Why we need to stop saying ‘we are all on the spectrum’

I’m sure we have all heard someone make the comment ‘well, we’re all on the spectrum aren’t we?’ in a conversation around neurodivergent traits, but the understanding of what this means can be misleading.

Neurodivergence is a non-medical term which acts as an umbrella for a range of different functionalities and conditions. It describes individuals who have a variation in their brain functions and development. It includes conditions such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or other neurological or developmental conditions such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

When we think about neurodivergent symptoms, many people may find that they can recognise a trait in themselves and therefore may develop a blanket understanding or expression of ‘we are all on the spectrum’. However, in reality we can find that this diminishes the traits, needs and challenges that some individuals with neurodivergent diagnosis have. It is thought that around 1 in 100 people have autism, some research indicates that around 30% of people will identify with a trait. However, that 30% would not reach thresholds for diagnosis. We therefore need to consider that by saying ‘everyone is on the spectrum’ we can find ourselves invalidating the needs and challenges experienced of those who are neurodivergent.

For instance, whilst we recognise that someone with ADHD can have difficulty with their executive functioning, this does not equate to someone neurotypical saying that they are ‘scatty’. An individual with ADHD who has difficulty with executive functioning can experience challenges with organising, remembering instructions, staying focused, and following through with a task to completion as the brain has difficulties with memory, attention and self-regulation. Whilst someone who is neurotypical but ‘scatty’ is forgetful or may be distracted does not have dysfunction but rather has not learnt the systems or structures that are effective for them yet. Executive functioning skills are thought to be 30-40% delayed in those individuals with ADHD and this affects their motivation and engagement.

Or recognising that many individuals with Autism can have fixed or rigid thinking patterns, is not the same as someone who is neurotypical saying that they too ‘are stubborn’. An individual with autism experiences their world differently, the challenge with cognitive flexibility means that children and adults with autism tend to experience their life ‘literally’ and when unexpected occurrences happen, this leads to a difficulty to process the new information. This can lead to refusal, challenge or shut down, as those with autism use details to develop their understanding of a concept. Whilst those who are neurotypical gain a concept and then add details. Stubbornness is a personality trait, whilst cognitive inflexibility is associated with neural pathway development and the way the brain is formed.

Further, recognising that individuals with Autism who have difficulty with theory of mind (understanding the behaviours and motives of others) is not the same as a lack of life experience leading to naivety. Someone with Autism struggles to predict or second guess the behaviours, intentions or motives of others, which can cause confusion, difficulty in connections and appear as a lack of empathy, when in reality their ability to recognise and process behaviours is core to this (not a lack of life experience). Whilst someone who has had limited life experiences and therefore reference points to refer to in new situations may be considered naive, but have the ability to fill this space.

An individual who is neurodivergent experiences the world completely differently to someone who is neurotypical. Within neurobiology and anatomy, we can see that their brain development is different to those who are neurotypical. It is important to note, that this does not mean a brain is better or worse, but rather that they function differently and process the world in different ways. Therefore, someone who is neurodivergent has a different experience, whilst someone who has a trait has typical brain development but a behaviour, feeling or personality trait which may correlate with one aspect of neurodivergence.

Autism and brain development

  • In those with Autism, studies have shown that individuals have an enlarged hippocampus. This is the area of the brain responsible for forming and storing memories.
  • The amygdala has been shown to vary in size and differ between people with and without autism, either presenting as smaller or larger that those who are neurotypical.
  • Those with autism have been found through brain scans to have decreased quantities of brain tissue in parts of their cerebellum, which is associated with movement, cognition and social interaction.
  • Research has indicated that there is some difference in the communication between the left and right hemisphere with the connectivity being weaker. This difference in connectivity between regions of the brain that are further from each other is associated with difficulties with integrating information across different brain regions. Whilst connectivity between regions of the brain closest to each other are stronger and may contribute to a heightened sensitivity to sensory information.
  • Individuals with Autism are shown to show a more prolonged cortisol response and slower recovery from (social) stressors than people without autism.

ADHD and brain development

  • In ADHD the brain, overall has been found to be smaller in size. The prefrontal cortex, which is associated with executive functioning has been found to mature more slowly than in neurotypical children. Further, it is also smaller in size.
  • In addition, the cerebellum, associated with movement is found to be smaller. This is linked with ‘motor response inhibition’ which is frequently seen in children with ADHD, such as the ability to remain seated when needed, to remain still or complete a desired action or task.
  • Also, the hippocampus, and amygdala are also considered be smaller in volume. These are associated with the regulation of memory, emotion, and behaviour, within which we often see impairment or dysregulation in ADHD.
  • ADHD is associated with a dysregulated dopamine system. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure, satisfaction and motivation. Dopamine is linked with movement, memory, pleasurable reward and motivation, behaviour and cognition, attention, sleep and arousal, mood and learning.

Things to consider

It is important to understand that we cannot ‘generalise’ traits associated with neurodivergence as the underpinning causes are different. There is a a great gap between neurodivergence and personality traits.

Neurodivergence = Neurodivergent conditions are neurological. They are the result of natural variations in brain functioning and development. We cannot remove neurodivergence, but can learn strategies to support the symptoms and traits to improve the quality of life or experiences.

Personality trait = Personality traits are a reflection of people’s characteristic patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Such as sociability, openness, introversion, extroversion, thoughtfulness. Personality traits can change through persistent intervention or through major life events.

Therefore, recognising that associating with a trait is not the same as ‘everyone being on the spectrum’ is a vital component of developing more inclusive and understanding practice in all aspects of life.

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