More people are being diagnosed with neurodiversity than ever. Here's why it's a good thing.

"Everyone seems to be getting a diagnosis these days."

It’s a statement most of us have probably heard in relation to the apparent increase in diagnoses of neurodivergent conditions such as ADHD and autism. Usually accompanied by a tut or a head-shake. 

And if it seems like there’s been an increase in neurodivergent diagnoses, that’s because there has been.

According to Psychologist, Carly Dober, global studies of autism and ADHD prevalence show a steady rise over the past 50 years, and a marked increase over the past decade, especially in more developed economies such as the UK, USA and Australia. 

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"Several studies have suggested the higher rates are due to non-biological factors, including changes in definition, improved services, and greater awareness in both the professional public and the general public," she says. 

"Not only that, but there has been a shift in the old gatekeeper of neurodivergence healthcare in which health professionals take the concerns of individuals and their families seriously."


As rates of diagnosis rise, people’s willingness to talk about their diagnosis has also increased, including those with higher profiles. 

"The neurodiversity movement emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s, advocating for the acceptance and inclusion of people with these neurological differences," says developmental psychologist, Joanna Badenhorst.

"Since then the increase of social media use, platforms like Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and Instagram have amplified the voices of neurodivergent individuals and their advocates, fostering greater understanding and support."

What is neurodiversity?

The terms neurodiverse and neurodivergent were introduced in the 1990s by autistic sociologist Judy Singer as an alternative to deficit-based language that includes terms like 'disorder'.

Put simply, neurodiversity is a concept that recognises variation in human brain function and behaviour. The term 'neurodivergent' refers to groups of people who perceive, think, feel, and respond to their inner and outer worlds in ways considered 'atypical' by the general population. 

"It encompasses a wide range of differences in how people's brains work, including conditions like autism, ADHD, and specific learning disabilities," says Badenhorst. 

Neurodiversity and neurodiverse aren’t medical terms, but are used as "descriptors and communication shorthand tools to signify a person’s ability, challenges, or strengths", according to Badenhorst. 

As such, the symptoms, severity and real-life impact of neurodiversity is unique to each individual, and can dramatically vary from person to person. 


Why increased diagnosis is a good thing. 

Although increasing awareness has led some people to claim 'every second person' is getting a diagnosis, that’s not actually the case. More people are being diagnosed though, and that’s a good thing, according to both Dober and Badenhorst. 

"People with a diagnosis report a higher quality of life, which includes work productivity, self-esteem, and functional performance across various life domains like self care, relationships, parenting, hygiene and home care, and easier access to the supports that help them," says Dober. 

Being diagnosed also helps people understand why they struggle in certain areas.

"That can change the way they feel about themselves, which can cascade into a lot of positive things such as confidence to explore the world more, and to put themselves forward for more opportunities."

An accurate diagnosis may also lead people to more effective treatment options, including medications and/or therapeutic interventions.

"Diagnosis can also lead to better self-advocacy or advocacy for your child which can lead to better academic and occupational success, as individuals can be better supported to improve their focus, organisation, and productivity," says Badenhorst. 

Relationships may also improve when family members, such as parents, partners, colleagues, or friends start to better understand the challenges faced by their loved one.


"Proper diagnosis and treatment can also reduce the risk of developing comorbid conditions such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse, ultimately improving self-esteem and mental health."

But there are some downsides.

One drawback of public awareness campaigns, especially when driven by high-profile, high-functioning individuals, is the oversimplification of complex issues. 

In the case of neurodiversity, the oversimplification of specific conditions and associated symptoms, can lead to misdiagnosis, or prompt people to seek unnecessary diagnoses off the back of symptoms that may not be a-typical. 

The problem with misdiagnosis is multifaceted, ranging from the prescription and use of unnecessary medication (and potential side-effects), to the perpetuation of myths or further misunderstanding of what neurodiversity actually is—which can make life harder for those who do have neurodiverse conditions.  

"The increase in awareness of neurodivergence has both pros and cons," says Badenhorst. 

"On the positive side, greater awareness leads to more understanding and acceptance of neurodiversity, reducing stigma and promoting inclusivity in various settings such as schools and workplaces. 

"However, high-profile neurodivergent individuals can sometimes present an oversimplified or overly positive view, creating unrealistic expectations and overlooking the significant challenges many neurodivergent individuals face," she says.


In their attempts to push for greater understanding and acceptance, advocates often highlight the strengths and perceived advantages associated with neurodiversity, citing highly successful people to illustrate their points. 

The downside is that those that find their neurodiversity challenging or aren’t highly functioning, may experience additional mental health struggles as they question why they’re not living up to these newfound stereotypes. 

"There is often pressure on neurodivergent individuals to portray their conditions as manageable or even advantageous, sometimes referred to as 'superpowers'," says Badenhorst.

"Moreover, societal expectations can pressure neurodivergent folk to mask their symptoms or pretend to be 'okay', which can be exhausting and detrimental to their mental health. 

"It is crucial to acknowledge both the strengths and the struggles of being neurodivergent to provide balanced and comprehensive support."

These complexities may be further exacerbated by media reporting, which doesn’t always present a nuanced picture. 

"It is important for the media to avoid stereotypes as this can create unrealistic expectations and overlook daily challenges," says Badenhorst.

"Balanced narratives are crucial; while highlighting success stories is beneficial, presenting the everyday realities and struggles of neurodivergent individuals is equally important."

The growth of the neurodivergent community has prompted an upsurge in fraudulent and unregulated professionals, says Dober, particularly those dubbing themselves 'neurodiversity coaches'. 


"It is not a regulated industry, and while there are some coaches who do incredible work with people and act in a very ethical way—there are also those who call themselves coaches who unfortunately can do more harm than good, and are consistently operating outside their scope of practice."

These types of practitioners usually reach potential clients via word of mouth and social media, often relying on exhaustion, confusion, and difficulties accessing licensed and regulated health professionals due to waitlists or workforce shortages.

Diagnosis is just the first step. 

Receiving a diagnosis is just the first step towards managing a neurodiverse condition; the following steps can be both daunting and challenging. 

"Each person’s traits vary, so treatment plans need to be tailored to their specific needs, which can involve trial and error with medications (if you choose that path) to find the right one," says Badenhorst.

"Accessing resources like specialists and therapists can be complex and navigating the healthcare system can be difficult. Managing ADHD effectively involves continuous learning, adaptation, and support to ensure the best outcomes."

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. For parents, finding the right support to ensure an adequate education for their children can also be overwhelming. Because while they might talk the talk, getting appropriate education plans for neurodiverse children is easier said than done. 


"Research indicates the importance of creating inclusive learning environments that cater to diverse needs by adapting teaching methods and providing necessary accommodations," says Badenhorst.

"Educators and staff require comprehensive training on neurodiversity to understand and support neurodivergent students effectively, providing a safe and supportive learning environment." The same applies to workplaces, she says. 

"The world probably could be a better place if ADHD was diagnosed and treated appropriately as we’d likely have less drug and alcohol problems, risky driving, car accidents, suicide, mental health issues, gambling issues, encounters with crime and justice systems, more adaptive relationships, job stability, which are all risks that untreated ADHD has been linked to," says Badenhorst.

If you're struggling to know what to do after receiving a diagnosis, visit your healthcare provider to discuss options. 

"Work with your healthcare provider to develop a personalised management plan that includes behavioural and mental health strategies, lifestyle changes, and necessary accommodations at school or work. Be self-compassionate as it can be challenging to come to terms with the grief and adjustment post-diagnosis."

Feature image: Getty.

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