Are People With OCD Considered “Neurodivergent?”
Most people have a rather narrow view of what is considered “normal.” The problem is this view of “normal” may not describe everyone. In other words, who gets to judge what is “normal” and what is “abnormal?” What is “normal” anyway? What may be “normal” to one person may be “abnormal” to another person.
Even if a person does not think like the majority of the population, it does not mean that person is “abnormal.” It simply means that his or her brain is “wired” differently than most of the general population. There is nothing wrong with thinking differently than others. In fact, thinking outside of the “norm” may actually be a good thing.
It can provide others with a different perspective. And, it helps the rest of us view people, life, the world around us, and even ourselves differently. Because our thinking patterns follow the “norm,” we often miss out on the beauty of life. People, who think differently, do not. These individuals see everything in a different light – one that we may or may not understand or fully embrace. But there is a beauty in being “unique.” Thinking outside of the box should never be criticized or dismissed.
Rather, “differences” should be acknowledged and embraced. When a person does not think like the majority of people, it is called neurodivergence or neurodiversity. Conversely, when people think on par with the majority of people (the social norm) it is referred to as neurotypical. Because most people are either unaware of or do not understand neurodivergence or thinking processes that fall outside of “the norm,” a movement has been started to help bring neurodiversity awareness to the general public.
The Neurodiversity Movement recognizes “variations” in the brain as “typical” or “normal,” but also promotes neurodiversity awareness so that the general population has a better understanding of what neurodiversity is and how it can be better supported. According to neurodiversity advocates, there is no “standard” brain. Where does this theory come from? Well, in the 1990s, Judy Singer, a world-renowned sociologist, who struggles with autism, disavowed the notion that people with autism are somehow “disabled.”
According to Singer, a person should not be labeled “disabled” simply because his or her brain does not fit the “social norm.” More specifically, she believes that people with neurodivergent brains, commonly connected to autism and other mental health conditions, like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), etc., should not be stigmatized because their brains function differently than most people in the general population.
Understand that “neurodiversity” is a scientific phenomenon that was discovered through brain imaging tests. In fact, numerous brain imaging tests have indicated that people, who learn and process information differently than their peers, simply have brains that function differently. That, however, does not mean that these individuals, even individuals with OCD are “disabled.”
However, neurological differences in thought processes and learning can present challenges for children and adults alike, especially when it comes to reading, sitting still, focusing on the material, and documenting the answers on standardized tests or assessments, taking notes, etc. Ultimately, The Neurodiversity Movement views diverse thought processes as “normal” variations in brain function. Neurodiversity advocates believe that these individuals do not have “faulty” or “defective” brains. Nothing is “wrong” with these individuals because their brains are “wired” a certain way.
Are you wondering if you have a neurodivergent brain? If so, keep reading because this article will explain what neurodivergence is and how it can affect you or someone you care about!
What is OCD?
Approximately 2-3 million adults and 500,000 children and teens suffer from OCD.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety condition that involves non-stop obsessions and compulsions. These obsessions typically involve intrusive, frightening, violent, and/or sexual thoughts, urges, mental images, fears, doubts, or emotions, like a fear of contamination, a fear of harm, a need for orderliness and perfection, etc.
While compulsions typically involve rituals and routines, like repeatedly counting, checking, reorganizing, cleaning, etc. Some OCD sufferers struggle with obsessions only or compulsions only, while others struggle with both obsessions and compulsions. OCD can damage or destroy various parts of your life, so it is important to seek OCD help if you suspect you are grappling with the condition.
The exact cause of OCD is largely unknown, however, it appears to be dependent on the individual. OCD normally presents during childhood; however, it may also present during adolescence or in early adulthood. This anxiety condition affects males and females at the same rate. It also affects people of all races/ethnicities, economic or educational backgrounds, sexual orientation, religions, etc.
What Does Being “Neurodivergent” Mean?
As mentioned previously, neurodivergence is a non-medical concept that describes people, whose brains develop and function “differently” than other neurotypical people. What does that mean? It means that people, who are neurodivergent, have different strengths, weaknesses, and struggles, than people, who are neurotypical (“the norm”).
Understand, however, that there is no universal definition for the concept of “normalcy.” There is also no standard way the brain should function to be considered “normal.” Although neurodivergence is normally linked to a medical condition, like OCD, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), ADHD, PTSD, or schizophrenia, it can also occur in people, who have not been diagnosed with a condition.
Some benefits of being neurodivergent include a stronger short-term and long-term memory, the ability to easily envision three-dimensional objects with clarity, the capability to mentally solve complex math problems, the ability to see the world differently, etc. The terms “neurodivergent” and “neurodiversity” suggest that every brain develops and functions uniquely.
In other words, just like fingerprints, hair colors, skin tones, and identical twins – no two brains are exactly the same. It is for this reason that the definition of “normal” brain function does not exist. Surprisingly, this mentality contradicts modern medicine which suggests that it is important to define the term, “normal,” so doctors and therapists can accurately diagnose and treat various ailments, injuries, and conditions.
For instance, one way that medical providers assess situations is by asking themselves, “Is that normal?” Depending on the response, the doctor or therapist determines if the client or patient is injured, ill, suffering from an acute, chronic, or terminal condition, or perfectly fine. This is not only based on the client’s or patient’s symptoms, but also on what he or she can or cannot do.
Note: Neurotypical and neurodivergent brains can differ when it comes to social preferences, learning and communication styles, and perceptions. Because of these variances, people, who are neurodivergent, may have unique struggles and aptitudes. For this reason, neurodivergent individuals may benefit from educational programs designed to help them fully develop their strengths, so they can better communicate with others.
Are There Different “Types” of Neurodivergence?
Yes, there are different “types” of neurodivergence.
The different “types” of neurodivergence are:
- Developmental Dyscalculia – Developmental dyscalculia (DD) is a learning disability that can make grasping basic math problems, understanding numbers, and performing mathematical computations challenging, if not impossible.
- Dysgraphia – Dysgraphia is a learning disability that affects one’s ability to express himself or herself in words. People with this form of neurodivergence may have a hard time spelling words, and/or writing legibly. They may also have a hard time writing down his or her thoughts on paper. Keep in mind that dysgraphia can be languaged-based or non-languaged base.
- Meares-Irlen Syndrome – Irlen syndrome, also known as Meares-Irlen syndrome, scotopic sensitivity syndrome, or visual stress, is a processing disorder that involves a person’s perception of something. Understand that this condition is not an optical “eye” problem. Rather, it is a problem with your brain’s ability to accurately process visual and sensory information.
- Hyperlexia – Hyperlexia is observed in people who exhibit the following cluster of characteristics: an advanced ability to read words (self-taught) before the age of 5, and/or a fixation with letters, numbers, logos, maps, and/or patterns.
- Tourette’s Syndrome – Tourette’s syndrome is a genetic, neurological condition, that typically involves tics. Tics are involuntary, intrusive, and unwanted sounds and movements. Tourette’s syndrome is a complex condition that is linked to stress, anxiety, and OCD.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety condition that involves repetitive and involuntary obsessions and/or compulsions.
Synesthesia – Synesthesia occurs when one sense (i.e., seeing) is simultaneously connected to one or more additional senses, such as hearing. Synesthesia also involves linking objects, like letters, shapes, numbers, or names with sensory stimuli like smell, color, or flavor.
How Can I Tell if I Am Neurodivergent?
Remember, neurodivergence, by itself, is not a medical term, condition, or diagnosis. Although, it can be connected to other mental health and physical conditions. Signs of neurodivergence can also be different among people who are neurodivergent. What does that mean? It means people, who are neurodivergent may show the signs of it in different ways. So, the best way to determine if you are neurodivergent is to research this phenomenon and consult your doctor for a proper diagnosis.
What Conditions Are Linked to Neurodivergence?
People, who are neurodivergent, tend to have one or more of the conditions listed below. However, because there are no standard diagnosing criteria or definitions of what neurodivergence is, the term may apply to other health conditions, as well.
Conditions that are linked to neurodivergence include:
- Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
- Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Down Syndrome
- Dyscalculia (Math Challenges)
- Dysgraphia (Writing Challenges)
- Dyslexia (Reading Challenges)
- Dyspraxia (Coordination Challenges)
- Learning Delays
- Bipolar Disorder
- Prader-Willi Syndrome
- Sensory Processing Disorders
- Social Anxiety
- Tourette Syndrome
- Williams Syndrome
Is it Possible to Prevent, Treat, or Cure Neurodivergence?
No, it is not.
Neurodivergence is not a condition, which means there is no way to prevent it, treat it, or cure it. However, neurodivergence can be connected to a condition that can be diagnosed, treated, or possibly cured. If you believe that you are neurodivergent, the best thing you can do is talk about your concerns with your doctor. Your doctor will discuss various treatment options with you, depending on the condition causing your neurodivergence.
The good news is there are plenty of treatment options available to address a plethora of conditions, such as therapies, medications, lifestyle changes, support groups, natural remedies, and self-help tools. For instance, for people suffering from ADHD or OCD, behavioral therapy, like cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and exposure response prevention (ERP) therapy can teach them how to live with neurodivergence.
These therapies can also help these individuals cope with and adapt more effectively to their neurodivergent challenges, while using their “unique” ways of thinking to their advantage. These therapies appear to be especially beneficial when combined with medications (i.e., SSRIs).
I Am Neurodivergent – Does That Mean I Am Disabled?
No, you are not disabled.
Neurodivergence is not a disability, in the traditional sense, but certain accommodations may be needed to help these individuals complete school or work tasks.
Some neurodivergent people struggle in life because they are often unable to showcase their strengths and talents. Social and educational systems do not present new and interesting challenges for them, causing them to get left behind or be dismissed by society. For instance, many people, who are neurodivergent, not only struggle in social situations but also during formal interactions, like being interviewed for a job.
Fortunately, these individuals can still find jobs – if the recruiter or hiring manager focuses on their skills, abilities, and talents, instead of the formal interview. Screening skills tests can be a benefit for neurodivergent people. These individuals perform best when paying attention to details is a part of their job responsibilities, primarily because they can process and understand complex information easier than other people.
Similarly, neurodivergent students may excel at tests that showcase what they have learned but may have a hard time expressing their thoughts and ideas in a group format or to other students. These students may also struggle in noisy social situations, such as at a loud and boisterous football game or pep rally.
Because neurodivergent people find noisy situations challenging, they may not be able to work in certain environments, like a bustling office. However, if they have to work in this type of environment, noise-canceling headphones may be an option, as it can provide them with the “quietness” needed to complete their work tasks.
When provided with accommodations, neurodivergent people may shine in any environment because of their abilities to pay attention to details and focus for long periods. Thus, accommodations can help these individuals overcome a variety of workplace challenges. Accommodations are designed to show people that they are accepted and wanted, regardless of their “differences” and/or challenges.
How Is Neurodivergence Connected to OCD?
Neurodivergence is linked to developmental conditions, like ADHD, giftedness, and autism. Developmental conditions are “innate” or genetic. In other words, they are conditions that people are born with. On the flip side, mental health conditions, like OCD, PTSD, and social anxiety are “acquired” forms of neurodivergence. Trauma typically underlies anxiety conditions, like OCD, PTSD, etc., and affects how these individuals process, interpret and respond to information and stimuli (i.e., thoughts, feelings, fears, doubts, mental images, and/or urges).
The good news is the effects of trauma are usually temporary and highly “treatable.” Trauma-based therapies, like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), brain-spotting, and accelerated resolution therapy (ART) can target painful memories, OCD intrusive thoughts, fears, urges, or “blockages” that could be preventing the mind and body from properly healing. Keep in mind that a person, who is “neurotypical,” has a brain that is “standard” or that develops or functions like the majority of people.
Conversely, a person, who is neurodivergent, has a brain that “diverges” or moves away from the “standard neurological norms.” Thus, anyone, who thinks and behaves differently than the “average person” is considered neurodivergent. This includes someone, who struggles with OCD. Remember, OCD involves intrusive thoughts, urges, fears, doubts, mental images, and compulsive behaviors, which is unlike how the average person thinks and behaves. This is neurodivergence or neurodiversity.
What is the Best Way to Communicate with a Neurodivergent Individual?
There are things people can do to be supportive of neurodivergent individuals, such as:
- Actively Listen – It is common for neurodivergent people to feel misunderstood, ignored, dismissed, labeled, and/or stigmatized. So, the best way to communicate with these individuals is to actively listen to them. Pay attention to their words and try to decipher want they are trying to convey to you. Do not belittle them or talk over them. Rather, encourage them to use their “voices” as much as possible and let them know that you hear what they are saying.
- Communicate In a Way They Can Understand – Sometimes, neurodivergent people have a hard time verbally communicating with others. These individuals may prefer to write down how they feel and what they think, need, or want. Go with that! Do not be offended if you only get text messages, instant messages, or emails from them, instead of phone calls and/or face-to-face conversations. Remember, neurodivergent brains work differently from “the norm,” so respect that and try to reach them the way they prefer to be reached.
- Avoid Labels – The worst thing you can do if you want to communicate more effectively with someone, who is neurodivergent is to label or stigmatize them. So, refrain from using terms like “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” when describing these individuals. It is especially important not to use these terms when directly communicating with neurodivergent individuals because it could offend them.
One myth that needs to be abandoned is that a person’s abilities and level of functioning hinge on how much their thoughts and behaviors resemble the masses or people, who are neurotypical. That is not true. Most neurodivergent people are capable of functioning in society, regardless of how their brains function.
- Understand That No Two Neurodivergent People Are the Same – It is important to understand that no two neurodivergent people are the same similar to how no two identical twins are the same. Preferences, personalities, interests, skills, and talents, can vary among neurodivergent people – even when they struggle with the same condition. Recognize, support, encourage, and respect these variances.
- Do Not Assume That a Neurodivergent Person is Cognitively-Impaired – Just because a person thinks differently, it does not mean that he or she is cognitively impaired. “Different” does not always mean “delayed” or “deficient.” Some neurodivergent people have a keener way of looking at things. So, do not automatically assume that neurodivergence is a sign of cognitive impairment because it is not.
How are Neurodivergent People (with OCD) Treated?
First, understand that neurodivergence is not something that needs to be “treated.” Rather, it is often (but not always) a symptom of another condition, like OCD, autism, etc. Therefore, treatment is targeted toward the condition the neurodivergence is linked to. In this case, the condition is OCD.
Neurodivergent people with OCD are treated with a variety of OCD therapies – cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and exposure response prevention (ERP) therapy and/or medication(s) – SSRIs, SNRIs, tricyclic antidepressants, MAOIs, antipsychotics, etc. If the OCD is linked to trauma, an OCD therapist may recommend EMDR.
Medications, specifically antidepressants, are usually not given unless you are suffering from some level of treatment-resistant OCD. Then, it is usually combined with OCD therapies. Lifestyle changes, natural remedies, like CBD, and self-help tools, like mindfulness meditation, OCD support groups, apps, forums, books, and online OCD treatment programs, like Impulse Therapy, can also help you get control of your OCD symptoms.
- Talbot, D. (n.d.). Examination of initial evidence for EMDR as a treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 15(3). Retrieved from https://connect.springerpub.com/content/sgremdr/15/3/167
- Waits, W., Marumoto, M., & Weaver, J. (2017). Accelerated resolution therapy (ART): A review and research to date. Current Psychiatry Reports, 19(3), 18. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-017-0765-y
- Frey, P. (2020). Brainspotting – OCD model. Retrieved from https://drpiefrey.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Brainspotting-UPDATED-OCD-SET-UP-2020.pdf
- International OCD Foundation. (n.d.). Who gets OCD? Retrieved from https://iocdf.org/about-ocd/who-gets/