Written by: Lizzie Cooper-Smith, Midweight Copywriter feat. Henry Joyce, Agency Editorial and Content Creator
Illustration by: Sean Clayton
This week is Neurodiversity Celebration Week. We’ve probably all heard the words ‘neurodiversity’ and ‘neurodivergent’ – but what do these words actually mean?
Neurodivergent describes people whose mental or neurological function differs from what is considered ‘typical’ neurological development or functioning – that is to say, neurotypical.
Neurodiversity refers to a world where neurological differences are recognised and respected as any other human variation. It’s an umbrella term that encompasses all specific learning difficulties (SpLD), like Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Dyscalcula, Autism and ADHD. Neurodiversity also includes – but is not limited to – other conditions like Tourette’s Syndrome, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Bipolar Disorder, Epilepsy, Acquired or Traumatic Brain Injuries (ABI or TBI) and many more. It’s common for neurodiversities to co-occur, and for symptoms to overlap.
Approximately one in seven people (around 15% of the UK population) are neurodivergent. But despite this relatively high figure, many neurodiversities are still widely misunderstood.
In this blog, we’ll look at some common myths about different neurodiversities. It’s worth remembering, though, that this is by no means an exhaustive list. Every neurodiversity comes with its own unique set of strengths, challenges, and misconceptions, and no two people’s experiences of a particular neurodiversity will be the same.
Myth #1: Dyslexia is just bad spelling and writing.
As a dyslexic copywriter and fiction writer, I couldn’t find this particular assumption more irritating if I tried. It’s also, well, wrong.
While it’s true that some dyslexic people do struggle with spelling, there’s so much more to it than this. As the British Dyslexia Association puts it, ‘Dyslexia is actually about information processing. Dyslexic people may have difficulty processing and remembering information they see and hear, which can affect learning and the acquisition of literacy skills.’
Dyslexic people can struggle with a wide range of things – many of which have nothing to do with reading, writing, or spelling. For me, I find it difficult to suggest ideas off the cuff in meetings – my brain simply doesn’t work that quickly. Contrary to most people’s assumptions about dyslexic people, I always prefer to express my ideas in writing than to vocalise them, as writing gives me the time and space to organise and articulate my thoughts. Other people with dyslexia, however, do find it easier to present their ideas verbally. It’s important to remember that dyslexia – and all neurodiversities – look different for every individual.
Many dyslexic struggles are due to our weaker working memories. Think of working memory like a mental piece of scrap paper with all your daily scribbles and bits and bobs you need to remember on it. For dyslexic people, this piece of paper is more like a Post-It than a sheet of A4. This means there’s less capacity for storing and manipulating information in our minds. Tasks that rely heavily on working memory are things like: remembering a question long enough to formulate an answer, carrying out the steps to a recipe without looking at the recipe, and listening to and following directions that contain multiple steps. Putting together IKEA furniture, for instance, is something I’ve always found rather bamboozling.
We can also get distracted easily and struggle to concentrate. Once pulled away from a task, we can be slow to re-find our focus. A busy office environment with lots of interruptions, phones ringing and computers pinging can easily lead to mental overload and poor work. This may be more bothersome for some dyslexic people than others, but many of us do need silence (and, preferably, a closed door) to get things done.
In summary, spelling is just one of a wide range of factors that a dyslexic person might struggle with (but they often don’t at all). But if you do work with a dyslexic person and happen to spot a typo or a spelling mistake, remember that it’s never helpful to point it out. Just correct it and move on!
Myth #2: Dyspraxia is just childhood clumsiness - kids grow out of it.
Dyspraxia (also known as Developmental Coordination Disorder or DCD) is a surprisingly common, hidden condition that affects movement and coordination in children and adults. So, no – it’s not something you can grow out of. (Nor is Dyslexia, Autism, ADHD, or any other neurodiversity.)
The main feature of dyspraxia is difficulty coordinating body movements. People with dyspraxia may struggle to learn the movements required to carry out new practical tasks, they may need to put in more mental and physical effort to carry out movements that are easy for others – and, yes, poor spatial awareness may lead to bumps and bruises.
However, dyspraxia affects a much wider variety of factors than just movement. Many people with dyspraxia may struggle with organisation, attention and time management. They might miss deadlines, be late for appointments, often lose things, or get tired easily. Lots of adults with dyspraxia say that these difficulties present more of a challenge in their daily lives than their movement difficulties.
Some people with dyspraxia may also struggle with speech and language. There might be a long pause before they respond to a question. This is known as verbal dyspraxia. People with verbal dyspraxia have difficulty coordinating the movements necessary for clear speech. It’s possible to have verbal dyspraxia on its own or alongside other difficulties associated with dyspraxia.
Myth #3: People with ADHD simply can't focus.
By Henry Joyce (ADHD, predominantly inattentive type)
The stereotypical idea of someone with ADHD is someone who’s easily distracted and unable to stay focussed on a task. It’s even in the name; those two letters at the beginning stand for ‘Attention’ and ‘Deficit’. The problem is, this a bit of a misnomer, and it leads to a misunderstanding of how ADHD brains actually work.
The brain chemistry that results in ADHD doesn’t cause a simple depletion of attention, but it does make it much harder to control how focus is applied. Most people with ADHD are actually prone to experiencing ‘hyperfocus’ – becoming completely absorbed in a task, to a point where they can tune out everything else in their surroundings.
Periods of hyperfocus can be incredibly productive, and can enable people with ADHD to achieve a huge amount in certain sittings. There’s a trend of looking at neurodivergent characteristics as if they were ‘superpowers’, and if you were looking for the ADHD special ability that would get you an X-Men call up, this would probably be it.
Be careful with how you use terms like this, though, because it’s not all rosy. Firstly, there’s no on or off switch. People with ADHD have an interest-based nervous system, rather than a priority-based one. These states of undivided attention are generally only activated by a temporary sense of interest, competition, novelty or urgency – what would be the most beneficial thing to focus on from a perspective of long-term goals is generally irrelevant.
That means that if a task isn’t the most exciting, or is something that has been frequently done before, it can be extremely difficult to focus on until a deadline is rapidly approaching. This reliance on urgency can lead to troubles with prioritisation and time management, and the accompanying stress can contribute to burnout.
This impacts self-esteem as well as performance. In instances where the planets align and hyperfocus can empower an intense period of exceptional output, it can be extremely rewarding – but it’s also impossible not to contrast with this with inevitable periods of comparative failure.
This is something I’ve always had to contend with: the frustrations and the ‘what ifs’ of an alternate universe where I could capture the lightning in a bottle and be as continually productive as I am in certain moments. It’s taken an adult ADHD diagnosis for me to be to appreciate why not, and to recognise both the strengths and the weaknesses for what they are.
Myth #4: People with autism aren't sociable.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a lifelong condition that affects people in many different ways. It affects how a person communicates with other people and how they experience the world. Autism is considered a spectrum because it’s different for every autistic person – some people may need more support, or different kinds of support to others.
In social interactions, we need to ‘read’ lots of things other than someone’s words, like their body language or tone of voice, while thinking of how to respond. There are also unwritten social ‘rules’ to follow when talking to someone else – these rules vary and aren’t always applied in the same way. All of these aspects of communication can be difficult for an autistic person to deal with at once.
Some autistic people have little or no speech, delayed language development, or communicate in a non-verbal way – with gestures, for example. Others may have very good language skills but struggle to understand sarcasm, or abstract concepts, or they might take things literally.
So, while people with autism may find some social situations challenging or more tiring, it’s not true that they are asocial, or that they lack the skills to interact with others. Every autistic person is unique and different – some may be more introverted and prefer to spend more time alone, while others may be more extroverted and chatty.
Myth #5: The same set of adjustments will be helpful for all neurodivergent people.
Every neurodivergent person has their own unique story. We all struggle with different things, and excel at others. Like all people, we also have traits that might seem contradictory. For example, people with dyslexia and ADHD may be able to hyper-focus on certain tasks, but equally, we might take a while to get started and struggle to concentrate on difficult tasks.
What helps one person won’t necessarily help another. Even two people with the same neurodiversity will have different challenges. In the workplace, there’s no magic button we can press to make things easier for neurodivergent employees. It’s about communication and understanding – taking the time to see the individual rather than making assumptions based on a label. That’s how we’ll learn.
Resources for further reading:
More about ADHD:
Leanne Maskell, a certified ADHD coach on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/leannemaskell/
More about Autism:
Ellie Middleton, an Autistic and ADHD creator on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/elliemidds/
More about Dyslexia:
British Dyslexia Association: https://www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/
Dyslexia in Adults on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/dyslexia_in_adults/?hl=en
Girls with Dyslexia on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/girlswithdyslexia/
More about Dyspraxia:
Neurodiversity Celebration Week's website: