Neurodiverse individuals conceptual illustration
The Breakout Issue

Awareness and Allyship: It's a New Day for Neurodiversity

From increased awareness to more diagnoses, neurodiversity has our attention

Where once the concepts of neurodiversity and neurodivergence were foreign to neurotypical people, in recent years, we’ve slowly begun to see increased awareness and acknowledgment that differences in how brains process and behave are, in fact, quite normal and common.

Neurodiversity, which includes those with specific learning differences (spLD) such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), as well as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), has come a long way in a short time; but do we as a society have enough awareness yet of this topic?

How has the pandemic lifestyle impacted neurodivergent people, from those accustomed to living with their diversity to the many for whom quarantine led to life-changing realizations? And how can we do better in supporting the neurodivergent people we live, work, and learn with? Let’s explore.

Meet the Experts

Risa Williams, LMFT, is a licensed therapist, coach, and author of “The Ultimate Anxiety Toolkit” and “The Ultimate Time Management Toolkit.”

Billy Roberts, LISW-S, is a licensed therapist who owns a private practice that focuses exclusively on adults with ADHD.

Sharon O’Connor, LCSW, is an autistic psychotherapist who specializes in neurodiversity and anxiety. 

Physicians talking about brain health

Verywell / Bailey Mariner

The Pandemic as a Surprise Diagnostic Tool

When the world changed in March 2020, no one was unaffected. At lightning speed, we had to rework all of our day-to-day processes, from the most trivial of errands to the most important of career and family tasks.

In having to change so quickly and being forced to adapt to circumstances outside the scope of anything we had ever experienced before, many people were forced to reckon with an unexpected fact: their brains weren’t functioning and adapting in the same ways as others.

“There has been a lot of change to process in a short amount of time,” says Williams. “Since change can cause stress, sometimes this stress exacerbates ADHD symptoms and anxiety symptoms.”

Roberts tells us that because of the pandemic, “Many undiagnosed folks are connecting the dots for the first time,” noting that he has seen an increase in outreach from many neurodivergent folks, including individuals with ADHD and autism: “The pandemic created new organizational, emotional, and social demands on all people, which tends to highlight the challenges in both populations.”

Billy Roberts, LISW-S

There has been a lot of outreach from neurodivergent individuals seeking professional help for both first-time evaluation and treatment. For both the undiagnosed and diagnosed, the demands of the pandemic left many feeling like the coping skills they developed in life were ineffective.

— Billy Roberts, LISW-S

Neurodivergent women and people assigned female at birth are often misunderstood and less likely to be diagnosed, as medical doctors and mental health professionals often miss their symptoms.

Because quarantine centered so much around taking everything virtual that could go there, the world of telehealth advanced in important ways—people who may have been unable to find an appropriate practitioner suddenly had more to choose from.

O’Connor explains, “The expansion of telehealth has made therapy much more accessible to neurodivergent folks. The ability to meet with a therapist remotely eliminates the barrier and stressor of traveling to an office.”

“It has also widened the network of accessible providers, as one is no longer limited to a therapist in their immediate geographic area,” she adds. “Telehealth presents a new opportunity to choose from therapists anywhere in your state, which can increase the chances of finding a provider who meets your needs.”

According to these therapists, this flexibility led to more people than ever before learning about their own neurodiversity.

Self-Care and Other Superpowers

One of the biggest elements of neurodiversity as a movement is that it seeks to promote understanding that there are plenty of upsides to brains working differently. While we had previously thought of neurodivergent traits as “illnesses” or “diseases,” the movement seeks to help people understand that these conditions come with equally important benefits. Many of these benefits were highlighted in the pandemic.

Neurodivergent concept illustration with brain and puzzle pieces

Syuzanna Guseynova / Getty Images

Roberts says that “While cognitive deficits might feel like a struggle, for many, they can and are superpowers. For instance, adults with ADHD can be incredibly creative and entrepreneurial. The pandemic forced many people to be creative and innovative. While those with cognitive deficits found challenges, many also utilized their strengths to create and innovate.”

Numerous personality traits associated with neurodivergent conditions may have provided a more positive experience than one would otherwise anticipate. For example, people with autism often have great attention to detail and strong focus skills. Many neurotypical workers expressed extreme frustration and difficulty with the ability to focus on work in a home environment.

“For some autistic and neurodivergent folks, the pandemic has offered a much-needed respite from the social demands of previous life, which has allowed them to recover from burnout and truly flourish,” explains O’Connor. “This time has given many neurodivergent people the opportunity to better understand their own needs, make adjustments to meet those needs, and then choose to carry forth those practices into post-pandemic life consciously.”

Social media also helped spread awareness of neurodiversity, as neurodivergent people became inspired to share how they were coping. Williams tells us, “Many people used quarantine as a way to figure out more self-care practices, and as a result, many people were posting about their experience...across many different platforms.”

How to Be a Better Ally

Now that we have a stronger understanding of how the pandemic led to more diagnosis of neurodivergence, more treatment options thanks to telehealth, and that more people than ever are discovering that they, too, are neurodivergent, where do we go from here? We asked the therapists for their opinions on what work still needs to be done to promote awareness of neurodiversity and better support those in our lives who are neurodivergent.

For Roberts, the biggest change that needs to occur is on a policy level. He says that the system “needs to change and make neurodiverse policies and practices a priority.”

“This includes schools, workplace environments, and even within mental health care,” he adds. “The top priority would be to address policies that don’t normalize cognitive differences or that don’t utilize the strengths of neurodivergent people.”

But why were those policies the default in the first place?

“I think much of the struggle also speaks to the impact of ableism within the employment system and the lack of access to care within mental health care itself,” he answers.

When looking to provide more support for neurodivergent people, this shift makes sense as the most important one: We need to alter the policies that center neurotypical people as “normal,” and leave neurodivergent people out of the equation.

Williams feels that the first step to these needed changes begins with more discussion around mental health and wellness at large. She notes, “In our society, we need to prioritize and talk about mental health more, and make self-care more important in our everyday lives.” This can begin as simply as with conversation around how everyone is doing.

Risa Williams, LMFT

I think the more we can normalize how people are feeling during this pandemic and how it has impacted peoples’ emotional states, the more we can start to figure out ways to take steps to de-stress on a more regular basis and see it as important to our well-being.

— Risa Williams, LMFT

“When it comes to access to care, allies of neurodivergent people can help ensure that an appropriate practitioner is accessible to everyone who needs one. O’Connor is working on this in ways such as penning “How to Find a Neurodiversity-Affirming Therapist,” which seeks to pair patients with therapists who will be equipped to give them precisely the type of care and assistance they need and deserve.

We will make the biggest strides in supporting neurodiverse people when we stop seeing them through the lens of being neurotypical as a norm or the default way to be. In the same way, as heteronormativity treats being cisgender and heterosexual as a norm and any other gender and/or sexual identity as abnormal in comparison, the neurotypical lens is equally harmful to people who don't fit into that category.

Systemic change is needed, but even taking easy, small steps like educating ourselves with books, podcasts, and social accounts of neurodivergent people seeks to make neurotypical people better allies. The more aware we are of the differences between us, the better we can celebrate them, and the more we can factor them into everything—from how school classes are taught to how we socialize.

Benefitting From Neurodivergent Pandemic Practices

Throughout the pandemic, we have all been forced to pivot numerous times. From the initial lockdown that went on so much longer than society was told it would, to the “hot vax summer” that almost happened but was overtaken by Delta, to the current tenuousness of fall plans, we’ve all found ourselves in an unknown world. Most of us don’t exactly love it.

The coping mechanisms that neurodivergent people have employed can benefit everyone, regardless of how their brain works. Here are a few examples.

  • Using this time as an opportunity for insight. Many people realized they were neurodivergent not only because circumstances threw them for an unexpected loop but because they also prioritize time for introspection. Introspection is key for self-growth and can be an essential tool for the future, regardless of how your brain operates.
  • Look at your schedule more consciously. Williams says, “It can be helpful to now look at your weekly schedule and try to figure out new ways to keep consistent blocks of time each week for specific things, rather than to feel like you've lost the usual time parameters altogether.”
  • Take time to chill, even when it feels like a challenge. Williams suggests prioritizing de-stressing by taking frequent breaks in between tasks to “mentally unwind more often during these times.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

1 Source
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  1. Mowlem FD, Rosenqvist MA, Martin J, Lichtenstein P, Asherson P, Larsson H. Sex differences in predicting ADHD clinical diagnosis and pharmacological treatmentEur Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2019;28(4):481-489. doi:10.1007/s00787-018-1211-3

By Ariane Resnick, CNC
Ariane Resnick, CNC is a mental health writer, certified nutritionist, and wellness author who advocates for accessibility and inclusivity.