Neurodivergence, or neurodiversity, is a relatively new concept in mental health. This idea juxtaposes the neurotypical or the opposite of what it means to be neurodivergent. These terms came on the scene at a time when it was popular to characterize certain mental traits as positive or negative. Now, this newer terminology is helping individuals understand certain cognitive abilities without subjecting them to outdated labels of good or bad. But what do they mean – and is anxiety neurodivergent?
The Difference Between Neurotypical and Neurodiverse
The term “neurodivergent” originated as a way to describe autism during the late 1990s. However, neurodivergence has since grown to encompass a host of other disorders and diagnoses. According to the National Symposium on Neurodiversity at Syracuse University, neurological differences that fall under the typeset of neurodiverse include: 2
- Dyspraxia (a motor disorder that can affect cognitive abilities 3)
- ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)
- Dyscalculia (a disorder that presents with an inability to compute mathematical concepts 4)
- Tourette Syndrome
However, you’ll notice that – for now – we left anxiety off of that list. We’ll come back to the question of is anxiety neurodivergent in a moment.
Though neurodivergence is a growing idea, it doesn’t (yet) receive official recognition in scientific and diagnostic circles. But it’s still become an important term – especially for those in the neurodiverse community. 1 5
What is Neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity is just that: the acknowledgment that there is diversity in the way that people are neurologically wired. Just like people have different hair and eye colors, foot sizes, and heights, neurodiversity promotes the idea that many “disorders” are merely alternative cognitive traits. 5
As the definition of neurodivergence has grown, so have the signs that may indicate a neurodiverse individual. While it’s important to take these signs in the context of their overarching diagnoses, signs may include differences or difficulties in: 7
- Movement or actions linked to neurological traits (such as stimming or verbal tics)
However, neurodiversity strives to acknowledge that, while these diagnoses bring difficulties, they do not make a person less capable. Rather, they provide them with a different way of learning about and experiencing the world.
Neurodiversity does this by promoting the strengths and abilities of many cognitive “disorders,” rather than focusing on the weaknesses and difficulties. The purpose is to paint individuals as complex beings with their own set of needs and desires, even if they differ from what we consider “normal.” Furthermore, it nixes the idea that people with autism, ADHD, and other neurodiverse traits are broken and need to be fixed. 1 5
As a result, neurodiversity is championed as a way to challenge what it means to have a disorder. Rather than defining mental characteristics with labels such as “normal” or “disorder,” it recognizes that people with such diagnoses derive value from their lives as a result of their alternative mental functions. 1 5
What is Neurotypical?
On the other hand, if someone is neurotypical, it means that they do not have the traits that qualify them for one of the diagnoses above. In other words, they are “normal.” Typically, this means that they: 1
- Do not have cognitive, learning, or social difficulties that necessitate coping mechanisms
- Lack of speech or certain motor impediments
- Have the ability to readily identify and respond to social cues
- Do not experience sensory issues
- Hit all mental (and some physical) developmental milestones
The Evolution of Neurodiversity
The concept of neurodiversity arose in the 1990s when autistic sociologist and activity Judy Singer rebelled against the notion that autism is a “disability.” Instead, she advocated for the idea that autistic brains simply don’t work the same way as “normal” brains. Thus she, alongside New York journalist Harvey Blume, argued for adopting the view that autism is a neurological difference, rather than a disorder. 5
And such was born the concept of neurodiversity.
The Benefits of Neurodiversity
Since the 1990s, the use of the word has grown – as has the swath of diagnoses under its umbrella. As we noted briefly, these include Tourette’s, ADHD, and dyslexia, among others. And, in the time before and since, many studies have shown that people living with such differences may lack cognitive skills in one area while excelling in others. For instance, autistic individuals often show advanced cognition in number- or pattern-related abilities. In the real world, this has made them excellent candidates for jobs involving database management, scrutinizing computer codes, and writing computer manuals. 5
Additionally, evidence suggests that traits such as autism and ADHD would have been beneficial throughout human history. This had lent support to the theory that these traits are not disorders, but evolutionary advantages that carry modern benefits in addition to their perceived drawbacks. For example, ADHD – characterized by hyperactivity and impulsivity – would have been an advantage in hunter-gatherer societies. And those with dyslexia had no need to read when they were designing tools, building shelters, and scouting the best hunting routes. 5
Neurodiversity and the Brain
The advent of brain imaging has also lent credence to the concept of neurodiversity. While the science is not definitive, scans have shown that some individuals with certain neurodivergent traits have changes in their brain structures. In other words, these brains process information differently because they are wired differently. 6
So, Is Anxiety Neurodivergent?
And now we’ve come to our big question: is anxiety neurodivergent?
And the big answer? Anxiety, by itself, is not a neurodivergent trait.
But that doesn’t mean that individuals who identify as or are diagnosed with conditions that are recognized as neurodivergent can’t have anxiety.
For instance, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) estimates that 40% of people with autism have at least one diagnosed anxiety disorder. (For this estimate, OCD, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, is also considered an anxiety disorder. However, some proponents of neurodivergence have suggested that OCD itself falls under the umbrella of “neurodiverse.”) 8
Additionally, the ADAA estimated that 50% of adults with ADHD have a comorbid (co-occurring) anxiety disorder. Furthermore, the CDC estimated that 86% of children with Tourette’s experience at least one other disorder. Notably, 49% experience anxiety problems, 35% present with an autism spectrum disorder, and a whopping 63% are diagnosed with ADHD. 9 10
As our understanding of mental disorders and traits has grown, the concept of neurodiversity has woven deeper into the mainstream. While it is not recognized officially, the word has found itself in scientific studies, special education, medicine, counseling, and more. This has led to further understanding of what we once considered disorders, as well as the importance of such traits in past, present, and future society. 5 6
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