The human brain is incredibly complex and diverse. Neurodivergence, a term that refers to differences in neurological function, can lead to differences in cognition, behaviour, and perception. Examples of neurodivergence include autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and schizophrenia. Although these conditions are often considered disabilities, it is important to view them more appropriately as a part of the natural diversity of the human brain. However, living with a neurodivergent condition can also have significant impacts on mental health, as well as difficulties with executive function and sensory processing.
Neurodivergence and Mental Health
One of the most common impacts of neurodivergence on mental health is increased stress and anxiety. Many neurodivergent individuals may struggle with social situations, communication, or sensory processing, which can lead to feelings of isolation and frustration. This, in turn, can trigger anxiety and stress, which can have a negative impact on overall mental health.
For example, individuals with autism may struggle with social interactions and communication, leading to feelings of loneliness and isolation. This can trigger anxiety and depression, as well as impact their ability to form relationships and connect with others.
Similarly, individuals with ADHD may struggle with attention and focus, leading to difficulties in academic or work settings. This can trigger stress and frustration, as well as impact their self-esteem and confidence.
Additionally, neurodivergent individuals may also be at increased risk of developing other mental health conditions, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or eating disorders. These conditions may be related to specific aspects of neurodivergence, such as obsessive interests or difficulties with sensory processing.
Executive functions are a set of cognitive abilities that are responsible for controlling and coordinating other cognitive processes. These abilities include things like planning, organizing, initiating tasks, flexibility, impulse control, paying attention, and remembering details. They are important for many aspects of daily life, including problem solving, decision making, and managing time and resources.
Neurodivergence may affect an individual’s ability to engage executive functions due to the differences in the way their brain thinks and processes information. These differences can present challenges in many aspects of daily life and can make activities like school or work difficult. For example, individuals with ADHD may struggle with prioritizing tasks or maintaining focus, while those with autism may have difficulty with decision-making or problem-solving. These executive function difficulties can have a significant impact on mental health. For example, individuals who struggle with organization and time management may feel overwhelmed and stressed, which can contribute to anxiety and depression. Additionally, those who struggle with attention and focus may feel frustrated and demoralized, leading to feelings of low self-esteem. This can have a negative impact on mental health and well-being, as well as impact their ability to succeed in academic or work settings.
Sensory Processing Difficulties
Sensory processing difficulties are when the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes through the senses. People with neurological differences may have sensory processing difficulties because the messages between the body and the brain get jumbled up, which often result in responses that are different from people without these processing difficulties.
People who struggle with sensory processing difficulties may be oversensitive (hypersensitive) or under-sensitive (hyposensitive). Many people can be a mixture of both hypersensitive and hyposensitive and this can change depending on the environment, lack of sleep, illness, stress, and anxiety. People who are hypersensitive tend to avoid sensory stimuli, whereas people who are hyposensitive often seek extra sensory stimuli.
These difficulties can have a significant impact on mental health, as well as daily functioning. For example, individuals who are oversensitive to sounds may struggle with sensory overload in busy environments, which can trigger anxiety and panic attacks. Similarly, those who are undersensitive to certain sensory information may struggle with safety, such as not noticing dangerous situations or hazards in their environment. Sensory processing difficulties can also impact social and emotional functioning. For example, individuals who are oversensitive to touch may find it difficult to tolerate physical contact, leading to difficulties with intimacy and social relationships. On the other hand, those who are undersensitive to touch may have difficulty feeling empathy or connecting emotionally with others.
Supporting Neurodivergent Individuals
It is important to note that neurodivergence is not inherently a cause of poor mental health. Rather, it is often the result of societal stigma and lack of support for neurodivergent individuals. This support can include access to accommodations in the workplace or educational settings, such as providing a quiet workspace or extra time for tasks. Additionally, therapy and medication can be effective in treating specific mental health conditions related to neurodivergence.
Moreover, promoting acceptance and understanding of neurodiversity is crucial to creating a more inclusive society. By valuing neurodivergence as part of the natural diversity of the human experience, we can reduce stigma and promote access to resources that support the mental health of neurodivergent individuals.