Neurodevelopmental Disorders in Adults: Finding Diagnoses and Treatment

Neurodevelopmental disorders are a group of genetic and neural disruptions that are characterized by impairments in learning, social communication and interaction, as well as restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities. While they are often thought of as affecting only children, the truth is far more complex.

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Unfortunately, many adults are living their lives without knowing that they have a neurodevelopmental disorder, and many others who are aware of their diagnosis but are unable to access the treatment they need.

Neurodevelopmental disorders can cause individuals to face a lifetime of challenges, both in terms of their own health and wellbeing, and in terms of interacting with the world around them.

These diagnosis include autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, intellectual disability, along with other specified and unspecified learning disabilities.

The current DSM-5 classifies a group of nervous system disruptions often associated with significant impairments in social, academic, and occupational functioning — usually diagnosed in childhood — that persist into adulthood. This post will discuss the prevalence, characteristics, and treatment of neurodevelopmental disorders in adults.

While living with a disruptions can be difficult to manage, there are ways to cope. So it's helpful explore some of the challenges of living with an undiagnosed neurodevelopmental disorder and ideas for how to manage them.

Living with undiagnosed ADHD, Autism, or Learning Differences

If you live with an undiagnosed neurodevelopmental disorder, you're not alone. The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) in 2015, estimated 15% of children aged 3 to 17 years are affected by Neurodevelopmental disorders.

Neurodevelopmental disorders are relatively common conditions that create chronic burden associated with complex neuropsychiatric features including intellectual disability, specific learning disabilities like dyslexia or dysgraphia, ADHD, autism, and epilepsy. Symptoms usually start in school and can produce mild to severe behavioral abnormalities that results in life-long disability.

The everyday challenges include issues with working memory, attention, and executive functioning. These challenges can make it difficult to complete tasks, manage time, and interact with others and make the impact of learning disabilities on adulthood a real burden — research has suggested that learning disabilities can have a significant impact on adults, especially in terms of employment, education, and social/emotional functioning.

"Adults with LD are also more likely than their peers without LD to experience poverty, poor health, and social isolation ... The most frequently cited consequence of LD in adulthood is employment difficulties, with an estimated 85% of adults with LD experiencing some type of job-related problem."

Unfortunately, many adults are living their lives without knowing that they have a neurodevelopmental disorder, and many others who are aware of their diagnosis but are unable to access the treatment they need. I was one of those adults.

A lifetime of challenge

I was not diagnosed with a neurodevelopmental disorder until I was in my mid-30s, despite having struggled with many of the symptoms for most of my life. It was only when I started to reach out for help for anxiety and panic attacks that I finally got the diagnosis and support that I needed.

The process of getting diagnosed was a long and difficult one. I had to go through a series of tests and evaluations, and I had to wait for the results. I also had to wait to find a resource that was covered by my insurance, which was not easy, and then wait for a spot to open on their busy schedules. Considering that I was already struggling with my symptoms, an evaluation was not something I was looking forward to. But I knew that I needed to do it.

Ultimately, it was determined that I had been living with a lifelong learning disability.

The reactions I've had are mixed. You can imagine an adult with a learning disability might feel despair about getting a late diagnosis because they may have felt different for a long time and may have struggled in school and in work. A late diagnosis can bring relief that there is an explanation for these struggles, but it can also be frustrating that the diagnosis came so late.

The benefits of targeted intervention

The good news is that there are ways to cope with neurodevelopmental disorders. One of the most important things you can do is to get the right kind of support. This can include therapy, medication, and other interventions.

There is also hope that many adults with learning disabilities are able to overcome these challenges and live successful and fulfilling lives. The key is to find the right kind of support for your specific needs.

"There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that adults with LD can benefit from targeted interventions designed to address their specific needs."

Animal model studies of neurodevelopmental disorders show that we are capable of substantial improvements in function even if treatments are started in adulthood. While it's hard to know for certain, this is exciting to hear because there is evidence that adults with learning disabilities can benefit from targeted interventions designed to address their specific needs.

How I cope: hope

As it stands, it's hard to know if human brain's are capable of the same kind of plasticity as animal studies. We do know that the brain is capable of change, but it's not clear how much change is possible. Until we have more research on the topic, it's important to remember that there are many ways to cope with neurodevelopmental disorders.

These interventions include:

  • Targeted tutoring and support in specific subject areas - such as math, reading, or writing - that can help adults with learning disabilities to improve their skills and become more independent.
  • Instruction in study skills and organizational strategies - such as time management, note-taking, and test-taking - that can help adults with learning disabilities to become more independent.
  • Vocational training and support - such as job coaching, job placement, and job retention - that can help adults with learning disabilities to find and keep a job.

For me just hearing that there was a name for my struggles was a huge relief. I am able to get the support I needed to overcome my challenges and am working on living a more fulfilling life. I'm also rediscovering the things I love, like reading and writing, and I'm able to do them without feeling like I'm struggling.

It has been a difficult road, but slowly I am learning to navigate my way through the world in a way that works for me. I am learning to advocate for myself, and to find the supports that I need to live my best life.

I hope that by sharing my story, I can help others who are struggling to understand that they are not alone. Neurodevelopmental disorders may be more common than we realize, but they are often hidden behind a mask of Normalcy. If you are struggling, please reach out for help. There is no shame in needing a little extra support to navigate this complicated world.