About 1 in 7 people can be considered neurodivergent or have a brain that works outside what we expect and consider “normal” or neurotypical. When we think of neurodiversity, we often think of conditions positively associated with innovation, creativity, and brainpower that are workplace assets. In essence, we think of those who may need less support or fewer accommodations, like those with autism (who have fewer support needs), ADHD, or learning disabilities. But neurodiversity is not a sunshine and roses version of “autism-lite” or simply to make sure we bring in a pipeline of talent that might have differences in social skills or processing. Neurodivergence also includes two of the most marginalized disability categories – intellectual disabilities and psychiatric disabilities. It is important to remember that viewing some disabilities as “above” others reinforces the idea of a disability hierarchy and is a thought deeply entrenched in ableism.

What is Intellectual Disability?

Intellectual disabilities affect as many as 200 million people worldwide or about 1 to 3 percent of the global population. They can be attributed to a number of factors, such as genetics, pregnancy complications, environment, problems during childbirth, or exposure to certain toxins. The Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities sets forth three criteria to identify an intellectual disability: 

  1. The condition must be present before age eighteen; 
  2. The individual must have an IQ below 70 to 75; and 
  3. There must be significant limitations in adaptive behaviors used in a person’s everyday life, such as conceptual skills (language and literacy, time, and money), social skills, and practical skills (including occupation).

Down syndrome is one of the most common causes of intellectual disability and chromosomal conditions, accounting for 1 in 700 babies born in the United States. In addition to developmental delays and intellectual disability, Down syndrome is unique from other neurodivergent conditions in that physical features also accompany it. 

People with intellectual disabilities face additional barriers to education and employment. Still, they are increasingly enrolling in postsecondary programs that lead to a degree or help cultivate life skills or create pathways to competitive, integrated employment. 

When we view intellectual disability as part of neurodiversity, we recognize the value people with intellectual disabilities bring to our workplace. We see their motivation, drive, loyalty, and increased morale amongst all of us – and we also develop a knack for making sure what we do can be easily understood (a win for accessibility!)

Psychiatric Disabilities? Don’t You Mean Mental Health?

While mental health impacts all of us, some have a lifelong, chronic condition that affects our mental health, such as an anxiety disorder or schizophrenia, to name a few. Some neurodivergent psychiatric disabilities include (but are not limited to) depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and others. These conditions can affect a person’s mood, thinking, and habits. Not all people with psychiatric or mental health disabilities identify as neurodivergent, though some do.

When we talk about psychiatric disabilities, it is essential to realize a broad spectrum of conditions exists. It’s very easy for us to assume that mental health solely covers anxiety and depression, which are two of the most common mental health diagnoses (and the least stigmatized of the bunch). Still, neurodivergence and mental health also include more highly stigmatized conditions like bipolar and schizophrenia, which require more support, management, and accommodation.

It’s also important to note that people who fall into what we might think of as traditionally neurodivergent – autism, ADHD, or learning disabilities – may also have a co-occurring psychiatric disability. Individuals with ADHD also report depression at high rates, and up to 50 percent of people with ADHD have an anxiety disorder. Similarly, autistic adults are likely to experience mental health challenges. In addition to possibly being both autistic and having ADHD, autistic adults also experience high rates of co-occurring anxiety – 20.1 percent have a diagnosable anxiety disorder and depression is not uncommon for people on the autism spectrum. People with learning disabilities report higher rates of clinical depression than the general population.

All of us must focus on mental health, but it’s especially critical that we treat our neurodivergent and multiply-neurodivergent coworkers with respect while celebrating their strengths and providing ample support, accommodations, and opportunities to succeed.

Haley Moss
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