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March 25, 2024

What’s the link between GAD and Neurodivergence?

Is Generalized Anxiety Disorder neurodivergent? 

Are people with GAD more likely to be neurodivergent? Many researchers have attempted to tackle these same questions, and it’s been complicated. My personal experience (Cassandra Carter) working with the neurodivergent population has led me to have a lot of thoughts on the subject. I have seen clients who have struggled to be validated in their pursuit of neurodivergent diagnosis or who are confused about the link between comorbid disorders and neurodivergence. My specialty is working with clients who are going through big life transitions. Having comorbid generalized anxiety, neurodivergence, and going through changes can feel excruciating. Reach out to schedule with me and have your experience validated and supported here: Reach Out for Support | Contact Us | WOC Therapy.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder, as defined by The American Psychology Association DSM-5TR, is excessive anxiety and worry (apprehensive expectation) occurring more days than not, for a minimum of 6 months, about a variety of events, including work, health, or school. Individuals with GAD often experience physical symptoms such as muscle tension, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating. While everyone experiences some degree of anxiety in their life now and again, GAD is a chronic and uncontrollable worry that impacts a person’s daily functioning. Most often when I meet with these clients, they have been experiencing these symptoms for years. They feel uncomfortable with the number of intrusive thoughts that seem to govern their life.

Neurodivergence encompasses a range of conditions that affect cognitive functioning and behavior, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, and others. Neurodivergent people may process information differently from neurotypical people, leading to unique strengths and challenges in various aspects of life. While neurodivergence is often associated with developmental differences, it can also manifest in adulthood and coexist with other mental health conditions like anxiety disorders. The term “neurodivergence” was coined to reclaim and reframe the idea that brain differences equates disorders. Neurodivergent people experience developmental differences that continue into adulthood and how they experience the world. Primary differences arise from ableism, and not their inherent brain differences. Society is notorious for rigidly upholding norms that isolate those who do not experience life in a neurotypical way.

The Link Between GAD and Neurodivergence

Recent research suggests a significant interconnectivity between GAD and neurodivergence. For example, studies have found higher rates of anxiety disorders, including GAD, among individuals with ASD and ADHD compared to the general population. Similarly, individuals with dyslexia and other specific learning disabilities may also experience higher levels of anxiety related to academic performance and social interactions. The reasons for this link are multifaceted and may include genetic predispositions, environmental factors, and neurobiological differences associated with both GAD and neurodivergence. In recent years as well, the autism wheel versus terms like “high” or “low” functioning, details anxiety as an essential part of being autistic.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) can present uniquely in neurodivergent individuals compared to neurotypical individuals. Neurodivergent individuals, such as those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), may exhibit atypical manifestations of anxiety. For instance, someone with ASD might experience heightened anxiety related to sensory sensitivities or difficulty navigating social interactions, while individuals with ADHD may struggle with executive functioning and experience anxiety related to time management or task completion. These differences can lead to distinct patterns of behavior and coping mechanisms, making it crucial for therapists to tailor interventions accordingly.

Neurodivergent black woman contemplating

Common misconceptions

Despite growing awareness of the link between GAD and neurodivergence, there are still challenges and misconceptions surrounding diagnosis and treatment. Neurodivergent individuals may face barriers to accessing appropriate mental health support, as their anxiety symptoms may be attributed solely to their underlying neurodevelopmental condition. Additionally, healthcare providers may overlook or misinterpret anxiety symptoms in neurodivergent individuals, leading to delays in diagnosis and treatment.

Neurodivergent people may also need different interventions to alleviate symptoms of anxiety. For example, an autistic individual may need to pay special attention to the stimulation of their environment in order to decrease anxiety instead of simply reframing their thoughts. Another intervention that aids autistic individuals in calming anxiety is spending time in special interests. Creating a list of self-care items may be overwhelming and further root the neurodivergent person in burnout and anxiety.

Seeking neurodivergent specific therapy is especially important for neurodivergent individuals grappling with generalized anxiety disorder due to the complex interplay of their neurology and mental health. Therapy can provide a safe space for individuals to explore their unique experiences and develop coping strategies tailored to their specific needs. Therapists skilled in working with neurodivergent clients can offer specialized interventions that address sensory sensitivities, communication difficulties, and executive functioning challenges, helping individuals navigate and manage their anxiety more effectively. Additionally, therapy can provide psychoeducation about anxiety and neurodiversity, fostering self-awareness and empowering individuals to advocate for their needs in various settings.

Furthermore, therapy can aid in mitigating the potential impact of comorbid conditions often associated with neurodivergence and generalized anxiety disorder, such as depression or social isolation. By addressing anxiety symptoms early on, individuals can prevent the exacerbation of other mental health issues and improve their overall well-being. Ultimately, therapy offers a pathway for neurodivergent individuals to gain insight into their experiences, develop adaptive coping skills, and cultivate resilience in the face of anxiety, leading to enhanced quality of life and greater fulfillment in daily activities.


So, is General Anxiety Disorder considered Neurodivergent? It’s complicated. While the research does suggest a high linkage between the two and suggests that in working with people with neurodivergence, anxiety symptoms should also be addressed. Anxiety itself has yet to be included in the neurodevelopmental cluster within the DSM. However, Interventions that address both anxiety symptoms and neurodivergent traits can help individuals manage their symptoms more effectively and improve their overall well-being. It’s essential to promote awareness, reduce stigma, and advocate for inclusive approaches to mental health care that meet the diverse needs of neurodivergent individuals. We can create a more supportive and inclusive society for all through collaboration between mental health professionals, educators, employers, and communities.

Whereas anxiety can be largely negative experience for individuals who experience it, neurodivergence is a set of traits that can be highly beneficial when celebrated and supported. It is important to address the difference between disorders and neurological differences, recognizing that the world functions better when we support the whole individual. Perhaps, GAD and neurodivergence are inextricable, and need to have whole person solutions.