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  • Writer's pictureStudent Wellbeing Service

No, it’s not just a trend: The real reasons adult ADHD and autism diagnoses are on the rise


Left right and centre, adults in their 30s, 40s, or even later are now being diagnosed with neurological conditions, namely autism and ADHD – things more typically associated with diagnoses in children.

Is it just a trend, or ‘fashionable’, as more cynical types insist? Or are there legitimate reasons why many grown adults are only now discovering they have mental and neurological issues?

For one, there are more adults these days. If just 1 per cent of the population experienced mental or neurological issues (which would be a massive underestimate), an expanding population mean that 1 per cent also expands accordingly.

There are also many modern external factors at work. A cost of living crisis, a global pandemic, no access to homes, and more, are significant sources of stress for modern adults, which is a major contributing factor to developing mental health problems around the world. Granted, this wouldn’t explain the rising numbers of neurodivergent adults.

Some may argue that society has faced far more significant and stressful problems in the past, such as two world wars. Why, they might ask, wasn’t there a corresponding increase in mental health problems then?

Saying there was no reported increase in mental health issues following the World Wars is like pointing out that germs are never mentioned in the Bible: maybe so, but they were definitely still there.

Also, mental health issues definitely did increase after World War 2, it just wasn’t as acknowledged in ‘the mainstream’. It was much more of a taboo subject, shrouded in stigma. We largely lacked the general awareness or understanding to identify, recognise, and accept when it happened.

These days, thanks to changes in education and countless awareness campaigns, people are far more aware of, and willing to discuss, mental health matters and neurodivergence. The medical infrastructure to diagnose and support it is also far more common.  

It shouldn’t be surprising that many adults now recognise traits of neurodivergence in themselves, that went unnoticed or misinterpreted when they were younger. Plus, we should also consider the overlap between mental health and neurodiversity, and how issues with the latter are regularly mistaken for the former. Even with the ever-evolving definitions for things like autism and ADHD, It’s still far from an exact science.

While it makes sense for mental health issues, as these can occur at any time, some might wonder why an adult who’s managed to lead an ostensibly normal life would want to go to the trouble of obtaining a diagnosis for autism, or ADHD. After all, they’ve demonstrably learned to get by without one.

That’s not how it works, though. Just because someone manages to get around with their shoes tied together, it doesn’t mean they’d rather not have to. A diagnosis can help simply by giving some clarity to someone’s lived experience. This reduces uncertainty and helps someone feel less unusual, and more understood, both of which reliably decrease stress, and thus improve mental wellbeing.

Having an official diagnosis also means you know what information, or what interventions, are suitable for you. Or at least, have a better idea of who to speak to about it.

If nothing else, finally having other people to relate to with similar experiences, who can recognise and empathise with your situation, can make a world if difference if you’ve never had such a thing before.

It’s not all positive, of course. It never is. Given the issues with accessibility and availability, simply getting a diagnosis at all can be a stressful, draining experience. And that’s if the relevant medical types all agree on your diagnosis, which they may not. This can add to confusion and uncertainty.

Many also argue that the parameters for diagnosis are too narrow, focusing on more internal or physiological issues (such as genetic factors or neurotransmitter levels), rather than the wider context (such as somebody's upbringing) that may be significant.

On the personal level, while a diagnosis may provide clarity and relief, others report that a later-life diagnosis of, for example, ADHD, often results in anger or deep regret. People can regard how different (or easier) their life could have been, all the stigma and judgment they’d have avoided, if they’d been diagnosed appropriately while younger.

If you feel you exhibit signs of a mental or neurological condition, you should seek out help or clarification. Professional ‘official’ resources may be increasingly difficult to access, but there’s still a wealth of information available, whether it’s online resources, or via individuals with those same issues who are more than willing to share insight with others.

It may seem daunting, but ultimately, it’s better to know than to not know. After all, it’s always harder to deal with an issue if you don’t know what it is.

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With best wishes, The Wellbeing team

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