Neuroatypia, what is it?

by France Missud

In these times of existential questioning after the big Covid crisis, the quest for your inner self is on the rise. We want to understand each other. We want to understand how his brain works. And there is a type of population that is particularly alert to the issue. A population that has been looking for itself for a long time already and that is very happy that we are finally talking, a little, about these subjects. This population is the neuroatypical.

The neuroatypical are those individuals whose psychic functioning differs from the norm due to its neuronal connections. Interrupted, faster or simply alternative brain connections are not made in the same way among them as among the rest of the population. What causes many of these subjects: rejection, suffering and misunderstanding. Yesterday still considered as mental degenerates, today we finally realize that their difficulties are not limited to a difficulty of adaptation. Particular cognitive functioning, world of their own, untapped potential, what if neuroatypical people simply had extraordinary capacities, neither good nor bad, just different? Neurodivergence would bring together autism, hypersensitivity, bipolarity, HPI or even ADHD... so many technical terms that are sometimes a little mixed up. So what is it exactly? Vast subject, vague and not yet well defined, in which we are going, all the same, to try to bring a little clarity to it.

Let's start by understanding the context

Science is constantly evolving, it is progressing. Today, the study of the human psyche is in full restructuring. Everything is questioned. What was called “mental illness” yesterday is called “disorder” today, and from “disorder” we are in the process of moving on to “specificity”. But before all these terms disappear definitively to make way for others, much less simplistic, let's come back to a few notions allowing us to understand where we are at today.

What is a mental disorder?

A disorder is a set of thoughts, emotions, recurring behaviors causing difficulties and suffering for the affected person or his entourage. It is an alteration of normal functioning. A disease, in short. And here, therefore, mental. Some examples of known disorders: Eating disorder, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), or even anxiety disorder.

What is a personality disorder?

Attention ! It gets complicated. A personality disorder is not necessarily a mental disorder. It's a personality type. A combination of character traits, which usually causes problems and is often associated with mental disorders but not necessarily. In any case, it is a personality that is out of normality.

This poses a problem: borderline personality disorder (relational instability of behavior and mood), paranoid (paranoia and dangerousness) or even antisocial (aggravated contempt for other members of his species).

It passes: schizotopic (not liking relationships with others), histrionic (too emotional and seeking attention) or even narcissistic (need for adulation and lack of empathy).

Attention ! It gets even more complicated! You can have a mental disorder with the same name as a personality disorder without having both. Example: obsessive-compulsive disorder (anxiety disorder characterized by the performance of rituals and repetitive actions intended to reassure) is to be differentiated from obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (rigid personality, in control and which leaves no room for the unexpected).

What is a syndrome?

If a disease is a disruption of the normal functions of an individual, a syndrome is the set of symptoms experienced by the latter. Basically, when we do not know the exact cause(s) of the symptoms, but we have identified the same ones in several patients, we speak of a syndrome.

Example: the flu syndrome can be caused by lots of different small viruses but each time the effects are the same.

Some psychological examples: Diogenes syndrome (never washing), Dr. Strangelove syndrome (being convinced that one's hand does not belong to one's body) or even Stockholm syndrome (being attached to one's executioner).

Ah! Definitely! The human is amazing!

What is a feature?

It is a personality trait or characteristic (genetic or caused by the environment). One can be, for example, more sensitive than the average (hypersensitive) or more intelligent (HPI), and this is neither a disease, nor a disorder, nor a syndrome, but a fact. Point. Just as you can be tall, blond, with small feet or have a rattling voice. That's life. It's like that.

Let's come to neuroatypies

Neuroatypies group together pathologies, disorders, syndromes, character traits and particularities, but would therefore, in reality, only be particularities accompanied, or not, by disorders. The studies are in progress and for the moment we are still using the old terms.

What is ADHD?

ADHD, or attention deficit disorder, with or without hyperactivity, is a neurodevelopmental disorder involving three clinical dimensions: inattention, impulsivity, hyperactivity. Progress made in brain imaging shows an imbalance in the production of norepinephrine and dopamine, two neurotransmitters that play an important role in the processes of learning, memory and vigilance.

Difficulties: Subjects would be restless, impulsive, impatient and distracted. In a constant need to move, they would find it difficult to complete the tasks they started and would also be more easily distracted by external stimuli.

Abilities that are often untapped: Individuals with ADHD are said to be physically stronger, more creative, more intuitive and more sensitive.

What is hypersensitivity?

Hypersensitivity is, for the moment, considered a character trait. It would affect 20 to 30% of the world's population. We would have noticed in hypersensitive people that the neurons involved in learning by imitation and in understanding the other, would be more active than the average.

Difficulties: Hypersensitive subjects would have a stronger capacity to feel than others, which would often result in frustration, anger and/or crying attacks when faced with the incomprehension of their fellow human beings. They are less resistant to stress, can be tired and in pain.

Abilities very often untapped: The hypersensitive would be more empathetic and therefore more turned towards their neighbors, their five more developed senses and their stronger emotions would allow them to better admire the beauty of the world.

What is HPI?

High intellectual potential is a characteristic that designates a person with higher than average intelligence. With an IQ between 130 and 160, HPI would constitute 2 to 2.5% of the world's population. The neural connections in their brains would run twice as fast as normal.

Difficulties: Misunderstood by most of the population, they are often put aside. Not understanding themselves that we cannot think like them, they can over-adapt at the risk of forgetting who they are or rejecting the society in which they live by thinking of themselves as alone in the world.

Abilities that are often untapped: Their intelligence would allow them to understand complicated mechanisms more quickly and to respond to problems for which no one had found the solution before. If their potential is identified and highlighted, they can excel in a variety of fields.

What is ASD?

Autism spectrum disorders result from abnormalities in neurodevelopment, preventing subjects from establishing social interactions and communicating properly. Studies on the brains of people with autism spectrum disorder show an overabundance of neural connections, which would create an excess of signals in its hood and therefore confusion.

Difficulties: Suffering from very severe forms associated with a supposed mental retardation preventing any integration into the normal world, or from milder forms associated with good, even very good intellectual capacities such as asperger's syndrome, the autistic person experiences relational difficulties, a reluctance to change and a tendency to repetition.

Abilities that are often untapped: With extraordinary perceptual abilities, autistic people do not use language to solve problems but would nevertheless get there faster than average. Whether they seem completely unfit or "normal", most of them would have extraordinary abilities in the processing of music, language or even noise. Many autistic people excel in a very specific subject, such as music, mathematics, drawing, etc. Quebec researchers have revealed an unsuspected intellectual potential in many apparently deficient autistic people. What if we didn't understand anything?

What are Dys?

Dys are learning deficit disorders that include dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia and dysorthography. These disorders are manifested by a learning deficit in the areas of reading, coordination, calculations and oral language. The subjects were observed to have a bad neural connection which would lead to a disconnection of the brain.

Difficulties: The individuals concerned will make bad associations, 

confusing words when reading, writing or speaking, or even inverting numbers between them, which leads to great difficulty in mastering simple learning and therefore suffering.

Abilities that are often untapped: Individuals prone to Dys are said to be more imaginative, more empathetic and more observant than average. In addition, they would have strong adaptability and perseverance, more complex reasoning and better memory. It is not yet known whether these strengths are a result of the difficulties they are trying to overcome or an innate potential.

What is bipolarity?

Bipolar disorders (formerly called manic-depressive illness) are mood disorders characterized by an exaggerated alternation of depressive and manic periods. Many studies have been conducted on bipolarity. It shows that the neuronal cells of the patients would be more sensitive and reactive to stimuli than the average.

Difficulties: Even if the individual returns to a normal state between two phases, he is capable of the worst during crises. Indecent behavior, dangerous for him and for others, during the manic phases. Neurasthenic and suicidal behavior during depressive phases.

Abilities often untapped: Bipolar people would be much more sensitive, more empathetic but also more intelligent than the rest of the population. Their intelligence quotient is generally 10% higher than the average, and there would be a 25% greater chance of finding them in artistic circles than in agricultural or industrial circles.

But beware ! It gets even more complicated! Because if each disorder/particularity is quite distinct (at least that is what science says for the moment) we can combine character traits, mental disorders, personality disorders and syndromes, all in one and the same small body (or rather brain). The manic phases in the bipolar resemble hyperactivity and he is, very often, hypersensitive. HPI is often prone to Dys, ADHD too. A certain number of HPI is also ADHD etc... Could it be, in reality, one and the same way of functioning innate and then influenced by environmental factors? The future will tell.

Beware of the Barnum effect!

In any case, it is easy to confuse when you learn a little about the subject and want to make your own diagnosis. This is why, even if it can help to take your first steps on the internet alone, it is recommended to consult a professional when you have serious doubts. Because even if it is often comforting to recognize oneself in a description, beware of the Barnum effect (simplified interpretation of information, which our brain does in such a way that it is consistent with the vision we have of our own personality). It would be a shame to panic or to put everything on the back of this probable pathology or characteristic when, perhaps, it is not.

Finally, if the labels can be simplistic and we are not obliged to seek to know everything about ourselves, for those who cannot help it, ending up recognizing themselves in a certain type of functioning can also lead to more of tolerance towards oneself and to finally feel understood by one's fellow human beings. And therefore, to much more serenity in his life! This is why we talk so much about these subjects at the moment, a period conducive to understanding how it works. Many neuroatypical subjects have suffered from malaise since childhood and these studies are beginning to provide them with answers. No, they are not alone, yes that can be explained and no, they are not crazy but simply different. We begin to say to ourselves that it is not necessary to shoot them with drugs for them to get better, but rather that society should accept them and adapt to their uniqueness. Hallelujah!

Personally, I have always had a lot of trouble with doctors or even members of my family who kept finding me reductive psychiatric disorders to explain my differences. Feeling that I could live them perfectly as long as they kept trying to fit me into the mould, I always refused to take the antidepressants they offered me. I'm not saying it doesn't help some people, I'm saying that for me the diagnosis was wrong, and I'm glad I never took it. I think of all those poor people who were shot, driven crazy, when they weren't originally, simply because we couldn't understand them properly. For me, society (Western at least) tends too much to see the negative side of things and not the whole.

We no longer count the number of individuals to whom she has thus screwed up the life.

I would confess to you that for a long time I harbored a feeling of bitterness for this society which does not seek to adapt but which obliges us to conform to its standards. But today, I understood that the “thinking normals” precisely cannot understand us and that it is up to us to do the work. Fortunately, I live in 2022 and others have done it before me. Studies begun in the 90s are finally becoming popular and providing more acceptable answers to people with these disorders and other particular characteristics. And that's just the beginning ! A new world is hatching I'm sure, a world in which we would sublimate differences rather than blame them, a world in which the norm would no longer be the norm and in which we would listen to people who think otherwise. Come on, we believe it! Long live neurodiversity and long live neuroscience!

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