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Is OCD Neurodivergent?

Written by Sarah Norman

Tagged in

  • ocd


Apr 24, 2024, 10 min read

Understanding how to talk about neurodiversity is so important, but this can be difficult when it is not always easy to define. Many wonder if obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) can be categorised as neurodivergence due to its rigid thinking style, among other traits, and while defining this condition as either neurodivergent or not may seem like a needless task, it could be crucial when it comes to the approach taken when diagnosing and treating OCD. 

Here, we are taking a look at what OCD and neurodivergence are individually, whether or not having OCD would be considered neurotypical or a disability, the co-occurence of other neurodivergent traits and their key differences, the relationship between trauma and neurodivergence, and how to access the diagnosis, treatment and support you need if you believe you may have OCD. 

Is OCD neurodivergent?

At Augmentive, we aim to provide holistic, tailored mental health support to everyone so they can live their life to the fullest, so if you have questions about OCD or neurodivergence, we’re here to help. 

What is neurodivergence?

You may have heard the term ‘neurodivergent’ used to describe someone with a certain condition (autism, for example), but this is an umbrella term for a person whose brain is thought to function differently to someone who may be considered – by contrast –  ‘neurotypical’. Someone with a neurotypical brain is thought to have characteristics and traits that fit with what is expected in wider society, and a neurodivergent person is someone whose actions, words, reactions and more fall outside of these typically expected traits – for example, differing cognitive processes, sensory perceptions, social interactions and more. 

For example, neurotypical characteristics might include things like being able to pay close attention during conversations, making eye contact comfortably, showing empathy to others, and easily shifting attention from one task to another. Examples of neurodivergent traits include having difficulty identifying nonverbal cues in conversation, having an intense focus on a particular subject, or experiencing difficulties when engaging in group activities. 

It is important to define that ‘neurotypical’ does not mean ‘normal’, it simply means traits appear closer to what is expected in the wider community, culture and beyond. Everyone has their own personal and unique traits, behaviours, beliefs and more that make them who they are, and many neurodivergent people display strengths such as being incredibly goal-focused or detail-oriented, having great memory skills, and excelling in certain subjects. Both neurotypical and neurodivergent individuals deserve to feel accepted in all environments.  

Neurodivergence is not a mental health condition or a disorder. It is not typically used as a diagnostic term, but is commonly used in modern society to describe both those with conditions like autism, dyslexia, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and others. 

Studies estimate around 15-20% of the global population shows some form of neurodivergence, and 90% of UK office workers are reported to identify as being neurodiverse, so understanding, accepting and appreciating everyone’s individual differences can mean more people feel comfortable being themselves in work and life. 

What is neurodiversity?

You can read more in our guide: What is neurodiversity?

What is OCD?

OCD stands for obsessive compulsive disorder, a mental health condition causing obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours. This condition is thought to impact around 1.2% of the UK population, and symptoms can begin from around 6 years old, although it typically starts in early adulthood. 

OCD can cause:

Example traits of someone with OCD might include things like counting objects, checking things over and over, arranging objects in a pleasing order, obsessive worrying, and more. These are some examples of OCD thoughts and behaviours, however keep in mind these will be different for everyone. 

The underlying causes of OCD are also unique to each individual, and can be related to either personal experiences, personality, or biological factors. Some of the most common possible causes of OCD include genetics, learned behaviours, pregnancy, and trauma – more on this later. 

Is having OCD considered neurodivergence?

Obsessive compulsive disorder definitely shares some of the characteristics of neurodivergent conditions, however whether or not it can be classified as a form of neurodivergence is still debated. 

Neurodivergence is traditionally discussed in the context of conditions like autism and ADHD, which a) are largely thought to be present from an early age, and b) do not need to be ‘cured’, but rather, treated in order to improve specific symptoms while continuing to celebrate their unique differences. 

OCD, by contrast, is a mental health condition that can be present from an early age, but can also develop later in life. Also, a person should generally be encouraged to improve the symptoms of OCD if they are negatively impacting life, rather than accepting them as part of their character. Some people argue the neurological underpinnings and atypical cognitive patterns of OCD put this condition firmly in the neurodivergent category. 

So, which camp is right?

Unfortunately there is not yet a clear-cut answer for this question, and more research must be done to determine whether OCD's complex interplay of genetics, environment and brain chemistry truly align with the broader concept of neurodivergence.

Studies have discovered certain areas of the brain are more active in OCD patients, with excess activity in the frontal regions which are involved in emotion and decision-making. Recognising OCD within this context by understanding its unique biochemistry and advocating for inclusive support structures can help to foster better dialogue, empathy and awareness around its challenges, which could offer positive benefits for those who suffer from it. Alternatively, celebrating it as an accepted neurodivergent condition that someone can continue to live with without treatment could be considered damaging to those who suffer from particularly bad OCD symptoms. 

Around 1 in 7 people in the UK (roughly 14.3%) are thought to be neurodivergent, whereas around 1.2% of the population are thought to have some form of OCD. 

Ultimately, there are little to no medically defined criteria for what neurodivergence actually is, so a number of conditions (including OCD) can be categorised in this way if an individual chooses to identify as neurodivergent. 

Is OCD a disability?

While there is debate about whether or not OCD can be considered neurodivergent, there may be slightly more clarity on whether or not this counts as a disability, however the difficulty in this lies in the fact that one person with OCD could have widely varying symptoms from another, with daily functioning fluctuating dramatically between individuals. 

Is OCD a disability?

Studies state that obsessive compulsive disorder was ranked in 2020 as one of the top ten most disabling diseases by the World Health Organization, which would suggest this condition can be considered a disability, especially if its symptoms have a significant impact on a person’s daily functioning. 

According to the definition set out in the Equality Act 2010, a person is considered disabled if they have a physical or mental impairment, and their impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to do normal day-to-day activities. So, depending on its severity, OCD can be considered a disability if it is having a negative impact on a person’s daily functioning and continues to do so for at least 12 months.

Can OCD and neurodivergence co-occur?

While a person with OCD may not consider this to be a form of neurodivergence, they could also have a co-occurring condition that does fall into this category. Researchers who analysed brain scans identified similarities in those with OCD, autism and ADHD, with many of the traits working on a sliding scale, meaning a person may not always fall into one category or another. Some neurodivergent conditions that may co-occur with OCD include: 

  • Autism – Autistic people tend to experience issues with social communication and interactions, and may display restricted or repetitive behaviours or interests. Studies suggest up to 36% of people with autism also have OCD. In addition, one study found those first diagnosed with autism had a 2-fold higher risk of later being diagnosed with OCD, and those with OCD had an almost 4-fold higher risk of being diagnosed with autism later in life.
  • ADHD – ADHD stands for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, which is categorised by symptoms such as having trouble paying attention, displaying impulsive behaviours, and more. According to one study, there is a high comorbidity between ADHD and OCD, particularly in children with OCD.
  • Dyslexia – Dyslexia mainly affects the ability to read and spell, and those with the condition may experience difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed. Studies suggest the co-occurrence of neurodevelopmental issues in children with dyslexia is very common. 

Individuals who live with OCD could experience an overlap of symptoms from an alternative neurodivergent condition, whether from one of the above or something not listed. The idea of neurodiversity is incredibly complex, so understanding how certain co-occurring traits could form a person’s neurodivergence without falling into a specific category or condition can help when diagnosing and treating symptoms, and offering tailored support. 

What are the key differences between OCD, autism and ADHD?

Research finds that OCD may share genetic roots with autism and ADHD, and their common features (such as impulsivity) suggest they also share certain brain markers. Despite further research suggesting even more similarities between OCD, autism and ADHD, it is important to distinguish that each possesses its own distinct characteristics. 

For example, OCD revolves around intrusive thoughts and ritualistic behaviours aimed at mitigating anxiety, while autism manifests in social communication challenges, repetitive behaviours and sensory reactivity, and ADHD involves difficulties with attention, impulsivity and hyperactivity.

While all three conditions can coexist, understanding their unique elements is vital for accurate diagnosis and tailored interventions. For example, OCD treatment may include therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or medication, while an autistic person will likely require a completely different treatment – these must be carefully balanced together in order to ensure both sets of symptoms are catered to, and one form of treatment does not negatively impact another. 

Differences between OCD, autism and ADHD

Is there a relationship between trauma and neurodivergence?

There is thought to be a relationship between trauma and neurodivergence, as certain traumatic experiences have the ability to shape neural pathways in the brain which can influence a person’s cognitive and emotional development for the future. In some trauma instances this can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but it can also contribute to conditions like autism and ADHD.

While trauma will not directly cause neurodivergence, the subsequent effects of trauma can exacerbate existing conditions or lead to symptoms that may resemble some neurodivergent traits. By looking at the existence of previous trauma, individuals can access tailored interventions that acknowledge their past experiences and facilitate recovery while taking neurodiversity into account.

It is thought that up to 22% of people with PTSD may also have a diagnosis of OCD, so understanding this potential comorbidity is important for seeking appropriate treatment and understanding each condition’s impact on the other. 

How can I seek a diagnosis and access support?

If you feel you may have obsessive compulsive disorder and have questions about its connection to neurodivergence, you may be interested in accessing support to treat symptoms of OCD without attempting to ‘cure’ any neurodivergent traits you feel you might have. It is important to remember neurodivergence can continue to be celebrated while still seeking support for symptoms of OCD you feel unable to manage on your own. 

You can start by visiting your GP or consulting a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist or psychotherapist specialising in OCD diagnosis and treatment. This is possible through the NHS, however many people choose to seek a private OCD assessment due to long wait times

By working with a trained therapist, you can discuss your symptoms openly, providing insights into how they affect your daily life, exploring various treatment options, and accessing continued support on an ongoing basis to help manage difficult symptoms while exploring your neurodivergent traits. 

You may find our guides helpful: How to find the right mental health specialist and What to expect during your first therapy session

Treatments for OCD often include: 

  • Medication – Sometimes antidepressant medication can be prescribed to help adjust the balance of chemicals in the brain to help keep compulsions under control. By working with an experienced therapist, they can help you find the appropriate medication and dosage for your specific needs.  
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – Certain talking therapies can help with OCD by discussing and facing triggers that lead to obsessive thoughts and behaviours. CBT focuses on how a person’s thoughts and beliefs can affect their feelings and behaviours, which can help to tackle the origins of OCD. 
  • Exposure and response prevention (ERP) – This form of therapy is often recommended specifically for people with OCD as it encourages the confrontation of one’s obsessions, and encourages the resistance of urges with support throughout. Instead of engaging in compulsions to subdue feelings of anxiety, a person with OCD is guided through the process of riding the anxiety wave until it passes. 

Keep in mind that addressing symptoms of OCD and seeking treatment does not mean you are trying to diminish all neurodivergent traits. Treatment is about learning to manage thoughts and compulsions in order to live a more comfortable, happy life, and function each day without anxiety, fear or frustration. This can be achieved while continuing to celebrate your unique neurodivergent traits. 

Support for OCD neurodivergence

Whether you’re feeling off-kilter or want to shake up your routine, our state-of-the-art mental wellbeing platform gives you quick and seamless access to world-class support on your terms, from private psychiatric assessments to helping you find a therapist near you for support on your journey.

If you have a question about mental health, like how to support someone living with OCD, we’re here to assist on your journey. Our free 15 minute consultation can guide you to the most relevant specialists to answer your questions and discuss next steps.

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