An easy way to explain what Neurodiversity means is to break down the word into two smaller words to define.
- Neuro: Something related to the brain and how the brain works.
- Diversity: Difference
This means that those with a neurodiversity have a difference in the way their brain works, which means that they will have a different way of thinking and processing information.
While everyone has neurodivergences, because every brain is different, some people’s processing of information is different enough from a neurotypical mind that they may fulfil a neurodivergent diagnostic criteria such as
- Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD or ADD)
Also, increasingly, Tourette’s and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder are being included as neurodiversity diagnoses too.
What does diagnosis mean?
The Equality Act 2010, a neurodiversity diagnosis can be classed as a disability due to the ‘substantial and long-term negative effect’ it can have on a person’s ‘ability to do normal, daily activities’, but it’s really important to be aware that not everyone who is neurodiverse considers themselves disabled, and while official diagnosis may be needed in order to seek reasonable adjustments in work and study (more on that below), self-diagnosis is accepted in much of the wider ND community because of the difficulty in accessing diagnosis and support that many face.
While some individuals prefer to use person-first language, others prefer identity-first language. This means that it is better to ask directly how someone wants to be identified, or what labels they use for themselves, rather than making assumptions.
For example, some people would prefer being referred to as ‘a person with autism’ while others would prefer being referred to as ‘an autistic person’. Also, don’t assume that because someone has disclosed their identity to you, that they’re necessarily comfortable disclosing everywhere. Many neurodiverse people ‘mask’ in order to feel comfortable, safe and able to fit in to workplace or social cultures and if you’re not sure, it’s always better to ask someone what they’re comfortable with.
There is no ‘typical’ experience of neurodiversity; it’s different for every individual.
There is also a growing cultural pushback against the framing of neurodiversity primarily in terms of the negative impact it has on individuals who struggle in environments tailored to neurotypical minds. For many people, their neurodiversity is inseparable from their identity and comes with many positive differences, for example pattern-spotting and problem-solving skills, a breadth of hobbies and/or depth of special interest subjects. Some neurodiverse people have a particular flair for creative pursuits like music or artistic expression, or are deeply empathetic and have a unique perspective and ability to relate to others, or have different perspectives or ways of thinking about things. Importantly though, neurodiversity means something different for every person – and the balance of positives and negatives someone experiences can vary hugely.
What we see isn’t all we are
While some people may have aspects of their neurodiversity that manifest more visibly, (for example, stimming behaviors are very varied but might include rocking, pacing, hand-flapping, hair-twirling, finger-tapping or repeating noises or sounds), many aspects of neurodiversity may be largely internally expressed (e.g. grasshoppering or hyperactive thoughts, intensity of emotional responses, memory problems, sensory differences or difficulties processing words, textures, sounds, smells etc). This means it’s important to be mindful that what someone is feeling or experiencing may not be reflected in what you can see from the outside.
While repetitive movements and stimming behaviors, for example, typically help to self soothe and are an effective way to self-regulate, it’s important that stimming does not become self-injurious.
If stimming becomes dangerous or it seems the individual may be at risk of hurting themselves or others, it’s vital to ensure the environment is safe, by clearing space and giving the individual space but remaining close by to reassure and comfort afterwards. Not every neurodiverse individual will stim at all or in the same way, so it’s important to act as a safe space for the individual to ensure they can express themselves.
These differences in experiences, behaviors and thinking patterns
, mean that neurodiverse individuals may want to request different accommodations and support to help them to thrive in everyday life, particularly in study or work environments. These are typically called reasonable adjustments.
Examples of reasonable adjustments
A reasonable adjustment is a change that helps a person with additional needs to work better and feel more secure and supported within an environment. These adjustments may not be costly, and it’s important to keep in mind that what one neurodiverse individual may find helpful, others may not, so reasonable adjustments should be tailored to the individual.
Some examples of common reasonable adjustments
- Altering the light levels and temperature of a room
- Options for different working patterns (for example a hybrid working model, keeping blocks of time free of meetings and interruptions to concentrate on a piece of work, or changes to regular working patterns).
- Access to equipment like noise-cancelling headphones or quiet keyboards.
- Clear and explicit instructions, expectations or deadlines, or communication in a particular form (eg, written down vs verbally) that is more accessible for the individual.
These changes can be quickly made by anyone to any setting to make it accessible and comfortable for all.
Think you may be Neurodiverse? Where can you learn more?
There are lots of avenues to gain support when you think you may be neurodiverse whether that be medical support and/or gaining a diagnosis, or more of a mental health and emotional management route through mental health professionals, there is lots of different types of support available.
Here are some links to sources that outline the process of diagnosis, with details on what to expect and to bring with you. These can be helpful places to begin when looking into a diagnosis or access to support.
How to get diagnosed as autistic – NHS (www.nhs.uk)
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – Diagnosis – NHS (www.nhs.uk)
What sort of tests for different kinds of neurodiversity are out there?
Think you’re neurodivergent? The pros and cons of getting a diagnosis – CampusWell
How can you support the neurodiverse people around you?
Every person with neurodivergences will have unique needs and experiences, so it is important not to make generalisations about what support or guidance they may need. Some may not want or need any extra support or accommodations at all, but understanding a bit more about neurodiversity can still help you be a better friend, ally and colleague. Here are some sources that can provide general guidance about the support that a peer or family member may ask for.
13 Productive Ways to Support Neurodivergent Employees (forbes.com)
What is neurodiversity, how do we celebrate it, and what does neurodivergent mean? – BBC Newsround
Further reading on autism and ADHD:
Stimming: Why It Happens and How to Manage It (healthline.com)
Why women may wait decades for an ADHD diagnosis – BBC News
Women with autism & ADHD aren’t diagnosed until adulthood – Durham University
Autistic women and girls (autism.org.uk)
By Amber Tydeman, SGO Projects Officer #livingwell