This post is part of a series for Autism Acceptance Month in which I will be exploring various ideas and subjects relating to autism and being autistic.
We’re now about halfway through Autism Acceptance Month and halfway through our Autism A-Z series. Today we’re going to broaden our view outside of autism and look at the concept of neurodivergence as well as the ways that different neurodivergencies intersect with autism. To start off, we’re going to look at some definitions pertaining to neurodivergence.
So what is neurodivergence? This is a term for any condition that significantly affects the way a person’s brain works. Autism, ADHD, mental illnesses, learning disabilities, personality disorders, and a few other conditions such as epilepsy or traumatic brain injuries are all types of neurodivergence. A person whose brain functions differently than is considered typical is neurodivergent. Someone whose brain functions in a way that is typically expected is considered neurotypical. Therefore someone who is neurodivergent is not neurotypical and vice versa. Neurodiversity is the term for the wide spectrum of diversity of the human brain which includes both neurotypicals and neurodivergent people.
Autism is just one of many forms of neurodivergence and many autistic people are multiply neurodivergent, or, in other words, many autistic people have other mental diagnoses that co-occur with autism. Out of curiosity, I started an online survey to find out what other forms of neurodivergence most commonly co-occur with autism. This is by no means a scientific study nor are the results finalized. However, I will be including the preliminary results here. At the time of writing this, there have been 537 responses to the survey upon which the following graph is based.
As can be seen, there are a lot of other neurodivergencies that co-occur with autism fairly frequently. Unsurprisingly, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, and Major Depressive Disorder are the top three neurodivergencies to co-occur with autism with 64%, 50%, and 49% of the autism community experiencing each respectively. Within the autistic community, it is pretty well known that many autistics experience anxiety and depression, often as a result of living as an autistic person in a non-autistic world. The other most common co-occurrences are shown below.
Out of all 537 responses gathered thus far, only 11 people, or 0.2% reported not having any co-occurring neurodivergencies. Thus we can see that not only are there a wide variety of neurodivergencies that co-occur with autism but that very few autistic people are only autistic. This brings into question if there are any biological links between autism and other neurodivergencies or if the high rates of mental illness among autistic people are due to societal factors.
I would hypothesize that a great deal of the mental illness that co-occurs with autism is due to the trauma of growing up as an autistic person in a non-autistic world. Not only are autistic people more likely to be traumatized by events, but we are more likely to be subjected to trauma as we are often the victims of bullying and abuse. Rates of PTSD in autistic people (33%) are far higher than the rates in the general population (7.8%) which lends to this theory.
Regardless of the why, it is very clear that autistic people are typically multiply neurodivergent which is important to recognize. So often autistic people are defined by their autism when it comes to how they are treated by others, yet for many of us, our other neurodivergencies are prominent parts of our lives and may cause more significant impairment than autism does. Further, being autistic and otherwise neurodivergent tends to make things a bit more difficult. Based on conversations within the autistic community, autistic people tend to have at least slightly different experiences of their other conditions than are typical. We often have different presentations of depression, anxiety, and more which can make accurate diagnosis and treatment more difficult.
If we want to fight for autism acceptance, we must fight for acceptance of all neurodivergencies. So many autistic people are multiply neurodivergent that we cannot truly fight for autistic people if we are not fighting for all people who are neurodivergent. Fighting ableism needs to be multi-faceted and all-encompassing. While we may focus our specific efforts on the issues that affect us most directly, it’s important that we remember that we fight for all neurodivergent people to live better lives, not just autistic people.