Understanding the Signs of Neurodivergence in Adults: A Comprehensive Guide

A neurodivergent individual has neurocognitive functioning that falls outside ‘normal’ (eg, social, learning, attention, mood or other cognitive function) in comparison with the surrounding population.

This blog post looks into why it is difficult for adults to gain access to a potential diagnosis of neurodivergence, exposes some of the stigma and hype surrounding ‘neurodiversity’ in adults, discusses why it is important to know that neurodiversity isn’t magically ‘switched off’ in adulthood, and why we need more neurodiversity and neurodivergent voices in wider society.

Addressing Stigma and Misconceptions Surrounding Neurodivergent Adults

As well as being the source of many deeply held myths about neurodivergent adults, these misunderstandings can have stark ramifications for the mental health of all adults on the autistic spectrum.

Adults who fall under the neurodivergent umbrella will face stigma and discrimination every single day, from those around them as well as from how they themselves understand themselves.

At work, this might take the form of prejudice (for no one is free from it) in a lack of opportunities to have lasting jobs.

On a social level, it could result in social exclusion or alienation of neurodivergent adults; or, it could trigger our participants’ self-blaming thoughts or critical moments pertaining to self-criticism or, for some, leading to a profound level of self-hatred and eating disorders.

The second erroneous fallacy is that being neurodivergent renders one intellectually disabled and therefore unable to make meaningful contributions to the betterment of the human race and the harmonious functioning of society.

So not true! I am proud to say that, among my adult friends, the most gifted and intellectually intelligent are those that are neurodivergent.

In fact, given the abundance of neurodivergent people, ranging from talented individuals with multiple special skills to those who can bring a different perspective to everything, they should all be utilised for anything that requires creative thinking.

Disabusing ourselves of these myths, and altering the attitudes that underlie them, just might make growing up to be neurodiverse a little easier for adults, and make society as a whole a little more tolerant of them.

Challenges in Diagnosing Neurodivergence in Adults

There has been a lot of discussion regarding methods of diagnosing and prescribing to neurodivergent children in terms of how they react to the education and care available to them, but very few people actually discuss the often painful, lifelong journey these ‘neurodivergent’ children face as adults.

It’s extremely difficult for signs of neurodivergence in adults to be detected later in life.

Many adults have passed through neurotypical spaces unaware of it; canonical criteria (again, with substantial differences from later-in-life diagnostic categories) fail to capture the full picture, especially for the adult requesting a diagnosis.

Patients’ experiences are routinely dismissed, by both medical professionals and the wider culture. And layered onto all of this is a lack of appropriately age-specific diagnostic methods anyhow, not to mention neurodivergent traits ‘co-occurring’ with other mental health problems, which unfortunately seem to go hand in hand.

ADHD and Autism in Adults

If you’re an adult with ADHD, you probably have a hard time managing your time; you are likely to be impulsive; and you’re probably often inattentive.

If you’re autistic as an adult, you may be less interested in your social interactions, you probably are hyperresponsive to stimulation, but you also perhaps want plans if you know what’s going to happen.

Some ADHD and autism diagnoses get missed because of stereotyping assumptions about what the disorders look like in adults.

Accurate diagnosis and correct support strategies have improved the lives of many neurodivergent people.

One can foster neurodiversity and inclusion by supporting cognitive diversity through flexible working environments, neurodiversity training and accessible services.

Diagnosis in adults brings some specific challenges.Because of a proliferation of diagnostic tools and criteria for children, and this tendency towards more conservative adult diagnoses, it seems highly likely that current estimates of adult ADHD are significantly underestimated.

The Importance of Recognising Signs of Neurodivergence in Adults

 Adult neurodiversity should be acknowledged. Not just because of important questions of support, but also because recognising neurodivergence has proven to lead to better mental health outcomes.

Additionally, neurodivergence acknowledgment can enable better employment circumstances, build stronger support networks, assist in the building of self-understanding, self-acceptance and self-care; and ultimately lead to opportunity, enabling changes to policy.

Policy changes arising from the need for societal recognition of neurodivergence can ultimately benefit everyone, whether they are neurodivergent or not.

Recognizing the Symptoms of Neurodivergence in Adults

The symptoms and signs of neurodivergence in adults can be subtle; they can also be varied.

Common symptoms include difficulties with social communication, sensory processing and executive function, all of which can present in atypical or unique ways. Neurodivergent adults can also exhibit intense interests or unconventional modes of problem solving.

Recognising a set of symptoms that are pathogenic for neurodivergence in adulthood is far more complex than retrofitting the concept of childhood neurodevelopmental disorders onto the experiences of adult neurodivergent brains.

Since current standards for neurodevelopmental disorders can underestimate the presence of neurodivergent abilities and mask the real extent of the problem in adults, efforts to understand these disorders could improve.

The diagnostic criteria might also need to be retooled to reflect a deeper understanding of the symptomatology of neurodivergent adults. This increased knowledge could also lead to the development of more appropriate social accommodations for neurodivergent adults.


If we could fully recognise neurodivergence among adults, and explore ways to work with it, we would find it easier to design more inclusive societies.

Adult neurodivergence diagnosis could improve through reworking diagnosis itself, addressing the major diagnostic barriers and abandoning harmful myths.

Neurodiversity could foster more productive discourse and workplaces if teachers and employers took neurodivergent traits into consideration.

If the neurodiversity community created spaces that felt genuinely safe and welcoming, more neurodivergent adults would engage. This in turn would make environments more inclusive, as the diversity of ways of thinking and being could be celebrated and accepted into mainstream culture.

Finding ways to support neurodivergence in adults, by improving diagnosis, dispelling harmful myths and misconceptions, and fostering neurodiversity, is not only more humane than the current arrangements, it will enable the best chance for neurodivergent adults like myself to experience a more rewarding and fulfilling adult life. Crucially, for neurotypical people too, the decision to recognise neurodivergence and nurture a more welcoming and inclusive environment for neurodivergent people would be enriching by diversifying the way people think and behave in all areas of life.

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