQ+ communities. For example, neurodivergent artists, activists, and innovators have made significant contributions to queer culture and social movements.

Community and belonging

Many find comfort and acceptance in online or in-person communities that embrace both neurodiversity and queerness. These communities can provide a safe space for individuals to express themselves, share their experiences, and find solidarity with others who understand their unique challenges and strengths.


Therapeutic approaches and support for neuroqueers

LGBTQ+ affirming therapy

Therapists who are knowledgeable about both ADHD and queer issues can provide a safe and supportive space for clients to explore their identities, challenges, and strengths. They can help clients develop coping mechanisms for managing ADHD symptoms, navigate coming out or transitioning, and build healthy relationships.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

CBT can teach you practical skills to manage ADHD symptoms, boost your executive functioning (the brain's control centre), and challenge negative thoughts. For example, CBT can help a person with ADHD develop strategies for time management, organisation, and impulse control.

Mindfulness and acceptance

These practices can help you cultivate self-compassion, reduce anxiety, and better manage your emotions. Mindfulness can be particularly helpful for neurodivergent individuals who may experience sensory overload or heightened emotional reactivity.

Support groups

Connecting with other neurodivergent queer folks in support groups can be a game-changer. It's a space where you can feel seen, heard, and understood. These groups can provide a sense of community, belonging, and validation, as well as practical advice and support.


Allyship - build a more inclusive world

As we learn more and talk more openly about these topics, it's important to create a society where everyone feels like they belong:

Spreading the word

Raising awareness about neurodiversity and LGBTQ+ identities helps break down stigma, fosters understanding, and improves access to support.

Supportive mental health care

Mental health professionals need to be equipped to understand and meet the specific needs of neurodivergent queer individuals. This includes recognising the impact of minority stress, providing culturally competent care, and affirming diverse gender identities and expressions.

Community matters

We need to build spaces where everyone can be their authentic selves without fear of judgement or discrimination. This includes creating LGBTQ+ affirming spaces that are also neurodiversity-friendly, where individuals can express themselves freely and access appropriate support.

Making voices heard

Groups like ADHD UK, the National Autistic Society, and MindOut are fighting for the rights of neurodivergent and LGBTQ+ people. Supporting their work through donations, volunteering, or advocacy can help create a more inclusive society.


Resources:

Important note: This article is for information only and shouldn't replace professional advice. If you have concerns about ADHD, autism, your mental health, or your identity, reach out to a qualified professional.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Olney MK46 & Milton Keynes MK14
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Written by Gareth Eglinton-Pacitti, DCounsPsych, MBACP
Olney MK46 & Milton Keynes MK14

My qualifications and training cover a wide variety of humanistic therapeutic approaches in addition to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT), Brief Solution Focused Therapy and coaching skills.

I have lived experience of being queer and disabled. I love pop culture, music, reading, and American reality TV.

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