What Makes OCD A Neurodivergent Condition?

Neurodivergence is a non-medical term used to describe the range of ways human brains can work. This term was developed to reduce the stigma associated with certain conditions and shift the focus away from what people with these conditions lack. 

In short, the term “neurodivergence” acknowledges that some people are simply different. People of all ages, races, and genders can be neurodiverse.

Sociologist Judy Singer coined the term in 1998. Rather than calling some brains “normal” and others “abnormal,” she suggested that we call the most common pattern “neurotypical” and call others “neurodivergent.” 

Singer pointed out that every brain develops differently, so there’s a wide range of ways people can experience the world. This is known as neurodiversity.

A neurotypical person’s brain follows the most common development pattern, and they generally exhibit social and cognitive abilities within the range most common in the population. A neurodivergent person develops differently and may have different abilities and challenges.

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Mental health and neurodivergence

The study of the human brain transcends multiple fields, such as psychiatry and neurology. Available data can sometimes be contradictory, especially when scientists attempt to establish how the human brain impacts behavior.

Some people would argue that anyone whose brain is not neurotypical is neurodivergent. This would mean that people with mental illnesses would be considered neurodivergent.

However, most people consider the difference between neurodivergence and psychological disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. The difference is in whether the disorder is treatable. 

People who are neurodivergent have brains that are simply wired differently. Although the world may not be set up to support them, they can function. In addition, while they may benefit from support, their condition won’t change. A person with autism will always have autism.

By contrast, many mental illnesses are treatable. Even though treatment can be challenging and isn’t always entirely successful, these conditions can often get significantly better with the right treatment plan. In this sense, people with mental illnesses are not considered neurodivergent.

What is OCD?

OCD is a form of anxiety disorder that can potentially disable a person by hooking them into endless cycles of repetitive rituals, behaviors, and thoughts, ultimately affecting normal functioning.

OCD symptoms include both obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are thought patterns, such as a strong need for exactness, symmetry, or order or extreme fear of germs, contamination, or dirt. The person often experiences these thoughts as intrusive. 

Compulsions are behaviors that a person cannot help but perform, such as repeatedly checking the stove, avoiding opening door knobs or shaking hands, or repeatedly washing one’s hands. 

OCD is related to other disorders¹ involving compulsive behaviors, including skin-picking disorder, trichotillomania, body dysmorphic disorder, and hoarding disorder. 

The neurobiology of OCD

While the cause of OCD is unknown, researchers² have discovered that people with this disorder have abnormal activity levels in certain brain regions. Their brains show higher activity levels in circuits related to planning, judgment, and body movements. 

This supports the idea that in a person with OCD, the brain develops excessive activity in certain circuits, leading to obsessions and compulsions. 

Although the research findings indicate that the brains of people with OCD differ from others, this doesn’t mean that we can diagnose OCD with a brain scan. There’s too much individual variation between brains for this to be possible, at least with our current technology and level of scientific understanding. 

OCD is diagnosed based on symptoms, and a brain scan doesn’t add any helpful information. However, knowing that there are brain differences could lead to better treatments for OCD.

Treatment for OCD

For many people with OCD, their condition significantly interferes with their quality of life. Treatments can be helpful for many people. 

The most common treatment options³ include:


The most common therapy used for OCD is called exposure and response prevention⁴ (ERP). This involves being exposed to situations that usually trigger obsessive thoughts and trying to resist the urge to perform the usual compulsive behaviors.

The therapy slowly retrains the brain not to give in to the compulsions. It’s essential to do this only under the guidance of a trained therapist.


The most commonly used types of medication for OCD are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These are also used as antidepressants.

About 70% of people with OCD will benefit from these treatment options. If these aren’t effective, there are other options available that may be helpful, including more intensive types of therapy and various forms of brain stimulation.

How do I know I am neurodivergent?

Neurodivergent is not a medical term but a social one. According to some definitions, if you’ve been diagnosed with OCD, you could be considered neurodivergent. You must decide whether you feel comfortable with this label and want to apply it to yourself. 

Many groups of neurodivergent people would welcome a person with OCD, although some may feel that OCD is a mental illness rather than true neurodivergence.

If you haven’t yet received a formal diagnosis but are displaying symptoms of OCD or neurodivergence, consult a mental health professional. You might benefit from treatments or other forms of support.

Signs of neurodivergence vary depending on the condition and age of the person. The signs of autism, for example, may include:

  • Repeating sounds or actions over and over

  • Fixation on lining up objects

  • Impaired social responsiveness and smiling

  • Poor eye contact

  • Inability to commence or maintain a conversation

  • Fixation on specific rituals and routines

  • Focused, intense interest in a particular subject or object

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders⁵ (DSM) classifies autism according to three degrees of severity based on how much impairment the person is experiencing in terms of repetitive and restricted behaviors and social communication.

  • Level 1—The patient needs support

  • Level 2—The patient needs substantial support

  • Level 3—The patient needs very substantial support

Many people in the neurodiversity movement feel that the DSM damages autistic people because it labels their condition as a disorder rather than simply a difference.

How to support the neurodiversity movement

You can support the neurodiverse community in a few ways. It’s essential to educate yourself on the range of neurodivergent conditions. Ask how you can support neurodiverse people in your life, such as an employer, a coworker, a friend, or a family member. 

When you hear people in your community express misunderstandings about neurodiversity, try to educate them and help them change their mistaken beliefs. When society learns about what neurodiversity entails and people become more normalizing, respectful, and empathetic, we will eventually create a society that’s accessible and welcoming for all people.

Benefits of neurodiversity

Neurodiverse people have unique characteristics and strengths that you can celebrate and acknowledge. For instance, the strengths of an autistic individual may include:

  • Design and art skills

  • Significant visual-spatial abilities

  • Musical abilities

  • Creativity

  • Strong capabilities in systems, such as mathematics and computer programming

  • Potential to view the world differently and generate out-of-the-box ideas

  • Extra attention to detail

  • Reduced pressure to conform to societal norms that may not align with the person's notion of happiness

The lowdown

There is no one description of what it means to be neurodivergent. Some people would consider OCD to be a neurodivergent condition, while others would not. OCD can affect the brain’s circuitry, influencing social communication, judgment, planning, and body functioning. 

If “neurodivergent” simply means having a brain different from the most common brain type, then OCD would qualify.

For many people with OCD, treatment can make a difference in a person’s day-to-day functioning and quality of life. If you’re struggling with OCD, consult a mental health professional.

Frequently asked questions

Is OCD a form of PTSD?

PTSD and OCD are different, but OCD can develop after trauma. An individual can develop both PTSD and OCD after a traumatic event. Depending on the study, between 30% and 82% of people who have experienced significant trauma may develop OCD.

Can you become neurodivergent?

People are generally born with brain differences that make them neurodivergent, or these develop in early childhood. However, some people may not get a diagnosis until much later in life, especially if they’re good at masking (hiding the signs of their neurodivergent condition).

Is anxiety considered neurodivergent?

Whether mental health conditions like anxiety fall under the umbrella of neurodivergence is complex. Some sources would include conditions like anxiety, PTSD, and OCD as forms of neurodiversity, while others would not. There’s no official medical definition of neurodivergence, so there’s no certain answer to this question.

What are the 4 types of OCD?

Four main categories of obsessions and compulsions may occur with OCD. These include:

  • Contamination—the fear of becoming infected, leading to repeated washing or cleaning behaviors

  • Doubt and harm—the fear of accidentally harming oneself or another person, leading to repeated checking behaviors

  • Symmetry and arranging—the need for order and exactness, leading to the need for everything to be perfectly ordered

  • Taboo thoughts—having thoughts, usually of a sexual or violent nature, that are disturbing to the patient, often leading to mental rituals to “cancel out” or distract from these thoughts

Are you born with OCD?

OCD commonly develops in the childhood or teenage years. It’s believed that genetic factors play a role in determining who will develop OCD. However, environmental factors, such as major trauma, can lead to the development of OCD.

Have you considered clinical trials for Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

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