The first time I heard about neurodiversity was on social media, TikTok, to be precise, the platform that exploded during the pandemic and ended up becoming an unexpected educational source. Although not the most reliable source of information, it did start my process of researching and discovering that I myself may be neurodivergent. That revelation made me realize that a lot of my behaviors could be explained and that there was nothing wrong with my brain. My thought process was just different, and this realization was an eye-opener, having gone so many years thinking it was just me.
This past May, I wrote about my personal experience growing up undiagnosed as a Latina in a Latinx household. So many people seemed to resonate with my experiences, but some also had questions about neurodiversity. Neurodiversity is still relatively new, it first popped up in the 1990s, and within our community, it’s not often talked about or understood, much like anything else related to mental health.
What is Neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity can be broken down into two categories of people: those who are neurotypical and those who are neurodivergent.
Being neurotypical describes people who have brains that perceive and process information in an expected way for their culture and setting. Individuals who are neurotypical develop skills, such as social or organizational skills, at around the same rate as others their age. They can also tolerate change, disruption in routines, and distractions without too much difficulty.
Neurodiversity describes someone who behaves, thinks, and learns differently compared to those who are neurotypical. The term neurodivergent can be used to describe an individual whose brain functions differently from what we consider “normal.” This includes people with autism, ADHD, ADD, dyslexia, and a range of other neurodiverse conditions.
“There is a diverse spectrum of the way we interact with the world. This can result in people being more or less sensitive to internal (e.g., sensations, emotions, thoughts) and external (e.g., sounds, light, touch) stimuli. This can also impact the way in which we process, manipulate, and hold information in our minds,” Licensed Psychologist Maria Gabriela Hurtado Alvarado of Prickly Pear Therapy tells HipLatina. “Neurodivergence can translate to different diagnoses, traits, and behaviors. I like to highlight that even when someone has a similar way of processing information, this can have different presentations among individuals.”
One example she gave was about Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and how people often think that those with ADHD are always hyperactive and extroverted; however, there are also some people that experience ADHD who present as quiet and shy. She also explains that ADHD impacts how and for how long we can concentrate and sustain our attention, our organization and routine, the completion of tasks, and social interactions.
ADHD is a condition that impacts attention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. The condition is one that can contribute to difficulties in school and executive functioning skills, said Psychological Associate Daisy Gomez, who has a private practice.
Many people do not seek treatment due to misconceptions and stigmas about mental health diagnoses. Some don’t want to seem “locos” and are concerned about not being perceived as “normal”. Others may think that getting a diagnosis and treatment will negatively affect their relationships or that they will appear “weak” for needing help. There is also the fact that many neurodivergent symptoms are seen in the Latinx community as bad behavior, laziness, and disinterest or lack of care.
“One misconception I find is that it’s within the control and will of the individual rather than having an understanding that it is part of a mental health condition and other services are necessary to support the person with the diagnosis,” said Gomez. “For example, seeking support from a psychiatrist could be helpful when treating ADHD, etc. Also, in the Latinx community, respect is huge, and if certain behaviors related to ADHD/neurodivergent tendencies are deemed disrespectful or oppositional, then the underlying conditions are missed. Another misconception is that a person is lazy and or not motivated.”
This is why diagnosis can be very helpful. It allows the individual not to feel as though they have failed in some way just because their thought process is different from societal norms. Alvarado explains that diagnosis is vital to gaining a more in-depth understanding of their experience and the way in which they can support their needs more effectively. This can also limit the negative impact that internalizing the expectations of others or of ourselves about our behavior and experiences can have.
Diagnosis and Barriers
During my research, I also came across something that, although wasn’t surprising, was disappointing. The Latinx community is once again left behind when it comes to the diagnosis of neurodivergent conditions and ADHD. In fact, simply finding research on the Latinx community was difficult to find.
What I could find, however, showed a disparity between how white, non-Latinx people receive diagnosis and care and how BIPOC communities receive diagnosis and treatment. White individuals are more likely to receive a diagnosis as well as receive adequate care, while BIPOC communities are less likely to even receive a diagnosis, especially among children. This is due to a host of factors like insurance, access, doctors’ biases (unconscious or not), and cultural barriers.
“Cultural barriers are definitely part of the reason that the Latinx community does not receive proper care,” said Gomez. “Reasons such as religion, homeopathic remedies, lack of trust, fear of judgment, lack of understanding of mental health, and a sense that behaviors are within a person’s control and so it must be that the person needs discipline and motivation.”
Alvarado also brings up how language barriers are a huge problem when trying to seek professional help.
“Language is the way in which we can show up authentically and safely. Our language allows us not only to express our thoughts and emotions but also is the way in which we are able to connect and perceive the world and those around us. This is integral to receiving mental health services. When services are not available in our language, it interferes with being able to receive treatment that is responsive and helpful.”
Fear and mistrust of medical establishments also play a role for many Latinx families. Gomez explains that there is fear of the medical establishments not having the client’s best interest at heart, being quick to diagnose, charge insurance, or prescribe medication that has long-term effects. Homeopathic options are welcomed more than Western medication. Alvarado goes further by reflecting on how many in the BIPOC community have had or continue to have negative experiences with medical establishments. Some of these experiences relate to poor quality care and mistreatment by providers. Some of this can be related to racism, discrimination, and xenophobia by providers and the overall system, including the lack of language accessibility, limited knowledge of symptom presentation among non-white groups, dismissal or minimization of symptoms and their intensity, limited understanding (or disregard) of cultural practices, etc.
This is why it’s so important for more Latinx people to be represented in these fields, as they have experience and knowledge of the community.
On top of all that, Latinas have an even harder time receiving proper care and diagnosis. “Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for women to be underdiagnosed with ADHD or other neurodivergent presentations. For Latina/x, that gap is even wider as there are significant barriers to access to treatment in general,” explained Alvarado. “Some of the barriers are the limited amount of culturally-responsive providers (e.g., clinicians, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, etc.), language access services, insurance, and knowledge on navigating the health systems. Also, women and Latina/x groups have not been historically included or adequately represented in the studies of ADHD or overall neurodivergence. Therefore, the information that we do have about prevalence and presenting signs is limited.”
To combat this, it is essential to advocate for yourself, but it is also vital for practitioners to receive proper training in diversity, intergenerational trauma, and to be culturally sensitive. Practitioners should also seek to become more aware of cultural factors that could interfere with the recognition and management of ADHD/neurodivergence by reading the available research that is culturally grounding, as well as listening to and learning from individuals with lived experience.
Seeking Help and Resources
Although it can be difficult, seeking professional help and diagnosis can help in better understanding yourself and starting on healing any trauma that may occur due to being undiagnosed.