Your Neurodivergent Brain

A neurodivergent brain, colloquially known as being “on the spectrum”, is neither good nor bad but is, and feels, very much different from your average human brain. Some of us don’t mind it at all and actually enjoy some of its more prominent features, while others do not manage it well and are disturbed by their different approach to social interaction and problem solving. A neurodivergent brain cannot be “cured” or replaced, and its features must be learned and managed as early in life as possible through psychotherapy, behavioral coaching, and medication.

Clinical Psychology

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Autistic Thinking Explained

What Is a Neurodivergent Brain?

A neurodivergent brain doesn’t process information the same way as other human beings do. Autistic or neurodivergent thinking is a type of mental activity in which focus is directed inward and the thinking is very subjective (as opposed to objective). Autistic thinking is comprised of thoughts, feelings, and the construction of an individual reality. High intelligence, hypersensitivity, and vivid imagination are common features of a neurodivergent brain. Sometimes, feelings and thoughts are not realistic, and not entirely based on normative reality and real world execution. Is it bad? No, it is neither bad nor good, but it is different. The individual must learn how to work with this wonderfully complex and very powerful tool, or risk living miserably and fearing human interaction.

The Dual-process Theory Explained

Types of Human Reasoning

Type 1 (allistic) vs. Type 2 (neurodivergent)
intuitive vs. deliberative
rapid vs. slower
effortless vs. effortful
parallel vs. sequential
non-conscious vs. conscious
experience-based vs. rule-based

Type 2 is neurodivergent thinking. Many allistic (non-autistic) people lean toward the type 1 reasoning style. Autistics are often more skilled at type 2, as shown in a 2016 study involving young male adults. A 2017 study of participants of both sexes found that autistic females had fewer intuitive responses than non-autistic ones.

The Neurodivergent Brain Explained

The Framing Effect, Alexithymia, Focused Interest

Neurodivergent brains may be less vulnerable to the framing effect, which is the way that context can influence choices. Advertisers use this concept to sway consumer purchase decisions. For example, potential buyers are more likely to select toothpaste that’s recommended by “9 out of 10” dentists. However, if the box reads “only 10% of dentists don’t recommend this product,” it loses its appeal. Because neurodivergent brains tend to be more logical and less emotional about making decisions, the framing effect may not have as much impact on the choices they make.

Other research from 2016 suggests that this decreased emotional decision-making may be a part of alexithymia, which is a reduced ability to understand or recognize emotions. Only about half of autistic people have alexithymia. Alexithymia is connected to interoception, or internal body awareness, which can also affect a person’s decision-making. If you’ve ever noticed your heart rate increase or felt butterflies in your stomach, you’ve experienced interoception. Interoceptive accuracy (IA) is associated with emotion-based reasoning. People with alexithymia have less IA, but not all neurodivergent brains experience this. Research shows that neurodivergent brains without alexithymia have intact IA and can make intuitive decisions. Much like allistic people, neurodivergent brains have a range of thinking styles. You might have alexithymia and consider logical ability to be your superpower. You could have IA and be more intuitive. Or you might be somewhere in between.

Focused interest, also referred to as “restricted interest,” is a common neurodivergent brain talent for detail, which makes the individual a topic specialist or subject matter expert. It may mean you sometimes overwhelm your friends with information about your favorite pastime, but it also can be a vocational advantage if you find a career in your chosen field of expertise.

The Neurodivergent Brain Explained

Literality, Pattern Perception, Theory of Mind

Literal language interpretation is another prominent feature of the neurodivergent brain. The allistic world is full of metaphors, like “it’s raining cats and dogs.” While it’s highly unlikely to see pets falling from the sky, some figures of speech are more subtle, like “hold on,” which can mean either “wait” or “don’t let go” depending on the context. The neurodivergent brain tends to immediately dissect the figure of speech and is sometimes unable to transcend to its meaning. The upside of being literal with language is that people with this tendency may also be grammar and vocabulary experts.

Pattern perception is a feature of a few rare neurodivergent brains. You may have heard the term “autistic savant,” a pattern-perceiving neurodivergent brain that was masterfully portrayed in the movie Rain Man by Dustin Hoffman. Researchers believe that a highly enhanced talent for pattern recognition is what gives some autistics savant incredible mathematical and calculating ability.

Research from 2019 revisits and calls into question the long-held belief that neurodivergent brains have theory of mind deficits. Theory of mind is a person’s ability to recognize and fully accept that other people have different perspectives and experiences. However, while some neurodivergent brains may experience theory of mind differences, many have intact theory of mind abilities.

Allistic brains tend to assess concepts before details, also known as top-down thinking. Neurodivergent brains take the opposite approach with bottom-up thinking and use sometimes exquisite details to build concepts. It may take longer to filter out sensory details with this approach, but you’re far less likely to miss important information.

What are the most common challenges a neurodivergent brain must try to overcome?

What are some challenges to you might encounter with your neurodivergent brain? You may need medical, psychological, or psychiatric help to tame your neurodivergent brain and develop its great potential. Some “cures” you may have tried out of desperation are alcohol (because of its numbing effect), drug use (because of its temporary escape), or even abusing medication (too much of a good thing). These fixes are worse than the problem and do not actually fix anything, and instead create additional life-long problems.

Some of the challenges often associated with a neurodivergent brain include:

  1. Autism spectrum disorder (this includes what was once known as Asperger’s syndrome)
  2. Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  3. Down syndrome (a genetic condition whereby a person is born with an extra copy of chromosome 21)
  4. Dyscalculia (difficulty with math)
  5. Dysgraphia (difficulty with writing)
  6. Dyslexia (difficulty with reading)
  7. Dyspraxia (difficulty with coordination)
  8. Intellectual disabilities
  9. Mental health conditions like bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and more
  10. Gender dysphoria
  11. Prader-Willi syndrome (a rare genetic disorder that results in a number of physical, mental and behavioral problems)
  12. Sensory processing disorders
  13. Social anxiety (a specific type of anxiety disorder)
  14. Tourette syndrome (a disorder that causes uncontrollable movements and vocal sounds called tics)
  15. Williams syndrome (a rare genetic condition characterized by unique physical features, delays in cognitive development and potential cardiovascular problems)
  16. Disorders of emotional regulation and mood states (depression and more)
  17. Anger management issues

In addition, you may be now or may have been in the past the target of bullying, verbal or physical abuse, shunning and other aggressive behaviors toward you. Know that these are usually perpetrated by individuals who do not know any better or are afraid of anything that they do not understand or can accept. If you are on the receiving end of such behaviors, any symptoms or challenges you may have from the above list may be worsened. There are strategies you tools you may learn to minimize to reduce the impact of these behaviors on your self-esteem, functioning, and level of distress. Make an appointment with Dr. Z for an evaluation, psychotherapy and coaching.

How can you live in harmony with your neurodivergent brain?

What are some things you can do to live in harmony with your neurodivergent brain? There are many good things you can do to tame your neurodivergent brain and develop its great potential. Please consult with Dr. Z as to the best approach that are currently available, by making appointment for an evaluation and psychotherapy and/or a referral to a specialist.

In addition to psychotherapy and/or medication, some of the best practices for living in harmony with your neurodivergent brain include:

  1. Listen to your mind, your feelings, and your body. A neurodivergent brain may cause you at times to misunderstand your own thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. Be willing to listen carefully, sort them out, and question them without jumping to conclusions. Let your brain know you hear it and respect it and make good choices.
  2. Communicate with others in ways that help them understand you. Sometimes, people who are neurodivergent prefer written communication such as instant messaging, texting, or emails over a phone call or face-to-face conversation. Let people know that you are most effective when you use these media and ask them to respond in kind.
  3. Avoid putting value-based labels on yourself. It is so easy to compare ourselves to the typical human being and come up with the conclusion that there is something wrong with us. Do not assume your worth as a person based on how much you think, talk, and behave like someone who is neurotypical (allistic).
  4. No two neurodivergent brains are the same. The personalities and preferences of neurodivergent people can be widely different, even when they have the same underlying brain structure. You are a unique individual, and should accept and promote your uniqueness plainly and without arrogance.
  5. Don’t assume that anyone is incapable or unintelligent. People who are neurodivergent often stand out or appear different. In many cases, high intelligence can breed impatience and even contempt toward other people.
  6. Treat everyone with respect. You can “normalize” and provide others with explanations in a way that honors your human dignity. Be patient with those who cannot or refuse to understand the differences.