Neurodiversity acknowledges that diverse neurological conditions are part of normal human variation. Dr. Simon Clarke, a neuroscientist, explains, “Neurodiversity is a perspective that brain differences are just that: differences. They are not deficits.” This inclusive view helps frame neurological variations as part of the broad spectrum of human diversity, just like any other trait.

Sociologist Judy Singer coined the term neurodiversity in 1997 to refer to autistic people. However, the definition has since expanded to include other conditions in advocacy movements and social justice circles. Neurodiversity can be divided into two categories: neurotypical and neurodivergent.

Get a Free Screening Call with Dr. David Murphy

Understanding Neurodiversity

There is a lot to learn when trying to understand Neurodiversity.  When learning more about what it’s like to be neurodivergent, there is plenty available on the subject!

📚 Books

  • Books such as “Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s,” “Thinking in Pictures,” and “Funny, You Don’t Look Autistic” are personal accounts of being neurodivergent.
  • Fictional books with neurodivergent main characters include “Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine,” “Flowers For Algernon,” and “On the Edge of Gone.”
  • Nonfiction books about neurodivergence and the future of neurodiversity include “NeuroTribes,” “Neurodiversity: Discovering the Extraordinary Gifts of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia and Other Brain Differences,” and “Divergent Mind.”

🎧 Podcasts

📲 Social Media 

Neurotypical versus Neurodivergent

Neurotypical

Neurotypical individuals are those whose brain functions adhere to what is considered standard or typical. They generally do not exhibit the neurological traits that characterize neurodivergent individuals.

Neurodivergent

Neurodivergent individuals have brain functions that significantly diverge from the conventional. Conditions such as autism, ADHD, and dyslexia are included under this umbrella. Dr. Jane Foster, an expert in neurodiversity, notes, “Neurodivergent individuals often experience the world in unique ways that can offer novel insights into human cognition.” 

What is Neurodivergence?

Neurodivergence encompasses various conditions that represent differences in brain function and behavioral traits not typically seen in neurotypical individuals. These traits are inherent and often have genetic links.

Signs of Neurodivergence

Common signs include challenges with social interaction, unique learning abilities, attention disparities, and heightened sensitivities, which markedly deviate from typical developmental patterns.

Keep in mind that what falls under the umbrella of “neurodivergent” is constantly evolving and changing. Some clinicians consider mental health diagnoses as falling under the umbrella, while others do not. 

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is characterized by excessive worry, fear, or overwhelm that disrupts daily functioning and activities. Clinical psychologist Dr. Emily Bennett describes it as “an emotional response that can become overwhelming without the appropriate interventions.” 

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is defined by persistent, excessive worry that is difficult to control. This worry is disproportionate and frequent, occurring more days than not for at least six months, focusing on various life areas like work or school. GAD’s defining feature is its disruptiveness to daily executive functioning skills, significantly impairing activities and responsibilities across multiple settings including academic, professional, and personal relationships. The American Psychiatric Association (2013) highlights that this level of anxiety goes beyond normal stress, affecting overall well-being and life management.

How do I know if I am anxious?

Everyone has feelings of anxiety at some point in their life. You may feel worried and nervous about a change to your daily life, sitting for an exam, or a job interview. 

🥺 Signs that you might be anxious include: 

✔️ feeling restless or worried

✔️ a churning feeling in your stomach

✔️ a fast, thumping or irregular heartbeat

✔️ faster breathing

✔️ sweating or hot flushes

✔️ nausea (feeling sick)

✔️ problems sleeping

✔️ panic attacks.

Can I have anxiety and be neurodivergent?

Yes, you can! In exploring the interplay between anxiety and neurodiversity, it’s evident that while anxiety isn’t inherently a neurodivergent condition, it frequently coexists with neurodivergent traits, particularly within the ADHD and autism spectrums. Dr. Helen Burgess, a clinical psychologist specializing in neurodiversity, points out, “The relationship between neurodivergent conditions and anxiety is significant. Anxiety often compounds the challenges that neurodivergent individuals face, necessitating tailored intervention strategies.” 

Types of Neurodivergence

Silhouettes of people against a colorful, swirling background with text 'Types of Neurodivergence' listing Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Tourette’s Syndrome

🧩 Autism

Autism Spectrum Disorder encompasses a range of conditions that often manifest as challenges in social interactions, communication, and a tendency toward repetitive behaviors. Individuals with autism might use various communication methods, including non-verbal means such as Alternative Augmentative Communication, writing, typing, or sign language. The Autism Self-Advocacy Network explains that autistic individuals typically experience distinct differences in thinking, sensory processing, movement, communication, and socializing compared to non-autistic people. These variations are consistent and form a core part of the autistic experience.

🔗 ADHD

Involves inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity.  

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is an executive function dysregulation disorder, which means individuals may have difficulties managing their thoughts, attention, behaviors, and emotions. 

People with ADHD may have difficulty with organization, be restless, seem disinterested or zoned out, and show inappropriate behavior when experiencing strong emotions. Thanks to their out-of-the-box thinking, people with ADHD are often great problem solvers, and entrepreneurs, and they may be energetic and “fun,” and are often sensitive to others.

📚 Dyslexia

Known for affecting reading and related language-based processing skills. 

💡 Other Types

Includes conditions like Tourette’s Syndrome among other neurological differences.

Neurodivergence and Mental Health

Neurodivergent individuals often encounter mental health challenges like anxiety and depression, stemming from societal misunderstandings and pressures.

Research clearly indicates a significant link between neurodivergence and mental health challenges. Studies show that individuals with conditions such as autism, dyspraxia, and ADHD are at higher risk of experiencing depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders. These include mood disorders, eating disorders, OCD, and even schizophrenia. Genetics play a crucial role in this relationship, with certain genetic factors affecting neurochemical levels like dopamine, which in turn influences a range of mental, behavioral, and developmental conditions.

ADHD and Anxiety Overlap

An infographic listing ADHD and anxiety symptoms: Sleep Issues, Intrusive Thoughts, Restlessness, Digestive Issues, Sympathetic Nervous System Dominance, Low GABA.

ADHD and anxiety frequently coexist, with significant overlap in prevalence. 

Exploring the Seen and Unseen Symptoms of ADHD

Research indicates that between 25% to 50% of individuals with ADHD also experience an anxiety disorder, with some studies suggesting this co-occurrence could be as high as 50% (Katzman et al., 2017; Schatz & Rostain, 2006). Tsang et al. (2015) found that 31% of people with ADHD met the criteria for Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Notably, children with ADHD exhibit higher rates of various anxiety disorders, including agoraphobia, simple phobias, and OCD, compared to their peers without ADHD (Spencer et al., 1999).

Inattention

Both conditions can impair concentration, focus, and executive functioning though the underlying causes may vary.

Sleep Issues

Disrupted sleep is common in both ADHD and anxiety, often due to an overactive mind or persistent worries.

A recent National Autistic Society survey found that 59% of autistic people said anxiety had a big impact on their ability to get on with life.

Intrusive Thoughts

Repetitive, unwanted thoughts are typical in anxiety and can be mistaken for the distractibility seen in ADHD.

Digestive Issues

Both anxiety and ADHD can lead to gastrointestinal symptoms, exacerbated by nervous system sensitivities. 

Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) Dominance

Both disorders may trigger a heightened fight-or-flight response, leading to increased nervous system arousal. Those with ADHD tend to be more SNS dominant, meaning they spend more time in the activated part of the nervous system and have a harder time getting into the “rest and digest” part of the nervous system (parasympathetic). When anxiety is present, it is also common to exist primarily in the Sympathetic mode. (To watch a video about the autonomic nervous system, see this great Khan Academy series on it)

Low GABA

Reduced GABA levels can contribute to both anxiety and challenges in regulating emotions and behaviors in ADHD. Both anxiety and ADHD are associated with low levels of GABA. Gaba is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter within the central nervous system (Lydiard, 2003). GABA plays an important role in processing sensory information and choosing the appropriate behavioral response (Edden, 2012). When the GABA-Glutamate cycle is off, this can lead to hyperactivation within the central nervous system (hence why a person with ADHD and anxiety tends to be sympathetic nervous system dominant). 

Restlessness, Agitation, and Irritability

Symptoms such as restlessness and irritability are common in both conditions, often stemming from underlying stress.

Difficulty Focusing and Concentrating

ADHD typically causes attention regulation issues and executive dysfunction, whereas anxiety is driven by worry or fear. However, both conditions can impact planning, deeper learning, and consistent academic progress

I have ADHD. Why Does Coffee Make Me Sleepy?

How to Spot the Difference between ADHD and Anxiety

Primary vs. Secondary Anxiety

Clinicians often need to distinguish between primary and secondary anxiety in individuals with ADHD. Secondary anxiety typically arises from ADHD-related challenges like executive functioning difficulties, where the anxiety is specifically linked to ADHD tasks and responsibilities. 

On the other hand, primary anxiety disorder, when co-occurring with ADHD, manifests as more widespread and generalized anxiety, not directly tied to ADHD symptoms. 

For example, someone with both ADHD and a primary anxiety disorder might experience pervasive worry that extends beyond specific ADHD challenges, accompanied by physical symptoms like restlessness and sleep issues.

Stressor/Risk Proportion

Evaluating whether the level of worry is proportionate to the actual stressor can help differentiate anxiety from ADHD-related hyperfocus. In the case of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), individuals often exhibit a disproportionate level of worry compared to the actual risk involved. Conversely, with ADHD, anxiety tends to stem directly from everyday challenges related to executive functioning, making the anxiety proportionate to the real difficulties faced, such as missing deadlines or being unorganized. 

For instance, an individual might worry about failing to complete tasks on time—a valid concern reflecting their actual struggles. ADHD coaching can significantly help by developing strategies to enhance time management and organizational skills, thereby reducing anxiety linked to these tasks.

Cause of Inattention

It’s crucial for clinicians to distinguish whether inattention in a patient is caused by the pervasive worry characteristic of anxiety disorders or the distractibility typical of ADHD. Individuals with anxiety may find it hard to focus because their minds are preoccupied with anxious thoughts. In contrast, those with ADHD may struggle with concentration due to an inherent propensity to be easily distracted, irrespective of their emotional state.

Clinical Assessment:

A thorough clinical history is essential to differentiate the root causes of inattention. This history helps identify whether a person is dealing with primary anxiety, ADHD, or anxiety secondary to ADHD-related challenges.

Impact of ADHD Academic Coaching:

For students managing both ADHD and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), academic coaching can be transformative. By providing structured support and tailored strategies, coaching helps students navigate their educational responsibilities more effectively, reducing anxiety related to academic performance and enhancing overall focus.

Useful Resources:

For further evaluation, consider utilizing screening tools for GAD and ADHD, which can provide insights into the nature of inattention a person is experiencing.

How do I get help and support?

“I have seen significant improvement in my anxiety, thought processes, and executive functioning skills since I started working with my EEC Coach. Kara is incredibly thoughtful, organized, patient, and kind. I couldn’t be happier and feel so lucky to have her support!” – Young adult with ADHD and executive function challenges impacting school and personal life.

🧠 Counseling and Therapy

Discussing your concerns with family or friends can be a helpful first step. For professional support, you may consider consulting with your primary care doctor who can guide you towards counseling or therapy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and other specialized therapies like mindfulness training or sensory integration can be particularly effective. These should be adapted to meet neurodiverse needs, ensuring the practitioner has an understanding of conditions like autism or ADHD.

💊 Medication

Medication, such as antidepressants, may also be suggested. It’s important to approach this option carefully, as individuals, especially those who are neurodiverse, may experience different side effects. 

Comprehensive Guide on Side Effects of ADHD Medication

⏩ Executive Function Coaching

In addition to traditional therapies, ADHD Coaching and Executive Function Coaching can be immensely beneficial for those managing neurodiversity. These coaching methods focus on developing practical skills to handle daily challenges and improve overall functioning. Personalized coaching plans can help in organizing tasks, managing time, and reducing anxiety by creating structured routines and enhancing coping strategies.

❓Practical Advice and Tips

Practical measures such as keeping a diary to understand anxiety triggers, managing energy levels, and making environmental adaptations can also support individuals. Techniques like using visual schedules to provide structure or apps like Molehill Mountain to track mood and manage anxiety are additional resources that can empower individuals to handle their symptoms effectively.

Explore Effective Effort Consulting's Services

Conclusion

Experts in neurodiversity emphasize that while anxiety itself is not considered neurodivergent, many individuals with neurodivergent conditions such as ADHD experience significant anxiety. Dr. Jane Thompson, a psychologist specializing in ADHD, notes, “The overlap of anxiety in patients with ADHD can complicate both diagnosis and treatment, requiring a nuanced understanding of each individual’s symptoms.” A case in point is Michael, who manages both his ADHD and anxiety through a combination of medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy. He shares, “Finding the right strategies has been life-changing, helping me to reduce my anxiety significantly and improve my focus.” Recognizing the distinct and overlapping symptoms of ADHD and anxiety is crucial for providing effective support and treatments. For those seeking guidance or further information on managing these conditions, don’t hesitate to reach out through our contact page or consider scheduling a free screening call with Dr. Murphy.