Neurodiversity & Self-Esteem

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated October 24, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

“Neurodiversity” is a term that refers to the vast range of variations in how people’s brains work. Those who think and see the world in ways that have traditionally been considered “standard” are often referred to as neurotypical, while those who differ from these historically upheld “norms” may be considered neurodivergent. In recent years, society in general has been developing a greater consciousness of the existence of neurodivergent individuals and neurological differences, along with the unique strengths they possess and the unique challenges they may face. Since the world still generally caters more to the relatively narrow experience of neurotypical people, these challenges for a neurodivergent person can be many.

As a result, self-esteem among neurodivergent individuals is statistically lower than among the general population, which can be further exacerbated by higher rates of comorbid mental health conditions among this population. Read on to find out more about neurodivergence, why it’s sometimes associated with self-esteem issues, and what neurodivergent people can do to boost their own levels.

Getty/Luis Alvarez
The Neurodivergent Community Offers Unique Perspectives And Faces Unique Challenges

Neurodivergent Meaning

The term “neurodivergent” was coined by Australian sociologist Judy Singer in 1998. It’s simply intended to describe people whose brains work differently than what is considered  a “standard,” or normal brain—which can manifest as subtle differences or significant variations, since neurodivergence is a spectrum.

Singer pointed out that people with such brain differences are often unfairly marginalized. The only thing separating them from “neurotypical” people, she argued, is that neurodivergent individuals view, experience, and interact with the world in ways that are different from what is often considered to be “typical.”

Around 10–20% of the population is considered to be neurodivergent, and the term and the associated movement focuses on celebrating this diversity and making the world more accessible and welcoming to all. 

The neurodiversity movement is a social justice movement, advocating for the rights and acceptance of all individuals—regardless of their neurology. It seeks to challenge the idea that being “neurotypical” is the only way to be, and instead embraces the diversity of brain functioning. Embracing this movement can help to create an inclusive environment in which people whose brain works differently are valued and respected, and where everyone—no matter what their “type” may be—can flourish.

Common Forms Of Neurodivergence

Neurodiversity means there are many ways to be neurodivergent, and the level of neurodivergence often exists on a spectrum or scale. These human brain differences usually take the form of developmental disorders or other conditions. Some of the most common include:

  • Dyslexia, which manifests as difficulty reading as a result of problems identifying the sounds associated with letters and words
  • Dyscalculia, which is similar to dyslexia, but for math and number-based information rather than letters and words  
  • Autism spectrum disorder, which usually manifests as different ways of learning, interacting socially, paying attention, and moving, and may also be characterized by a narrow range of intense interests and repetitive behaviors
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which can manifest as trouble paying attention, hyperactivity, or a combination of both
  • Dyspraxia, a developmental disorder that affects movement and coordination
  • Tourette syndrome, a nervous system condition characterized by physical and vocal tics, or sudden, involuntary, repeated movements

Some individuals may even have more than one condition or disorder, such as having ADHD and also autism spectrum disorder. Each of these can affect an individual in different ways in terms of mood, learning abilities, attention, communication, socializing, and mental health. For some, the impact is minor and almost unnoticeable. For others, these conditions and disorders can cause great difficulties or hardships. Sometimes, these difficulties are largely based on stigma against people with autism, people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or other neurodiverse individuals, thus leading to them not being able to seek care or struggling with mental health issues. This underlines the important of a neurodiversity movement.

Neurodiversity & Self-Esteem

According to a study done by Deloitte, work teams that include neurodivergent professionals can be 30% more productive than those without them. Depending on the type and level, these individuals have also been shown to be more creative and better at problem-solving and understanding patterns than neurotypical people tend to be. Finally, their way of experiencing the world can simply bring diversity and a unique perspective to the table, which can be valuable in any setting. In other words, neurodivergent people have a lot to contribute. 

However, it’s not unusual for them to be misunderstood, judged, excluded, discriminated against, and even bullied or harassed as a result of their natural way of behaving and interacting with others, which can result in self-esteem challenges among this population. It’s also worth noting that these individuals often experience mental health conditions like depression or anxiety, which can further negatively affect self-esteem. For example, as many as 80% of adults with ADHD also have a coexisting or “comorbid” mental health disorder, such as a mood or anxiety disorder, eating disorder, or substance use disorder.

A 2020 study explored the topic of self-esteem in neurodivergent individuals—those with autism, in particular. It reports three key findings about the autistic community:

  1. Study participants with autism reported “significantly lower” power and self-esteem than neurotypical individuals
  2. Higher self-esteem was predicted in an autistic person by more “positive self-appraisals,” including an emphasis on more perceived benefits and lower levels of helplessness
  3. Global self-esteem was “significantly and positively associated” with an individual’s perception of their own giftedness, emotional resilience, and power
Getty/Halfpoint Images

Tips To Help Neurodivergent People Increase Self-Esteem

A large part of the reason that many neurodivergent individuals experience low self-esteem is the fact that they live in a context where neurodivergence often isn’t understood or valued. They may have trouble with school, work, relationships, and other aspects of life as a result of the world being set up primarily for neurotypical individuals, and these struggles could translate to the perception that they themselves are flawed. 

That’s why a key part of increasing self-esteem among this population involves building a more inclusive world. As an article from Harvard Health Publishing suggests, schools, employers, and neurotypical individuals alike can aim to learn more about neurodivergence, offer accommodations such as movement breaks and quiet spaces, practice clear and unambiguous communication, and elevate the voices of neurodivergent individuals when it comes to what they need, since each person’s situation may be different.

In addition, neurodivergent people themselves can try the following tips to help increase their own self-esteem, and the loved ones in their lives can support them in these practices.

Shift Your Perspective

As the 2020 study referenced above reports, neurodivergent individuals who are able to perceive the positives of the ways their brains work are more likely to have higher self-esteem. Indeed, neurodivergence can present a range of strengths and unique abilities that can benefit both the individual and those around them. 

One article describes neurodiversity as “a competitive advantage,” sharing how neurodivergence can result in “higher-than-average abilities” and special skills in areas like pattern recognition, memory, or math along with uniquely creative approaches to tasks and problems. Focusing on the ways in which your neurodivergence can be beneficial to you and/or others may help you build self-esteem. 

Find Community And Role Models

Forming connections with other neurodivergent people can be a significant help in accepting yourself and in seeing the value, beauty, and diversity in this community. For example, you could join a group intended to help neurodivergent people find jobs and build their careers, connect with a support organization, or join forums or in-person meetup groups for those who identify as neurodivergent. Having friends, coworkers, mentors, and community members who can relate to the way you see the world can be a crucial form of support and may increase self-confidence. 

You might also look into famous individuals who are neurodivergent to learn how they’ve found success in applying their unique abilities. For example, actor Daniel Radcliffe has dyspraxia, activist Greta Thunberg has autism spectrum disorder, and Olympic gymnast Simone Biles has ADHD.

Speak To A Therapist

Anyone who is experiencing low self-esteem—whether they’re neurodivergent or not—may benefit from speaking with a therapist. A cognitive behavioral therapist in particular can help you learn to recognize and challenge distorted thoughts about your own self-image and support you in setting boundaries and asking for what you need to be comfortable and successful at school, work, and in relationships. If a mental health condition is contributing to the issue, they can also help you address these symptoms.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
The Neurodivergent Community Offers Unique Perspectives And Faces Unique Challenges

Neurodivergent people may have unique needs or preferences that are not always available or accommodated in public spaces. That’s why those who are interested in receiving therapy might prefer to do it online, from the comfort of home. In addition, those who would prefer a video call to a phone call or in-app messaging to live meetings can have access to these options with online therapy through a service like BetterHelp. You can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can connect with from the comfort of home. Research suggests that virtual therapy is “no less efficacious” than in-person therapy in general, so it’s simply a case of finding the format that works best and is most comfortable for you personally.

Neurodiversity Takeaway

Neurodiversity refers to the variation in the way people’s brains work, with the term “neurodivergent” often used to represent those who fall outside the relatively narrow view of what has traditionally been considered “typical” in this way. Since the world is often set up for neurotypical people instead, neurodivergent individuals may face unique challenges along with potential issues related to self-esteem. Finding community, shifting your perspective, and speaking with a therapist may all help.

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