A female teen who's neurodivergent logs into virtual therapy.

What It Means To Be Neurodivergent & How It Relates to Mental Health

Updated: May 27, 2024

7 min.

If you’re neurodivergent, your brain may work differently than others, which may come along with unique mental health challenges.

By: Ashley Laderer

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Jaime Ballard

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Table of Contents

Neurodivergence describes when someone’s brain works or develops in a different way than the brain of a neurotypical (or “average”) person. Neurodivergence is not considered a medical or mental health diagnosis in and of itself, but a neurodivergent person may face struggles in some areas of daily life, including mental health. (On the flip side, neurodivergent people may also have pronounced strengths that help them be very successful.)

Ultimately, every neurodivergent individual is unique and will have their own set of struggles and strengths. Here’s what you need to know about being neurodivergent, the conditions and disorders that are associated with neurodivergence, the neurodiversity movement, and more. 

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What does it mean to be neurodivergent or experience neurodivergence?

As previously mentioned, neurodivergence refers to differences in how some peoples’ brains work or develop. It is a broad umbrella term, not a mental illness or health problem. Many neurodivergent teens and young adults find the term “neurodivergence” to be validating to help them understand that there isn’t something inherently “wrong” with them — their brain just functions a little differently than neurotypical brains, and that’s okay. 

Scientifically speaking, neurodivergent people may experience neurological differences, neurocognitive functioning differences, and neurodevelopmental differences. These may sound like fancy medical terms, but when it comes down to it, it means that a neurodivergent individual might:

  • Have a brain that developed differently than a neurotypical person’s brain
  • Have different social preferences than a neurotypical person
  • Learn differently than a neurotypical person
  • Think differently than a neurotypical person
  • Communicate differently than a neurotypical person
  • View their environment in a different way than a neurotypical person

The extent of the differences that a neurodivergent person experiences depends on the individual and what conditions or disorders they have. Two of the most common examples that fall under neurodivergence are autism spectrum disorder and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Although both of these disorders are related to being neurodivergent, the specific difficulties that an autistic person has as opposed to someone with ADHD will vary, but there may certainly be some overlap.

Discovering that you’re a neurodivergent person can help you make sense of the struggles you’ve faced in life and understand why you are the way you are, think the way you think, and act the way you act. Plus, you’ll know that you are far from the only one experiencing this since there are plenty of other neurodivergent people out there. In fact, it’s estimated that 15-20% of people globally are neurodivergent.

Not to mention, understanding that you’re neurodivergent can help you take steps to seek mental healthcare that is best suited for your personal needs. For example, you may want to find experts who specialize in working with neurodivergent teens and young adults or a mental health professional who practices neurodivergence-informed therapy. Additionally, you may be able to seek accommodations at school or work that make life easier for you if you’re a neurodivergent student or employee (more on all of this below). 

What conditions are associated with neurodivergence? 

Many disorders, conditions, and learning disabilities are associated with neurodivergence. There is no one blanket of symptoms or specific issues that affect every neurodivergent person. 

The conditions most commonly associated with neurodivergence include neurodevelopmental disorders, learning or intellectual disabilities, and genetic conditions — like autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, and Down Syndrome. 

The lines are blurred when it comes to including mental health conditions under the umbrella of neurodivergence since there isn’t a concrete definition or set of guidelines. Some people with mental health conditions consider themselves to be neurodivergent, while others don’t. The same goes for mental health professionals and researchers. Their opinions vary on whether mental illness in and of itself constitutes neurodivergence. That being said, some people with mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety consider themselves to be neurodivergent, while others don’t. 

What is the neurodiversity movement, and how does it help neurodiverse individuals?

The neurodiversity movement began in the mid-1990s, and it was originally linked to autistic people. This was around the same time as when the term “neurodiversity” was created by Judy Singer, a sociologist from Australia who specializes in autism and neurodivergence and is an autistic person herself. 

The neurodiversity movement became a way for people on the autism spectrum to connect with each other, advocate for themselves, and feel empowered. The movement calls for neurodiverse people, such as people with autism spectrum disorder, to celebrate their differences as strengths, rather than looking at their differences as weaknesses.

On Singer’s personal website, she defines neurodiversity as “a state of nature to be respected, an analytical tool for examining social issues, an argument for the conservation and facilitation of human diversity.” Additionally, she looks at neurodiversity as the “limitless variability of human cognition and the uniqueness of each human mind,” which is a beautiful way to look at it. The neurodiversity movement isn’t just for autistic people, though — it’s inclusive for all neurodivergent people with any related condition or disorder. 

Additionally, researchers in the field believe that there is no limit to the diversity of the brain, and perhaps there are types of neurodiversity that we aren’t even fully aware of yet. Authors of a 2021 paper said, “Rather than assume that neurodiversity exists according to the existing clinical categories of autism and related conditions (that are often centered around autism as the exemplary kind of neurodivergence), we leave the possibility open that there are other forms of difference that have yet to be defined.” As research in the area of neurodiversity grows and people continue to raise awareness and open their minds, there are sure to be great strides within the neurodiversity movement and more understanding when it comes to neurodivergence in general.  

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What mental healthcare treatment options are available for neurodivergent teens?

To start, it’s common for neurodivergent people to experience difficulty with their mental health, though not all will. Here are some stats:

  • 78% of kids with autism spectrum disorder have a mental health condition, with almost half of them having at least two mental health conditions
  • Up to 81% of adults with autism spectrum disorder have a co-occurring mental health condition
  • Around two-thirds of people with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder have one or more co-occurring mental health conditions
  • About one in four adults with ADHD also have a mood disorder (such as depression), and nearly half of adults with ADHD also have an anxiety disorder

Neurodivergent-affirming therapy

Pathologizing therapy

A therapeutic approach that validates and supports the diverse cognitive, emotional, and behavioral experiences of neurodivergent people while empowering them to navigate the world on their own terms.

An approach that dismisses neurodivergent experiences or treats neurodivergence as a condition to cure,’ focusing on conformity to neurotypical norms rather than embracing and accommodating individual differences.

Ultimately, the mental health treatment you opt for will depend on your individual difficulties and diagnosed mental health conditions. For example, if you have severe anxiety, you may want to seek a therapist who specializes in anxiety disorders and treatment modalities that are proven to help treat them, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Or, if you struggle with depression and self-harm or suicidal ideation, you may look for a therapist who specializes in mood disorders and uses treatments like dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skills. If you have autism spectrum disorder, you may benefit from working with a therapist who has specialized training to help autistic people and the unique social challenges they face. Regardless of what mental health conditions or symptoms you face, help is available. 

However, there is an extra hurdle that neurodivergent people might face. Sometimes, neurodivergent people may have trouble finding adequate mental healthcare that affirms their neurodiversity and the subsequent unique obstacles they may face. For example, just because a mental health professional specializes in anxiety doesn’t necessarily mean they specialize in anxiety in neurodivergent teens or young adults. 

This is why it’s important to advocate for yourself. When you are looking into finding a therapist or treatment program, let them know that you are a neurodivergent individual and looking for someone who has plenty of experience with this. You may want to directly ask if they practice neurodivergence-informed therapy or neurodiversity-affirming therapy. According to experts in the field, neurodivergence-informed therapy is “an alternative to the drive to eliminate diversity through attempts to ‘treat’ or ‘cure’ neurodivergence.” 

How Charlie Health helps neurodivergent young people

If you or a loved one are neurodivergent and need some mental health support, Charlie Health is here to help. Charlie Health’s virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) provides more than once-weekly mental health treatment for young people and families dealing with serious mental health conditions, including neurodiverse teens and young adults. Our expert clinicians incorporate neurodivergent-affirming therapies into individual counseling, family therapy, and group sessions. With this kind of holistic treatment, managing your mental health is possible. Fill out the form below or give us a call to start healing today.

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