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Neurodivergent: Meaning & Comorbidities

August 7, 2023

What it means to be neurodivergent is often misunderstood. The term is an umbrella for many more contemporarily familiar disorders, such as autism. You will learn more about the following in this article:

  • The meaning of neurodivergent
  • Depression and being neurodivergent
  • Anxiety and neurodivergent people
  • The intersection between trauma and neurodivergence

A person with blonde hair wearing a black shirt

Australian sociologist Judy Singer (pictured here) published her first book, NeuroDiversity: The Birth of an Idea, in 2016.

Neurodivergent Meaning

In the 1990s, autistic sociologist Judy Singer introduced the terms neurodivergent and neurodiverse as an alternative to terms such as “disorder.” Today, neurodivergent is understood as a term used to describe someone whose brain processes information differently than someone who is neurotypical.

The following disorders are considered “neurodivergent”:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Dyslexia
  • Dyspraxia
  • Tourette’s Syndrome

“Neurodivergent” encompasses any intellectual or learning disability, but is most commonly used to describe those with ADHD or who are on the autism spectrum. A group is neurodiverse when neurodivergent and neurotypical people are included. Because their brains process information differently, those who are neurodivergent are at a higher risk for certain mental health issues.

A person smiling for a selfie.

Scholars such as Giorgia Sala (pictured here) have conducted studies showing that the practice of Ethical Non-Monogamy (ENM) is increasing among autistic people.

Neurodivergent & Depressed

According to Simons Powering Autism Research (SPARK), about 40% of autistic adults have had depression. Those with ADHD and autistic people both struggle with emotional regulation. They may feel highs and lows more intensely than neurotypical people, making it more difficult for them to tolerate depressive symptoms. Struggles with executive function may also worsen depression for those with ADHD, as they may struggle to find motivation to complete daily tasks.

Neurodivergent people also struggle with interoception, or being able to tell what is going on internally. Interoception is what allows us to understand what our bodies need, such as if we are hungry or tired. Those with poor interoception skills may struggle with something called alexithymia. Alexithymia is used to describe when a person cannot identify their own emotions. This is more common in the neurodivergent community, as it is related to interoception. Because of these complexities in how the neurodivergent brain processes information, treatment for depression may look different for neurodivergent people than for neurotypicals. Medication may affect them differently and some therapies may not be as effective when one struggles with alexithymia. 

A child with her mouth open.

There is a common, but incorrect belief that there is a direct connection between children who have a tongue tie and ADHD.

Neurodivergent & Anxious

About 50% of adults with ADHD also suffer from an anxiety disorder. ADHD and anxiety are commonly comorbid, as anxiety can impair executive function and vice-versa. When someone is anxious, it may be difficult for them to pay attention or focus on completing a task, when they are unable to complete their tasks, they may feel more anxious at the thought of their upcoming deadline.

Anxiety is also more common in autistic people. Autistic people may be more likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder because of their attention to detail, sensory sensitivities, and social difficulties. Changes in routine, unfamiliar places, and sensory stimuli can all trigger anxiety in autistic people. Being unsure of how to navigate a social situation can also cause autistic people to struggle with social anxiety.

Treatment for anxiety and ADHD can both look different when one of these disorders is comorbid with another, so it is important to be aware of the complexities of treating these disorders together. 

An infographic with a blue person sitting in a chair with various symptoms and signs of Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome

Many people with autism, ADHD, or both also suffer from dysautonomia problems such as Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia (POTs) Syndrome.

Neurodivergent & Trauma

Autistic people are more likely to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) than neurotypical people. The increased risk of PTSD can be due to a number of reasons. Autistic people are more likely to be exposed to traumatic experiences such as bullying, sexual abuse, interpersonal struggles due to social difficulties, or the loss of a loved one. An autistic person may experience certain situations as being traumatic that someone else may not. Autistic people struggle with sensory difficulties. Loud sounds and crowded environments may cause sensory overload and trauma for autistic people.

Being forced to mask one’s autism in public may also be traumatic. Masking is when an autistic person attempts to act neurotypical in order to blend in with others or be accepted socially. When an autistic person masks, they are forced to ignore their own sensory or social needs. This can feel incredibly distressing and lead to burnout. There is a lack of research on which treatments may be helpful for a neurodivergent person who has PTSD, but trauma-informed mental health professionals should learn to work with their neurodivergent client or patient’s unique needs and allow them to fully unmask. 

Talia Higgins (pictured here) began seeing clients with CFR in December 2022.

About the Author

Talia Higgins is a Master’s of Marriage & Family Therapy (MFT) Student Intern in our ISI Program. If you have questions about the meaning of neurodivergence or common mental health issues neurodivergent people may experience, you may reach Talia via email at thiggins@councilforrelationships.org or by phone at 215-857-5815 ext. 7081.

If you have questions about CFR’s ISI Program or about Student Interns, please contact CFR’s Director of Clinical Internships Allen-Michael Lewis, MS, LMFT, AS, at alewis@councilforrelationships.org or by phone at 215-857-5815 ext. 4206.

About CFR’s Professional Education

CFR was one of the first training centers for marriage and family therapy in the country. We currently offer Master’s degree and postgraduate certificate programs as well as continuing education and workshops.