Originally used by the autistic community who were keen to move away from the medical model of autism, neurodiversity has become the term that encompasses a wider range of neurodiverse conditions and groups. The term has become more widely used by neurodivergent individuals as a means of empowerment, as well as to help promote the positive qualities many neurodiverse people possess.
What is neurodiversity?
First established in the 1990s by Australian sociologist Judy Singer, neurodiversity comes from the words neuro (relating to nerves or the nervous system) and diversity (a state of being diverse or very different). The term was first used by Singer who, on the autism spectrum herself, wanted a term to help describe and move towards neurological diversity becoming more widely recognised, accepted, and respected as differences, not defects.
Counsellor and coach Louise Taylor (MNCS (Accred), M) explains more about neurodiversity, including her own journey in embracing life as an autistic adult.
The term neurodiversity is used to describe those with neurodevelopmental differences, encouraging neurodivergent individuals to move away from some of the specific labels which may have negative connotations. Instead of focusing on perceived ‘deficits’, neurodiversity highlights that neurodiverse individuals brains work in a different way. That doesn’t mean that how they think or process things are ‘wrong’ - it’s just different from neurotypical ways of thinking.
Neurodiversity as a concept works with the idea that there isn’t anything inherently ‘wrong’ that needs to be ‘fixed’. Instead, neurodiverse communities advocate for environmental adaptations (such as no background music in stores or offices, softer or more natural lighting, the chance to take a quiet break or work alone) to help them thrive; dignity, agency, and autonomy, no matter what level of support they need; as well as identity-first language (such as ‘autistic person’, rather than ‘person with autism’).
How common are neurodivergent conditions?
An estimated one in seven people in the UK are thought to have neurodevelopmental differences - meaning the way that the way their brains learn, function and process information is different from neurotypical people.
What are neurodiverse conditions?
There are many different neurodiverse conditions currently included within the wider neurodiversity community. These include:
Around 1-2% of the population in the UK are thought to be on the spectrum. Autism is a developmental disability that affects how someone perceives the world. Autistic people may have difficulties with communication, sensory sensitivity, may exhibit repetitive behaviours or have highly-focused interests. It’s important to remember that autism is a spectrum, and each person may or may not exhibit ‘common autistic traits’.
Now very rarely used as an official diagnosis, Asperger’s syndrome is considered a part of the broader term autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or autism spectrum condition (ASC).
Affecting around 3-5% of children and 2% of adults in the UK, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition that typically affects someone’s ability to concentrate. This can show as in one of two ways: as inattentiveness, or as hyperactivity and impulsiveness.
Nearly 10% of the UK are dyslexic. Considered to be a learning difficulty, those with dyslexia primarily experience difficulties with reading, spelling, and writing, but may also have trouble with spoken language, sequencing, motor skills, organisation, or memory.
It is thought that around 10% of the UK are affected by dyspraxia. Affecting movement and coordination, someone with dyspraxia may have difficulty maintaining balance, playing sports, or learning to drive a car.
Affecting one's ability to understand and carry out basic maths processes, around one in 20 people in the UK have dyscalculia.
A neurological condition that involves repetitive, involuntary movements and vocalisations (referred to as ‘tics’), Tourette’s syndrome affects around one in 100 children. Tics can vary greatly in complexity and presentation, ranging from vocal tics such as screaming, squeaking, coughing, or swearing, to physical tics such as jerking, blinking, shaking, hitting, or making offensive gestures.
Neurodiversity and mental health
Neurodiversity is not a mental illness, nor does being neurodivergent mean someone will have mental health conditions. However, as explained by leading mental health charity Mind, those on the spectrum may be more likely to experience mental health problems than the general population.
Research suggests that individuals who have a diagnosis of autism, dyspraxia, or ADHD are more likely to experience depression and anxiety. Autistic individuals have also been shown to have higher rates of eating and mood disorders, as well as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). However, there has also been much debate as to whether individuals experience distinct mental health conditions (such as generalised anxiety), or if the way certain difficulties experienced are misdiagnosed as a separate condition.
Neurodiversity and well-being
Those in the neurodiverse community may feel pressured to conform to neurotypical standards or expectations, which can take its toll on their mental health. Social masking (also known as social camouflaging) is frequently used by those on the spectrum, to try and appear ‘normal’ in social situations. This can include forcing or faking eye contact during conversations, imitating smiles or other facial expressions, all of which can be mentally draining and, over time, may negatively impact their overall sense of well-being.
In this video, counsellor Louise debunks the myths around neurodiversity and empathy, and discusses the challenges of double empathy.
Neurodiversity in the workplace
Many neurodiverse conditions are protected under The Equality Act 2010, as they are considered ‘hidden disabilities’. While each individual condition under the neurodiversity banner has its own unique set of challenges, common issues that can cause non-neurotypical difficulties at work include:
- experiencing excessive stress
- trouble concentrating
- difficulty with time management
- struggling to divert from or maintain a schedule
- physical illness
- feelings of anxiety or overwhelm when interacting with colleagues or customers
Over time, some people may thrive and build resistance, moving past or learning to cope with these difficulties. Others may continue to struggle and could benefit from additional support. Encouraging well-being, openness, and inclusivity can all help to foster a more positive work environment for everyone.
What are the benefits of neurodiversity in the workplace?
Working with neurodiverse colleagues can have a significant benefit to your workplace and teams. Offering a different way of seeing the world as well as unique skills, ensuring your workplace is inclusive and supportive for all employees is important.
How can I get a diagnosis for a neurodiverse condition?
Seeking diagnosis as an adult can be a challenge. Not all areas offer an adult pathway towards diagnosis. Speaking with your GP can often be a positive first step towards finding out what is available to you. It’s important to be prepared, as you may be asked why a diagnosis is important to you if you are no longer in education, and what benefits a diagnosis would have.
While not everyone feels that having a label is helpful, others benefit from an official diagnosis. For some, it can help them to better understand why some things are difficult, helping them find new ways to deal with them. For others, it can be a step towards gaining the right support, access to services and benefits. If your GP refers you, you may see a multidisciplinary team or an individual professional (such as a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist).
What is neurodiversity counselling and neurodiversity affirming psychotherapy?
Working with a counsellor who has experience or additional, specific training specialising in working with neurodiversity can be beneficial. Many neurotypical and neurodiverse counsellors have experience working with those with neurodiverse traits. Together, you can ensure that your therapy sessions are tailored to best meet your needs if any accommodations are needed (such as dimming lights, using fidget objects, or reducing background noise where possible).
Your therapist is there to support you with other challenges faced, such as depression, anxiety, or managing stress levels. They may be able to offer help introducing you to coping strategies, or with identifying areas that you may not realise are causing you distress. However, neurodiverse conditions such as autism are differences in how our brains work. We can’t ‘cure’ or ‘fix’ them, as they are differences, not something to ‘fix’ like anxiety or depression. The aim of counselling is to provide you with a safe space where you can open up and talk without fear of judgement.
Neurodiversity affirming psychotherapy is an approach to supporting mental health. Focusing on individual strengths and unique abilities, this therapeutic approach helps individuals to tap into and recognise their positive attributes and work towards meeting personal goals. Supporting individuals in learning self-advocacy skills to allow them to create opportunities to thrive, your therapist can help you to discover alternatives to masking and trying to fit neurotypical norms that may be negatively impacting your self-worth, overall sense of well-being, or mental health.