Sci&Tech Editor Sophie Webb reports on a new study providing insight into neurodiversity

Written by Sophie Webb
sci&tech editor studying msc youth mental health :)
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A new study has attempted to provide a richer understanding of neurodiversity across the UK adult population. The concept of neurodiversity recognises the variation in human experiences, notably the unique ways in which the world is perceived by people with attributes aligned with, for example, autism, ADHD, dyslexia or dyspraxia. Around 1 in 7 people in the UK are thought to experience neurodivergent characteristics and behaviours. However, little was known previously about how these neurodivergent attributes vary across the UK population – new research from the University of Birmingham has attempted to paint a more complete picture.

The study was led by Ian Apperley, Professor of Cognition and Development, as well as Director of the Centre for Developmental Science at the University of Birmingham. ‘People’s experiences of neurodevelopmental conditions are highly variable, and it is common for people to have more than one condition,’ Professor Apperley said. ‘Previous research has found, for example, that the prevalence of ADHD among autistic people is around 40%’. Professor Apperley’s research team set out to address the gaps in current knowledge of how traits associated with neurodivergence vary across the population: ‘It’s not just people with a diagnosed neurodevelopmental condition whose experience is influenced by these traits. What we don’t have, is a detailed understanding of what this looks like’. The research team hoped to ‘improve understanding of the complexity of neurodiversity across the general population’. 

‘Previous research has found, for example, that the prevalence of ADHD among autistic people is around 40%’

As part of the study, 995 people aged 18-70 were asked to describe their experiences of certain traits commonly associated with neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism and ADHD. People who scored highly on traits associated with autism were found to report challenges with ‘social and imaginative skills’, as well as reporting ‘higher preference for routines’ and greater ‘attention to details, numbers and patterns’. Meanwhile, high scores for characteristics related to ADHD were found to be linked to ‘inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsiveness’, and high scores for characteristics related to dyslexia were found to be linked to ‘lower fluency’ in reading and word-finding skills. Despite autism, ADHD and dyslexia being considered diagnostically distinct categories, the study found that there was overlap in the experiences reported by participants; those reporting high characteristics for one condition often reported experiences related to another.

However, despite this ‘considerable overlap’ across neurodivergent conditions in general, the study team also found that distinctive traits were associated with particular conditions: ‘for example, some people reported high levels of several traits associated with autism, even though they did not report high levels of neurodivergent characteristics overall, while other people reported high levels of autistic traits alongside high levels of traits associated with other conditions’, Professor Apperley explained.

The aim of the study was to explore the ways in which neurodivergent traits are expressed in UK adults, in hopes of providing a greater understanding of neurodiversity across the nation. Professor Apperley said of the study’s goals: ‘the study also helps us to understand how two people with the same diagnosis might nonetheless have rather different characteristics and experiences […] the more we know about other people’s experiences, the better we can understand each other’.

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