Do you have a friend, family member, partner, student, or employee who’s neurodivergent? If so, you might be wondering how you can help when they face challenges, or what’s the best way to support them is.
When it comes down to it, every neurodivergent person is different, and the struggles they face are unique. No two neurodivergent individuals are the same, although some of the difficulties they face may overlap. Therefore, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to supporting neurodivergent people, since they all have different needs.
It’s important to look at someone as an individual and understand their personal obstacles and strengths. From there, you can learn how you can help them -- whether at home, school, or work.
Here’s what you need to know about neurodivergence as well as how to support someone who’s neurodivergent.
What does it mean to be neurodivergent or experience neurodivergence?
“Neurodivergence” is not a specific diagnosis. You can look at neurodivergence as an umbrella term that refers to brain differences -- when somebody’s brain develops or works in a different way than someone who is “neurotypical,” or “average.”
Compared to neurotypical people, neurodivergent people may:
- Have different social preferences
- Learn in a different way
- Think in a different way
- Communicate in a different way
- View their environment in a different way
Due to these differences, there are both advantages and disadvantages of neurodivergence. For example, neurodivergent people can often view problems from a unique perspective and think outside the box to come up with creative solutions. They may also be very creative, forge paths of new ways of doing things, and have a keen attention to detail. However, when our schools and workplaces are designed for neurotypical people without thinking about other approaches and needs, navigating these spaces can be challenging for neurodivergent people.
There are various learning disabilities, conditions, and disorders that are linked to neurodivergence. For example, some of these include:
- Neurodevelopmental disorders or neurological conditions, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Learning disabilities such as dyslexia (difficulties with reading and identifying speech sounds) or dyscalculia (related to difficulties learning math)
- Genetic conditions such as Down Syndrome
When it comes to whether someone with a mental health condition (like depression or an anxiety disorder) is considered to be neurodivergent, opinions are divided. Some people–both people with these conditions and mental health professionals alike–consider these conditions to fall under the umbrella of neurodivergence, while others don’t. This is because there are no set guidelines or rules as to what qualifies someone as neurodivergent.
Oftentimes, neurodivergent people see the term “neurodivergence” as something that validates their life experiences, while also helping them understand that there isn’t anything “wrong” with them–it simply means that their brain functions or has developed in a different way than neurotypical brains do.
Plus, for allies, knowing that someone is neurodivergent can help them understand that the individual may require additional support or different accommodations -- and then take the steps to get them what they need.
What is the neurodiversity movement?
Back in the mid-1990s, the neurodiversity movement was born. Around this time, Australian sociologist Judy Singer coined the term “neurodiversity,” which is essentially another way to look at neurodivergence, celebrating the diversity of the brains of all humans. On Singer’s personal website she refers to neurodiversity as the “limitless variability of human cognition and the uniqueness of each human mind.”
The movement encourages people who are neurodiverse to embrace their differences as strengths rather than seeing them as flaws or weaknesses. It also serves as a way for neurodiverse folks to connect with one another and know that they aren’t alone.
Furthermore, the neurodiversity movement gives neurodiverse people the power to self-advocate and actively seek support and get the help they need. By self-advocating, they can ensure that their specific needs are met, which can help make life more accommodating for them.
What kind of therapy is best for neurodivergent people?
Finding the right therapist is crucial for neurodivergent people. While all mental health professionals are trained to identify and treat a wide variety of mental health struggles, they may not specialize in neurodivergent therapy or have extensive experience working with neurodiverse people -- making it hard for a neurodiverse person to find adequate treatment and a therapist who really gets them.
In order to best help someone who’s neurodivergent, many therapists are beginning to practice neurodivergence-informed therapy or neurodiversity-affirming therapy.
What is neurodivergent-affirming therapy?
Professionals who practice neurodivergent therapy work to better understand the unique obstacles that neurodivergent individuals face, and validate their experiences while celebrating their differences. They will not try to “treat” or “cure” neurodivergence in a way that others might. Instead, they will help ND people accept their neurodivergence and have pride in their differences, similar to the goals of the neurodiversity movement.
From here, a therapist can help the individual cope with whatever struggles they may face related to their neurodiversity and any mental health conditions and symptoms they deal with.
If you’re trying to support someone who’s neurodivergent by helping them find a therapist, you may want to be direct when screening the therapist, asking specific questions to determine who will be the best fit. You can ask the mental health professional if they have experience working with neurodivergent people and if they practice neurodivergence-informed therapy or neurodiversity-affirming therapy. If the answer is no, they likely won’t be the best fit for your neurodivergent loved one, and it’s on to the next. Remember, it’s not just about getting someone help -- it’s about getting someone the right help.
What type of support is available at school for neurodivergent students?
The traditional school environment and the format of classes, assignments, and exams can be difficult for neurodivergent students. They may face various challenges at school depending on the specific condition, disorder, or learning disability that they have. Luckily, there are two laws in place in the U.S. (The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973) which ensure that neurodivergent students are supported and receive the accommodations they need to help them feel more comfortable and have a better experience at school. In other words–no matter the school or teacher, they’re required to provide necessary assistance to neurodivergent students.
Every neurodiverse person is unique, and what one struggles with, another one may excel at, and vice versa. That’s why it’s so important for schools and teachers to educate themselves and understand the different types of mental health issues associated with neurodivergence that can potentially affect performance at school. For example, they should understand that an autistic student might get sensory overload from bright fluorescent school lights and loud sounds, and may need to take a break away from the class now and then–and that a student with ADHD might face difficulties with organization and task prioritization, and may need some extra clarification and additional time for assignments and exams.
Schools and teachers can support someone who’s neurodivergent by providing accommodations tailored to the student’s needs. Some examples of these accommodations include:
- Being sensitive and understanding of neurodivergent students’ unique needs
- Giving extra time on exams when needed
- Giving neurodivergent students individually-tailored instructions and assignments
- Ensuring clarity with instructions and assignments (for example, providing detailed written instructions instead of just generally speaking out loud)
- Allowing students to take breaks when needed
- Keeping minimal distractions in the classroom
- Providing organizational tools
- Giving praise and positive feedback
- Consulting with students’ parents and school counselors
Ultimately, needs will vary based on the individual student. If you’re the parent of a ND child, you and your child know best and can communicate needs to the teacher. It’s important to have a good relationship with the school so that you can work together with the educational team to best support your neurodivergent child in class.
What kind of support is available at work for neurodivergent employees?
Just as neurodivergent students may face difficulties at school, the same goes for neurodivergent employees-- regardless of their work setting. The hurdles are twofold here: first, employees (or potential employees) might be afraid to disclose their neurodivergence if they think it will negatively affect how a boss or hiring manager could view them. Secondly, many employers might not be completely educated on what neurodivergence is or how to support a neurodiverse employee.
However, if you’re an employer, by educating yourself on what neurodivergence is and different conditions associated with it, you can better understand current or prospective ND employees. To take this up a notch, you can view “neurodiversity as a competitive advantage,” as professors Robert D. Austin and Gary P. Pisano suggested in the Harvard Business Review. Oftentimes, neurodivergent people have very unique strengths and talents -- and companies can leverage this and tap into neurodiverse talent.
It’s also important to understand that your neurodiverse employees will have different needs than your neurotypical employees, and they might require some additional accommodations or flexibility so they can feel more comfortable at work, and ultimately, perform their job the best they can.
Every neurodivergent employee is unique and will have different needs. However, here are some general ideas of how you can support someone who’s neurodivergent in the workplace:
- Asking them what their preferred method of communication is (for example, they might feel more comfortable using a messaging service like Slack versus phone calls)
- Giving clear instructions that are written down, not just verbal
- Being willing to make changes to the environment in case there are sensory issues
- Allowing for breaks
- Giving advance notice for things like meetings or changes to routine
- Breaking down bigger projects or tasks into small steps
- Providing flexible deadlines or giving extra time on projects when necessary
Ultimately, the ideal way to support someone who’s neurodivergent at your place of work is to understand where they’re coming from, and ask them if there are any specific needs they have that you can meet. Remember to be non-judgemental and approach this from a place of curiosity and a genuine desire to help. Your employee will appreciate it!
How can you support a neurodivergent loved one?
If your loved one–whether a romantic partner, family member, or friend–is neurodivergent, there are plenty of ways you can support them. Here are some ways to do so:
- Avoid judgment
Just because someone’s brain works differently than yours does, they should not be judged. Try to be compassionate and understanding so you can avoid passing judgment. Remember that you don’t know what it feels like to be in their shoes.
- Ask thoughtful questions
You may not want to drill your ND loved one about the conditions they have, but you can ask the right questions about how to help, especially in a situation where you know they’re struggling or going into an uncomfortable territory. Some questions you could ask include:
How can I support you in this?
How can I help make this simpler for you?
How can I make you more comfortable?
- Let them know you’re here for them
If an ND person feels alone, sometimes all it takes is to hear that someone is in their corner to help brighten their spirit. Let your loved one know that you’re here for them. For example, you can tell them that they can text or call you when they feel like they need to vent.
- Educate yourself
If you know that your ND loved one has a specific condition or multiple conditions, read up on them so you can have a general understanding. This won’t necessarily fill you in on everything they experience, but it can certainly help.
How can Charlie Health help neurodivergent teens and young adults?
If your neurodivergent loved one struggles with their mental health, Charlie Health can help. We understand that every neurodivergent teen and young adult has their own journey based on how they experience neurodivergence and any other disorders or conditions they have. That’s why we offer personalized intensive outpatient (IOP) mental health treatment for teens, young adults, and families, including neurodivergent therapy, neurodivergent-affirming therapists, and neurodivergent-exclusive peer groups.
Our mental health providers practice neurodivergence-informed therapy and have extensive experience helping neurodiverse young adults and teens. They celebrate the unique differences that make your neurodivergent loved one who they are, and help them celebrate, too.
At Charlie Health, every client is matched with a therapist who fits their specific needs, and will also be matched with a group of peers who are from similar backgrounds with similar struggles. Your loved one is not alone with their mental health challenges, and remember, neurodiversity is something to celebrate!