Is OCD Neurodivergent?

Neurodivergent is a term used to describe people whose brain develops, processes, learns, and/or behaves differently from what is considered neurotypical.

Neurodivergence is not a disability but rather a difference in how the brain works. For example, autism, dyslexia, and ADHD are all common examples of neurodivergent disorders.

Is OCD Considered Neurodivergent?

There are many different ways neurodivergence can manifest. As there are no medical criteria or definitions of what it means to be neurodivergent, many conditions can fall under the category of neurodivergent – and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is one of them. 

OCD is viewed as neurodiverse in origin because it satisfies the primary criteria of a neurodivergent disorder – people with OCD have a brain that processes and behaves differently from what is considered typical.

People with OCD deal with repeated, unwanted thoughts, ideas, or sensations that they try to resist by completing rituals or repetitive behaviors.

By being hooked into this endless cycle of obsessive thinking and completing rituals to temporarily relieve anxiety, a person with OCD ultimately does not possess normal cognitive functioning.

People with OCD process their thoughts differently and behave differently from what is considered neurotypical. Their brains show higher levels of activity in brain regions related to planning, judgment, and body movements, leading to obsessions and compulsions.

While many individuals who have been diagnosed with OCD do consider themselves neurodivergent, you do not have to use this label or apply it to yourself if you do not feel comfortable.

Neurodivergent is not a medical term, condition, or diagnosis and is not something that needs to be “treated.” 

While there is no way to characterize neurodivergent people, as many people identify as neurodivergent, including autistic people and people with ADHD, some common, challenging, and helpful symptoms are listed below.

Each individual is unique, and certain skills are more likely to appear in those with some disorders than others.

People who are neurodivergent can be very different from one another, which makes it challenging to provide a single list of symptoms.

Traits Commonly Associated with NeurodivergenceDo the symptoms of OCD meet these criteria?
Social communication difficultiesTypically Yes
Unusual physical behaviors, such as rocking, expressing tics, blurting, and/or shouting at random timesTypically Yes
Struggle in noisy environmentsSometimes
Speech and language challengesTypically No
Inflexibility / inability to adapt or to change interests based on age or situationTypically Yes
Learning challenges including difficulties with focus, reading, calculation, ability to follow spoken language, and/or problems with executive functioningSometimes
Unusual responses to sensory input (sensitivity to light, sound, heat, cold, pressure, crowds, or other stimuli)Typically Yes
Fixation on certain routines and ritualsTypically Yes
Difficulty maintaining eye contactTypically No
Ability to focus on work intensely for long periods on topics or activities of interestTypically Yes
Above average observational skills and ability to pay close attention to detailSometimes
Outside-the-box thinking and being able to approach situations differentlySometimes
Unique ability to recognize patterns, including in codes and behaviorsTypically Yes
Strong skills in areas such as music, art, design technology, and scienceTypically No
CreativityTypically No
No pressure to conform to social normsTypically Yes
Strong visual-spatial skillsTypically No

Is mental illness the same as neurodiversity?

While neurodivergence was formerly considered a disability or abnormality, practitioners are no longer treating neurodivergence as a mental illness. Instead, they are viewing it as different methods of learning and processing information.

People who are neurodivergent can have different strengths and challenges from people whose brains develop and work more typically.

However, just because their brains function differently than most people in the general population, this does not mean that they are “abnormal” or less intelligent. There is no standard way the brain should function to be considered “normal.”

In fact, many neurodivergent individuals will use their different strengths to help them succeed in unique ways.

Some benefits of being neurodivergent include a stronger short-term and long-term memory, the ability to mentally picture three-dimensional objects with ease, and the ability to solve complex math problems in their head.


Is OCD on the autism spectrum?

While OCD and autism are often misdiagnosed as one another as the symptoms of both can look alike, OCD is not on the autism spectrum. In fact, ​​OCD and autism spectrum disorder are, in many ways, quite different.

OCD is a mental illness, while autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder. However, it is possible to have both OCD and autism and research even shows that people with OCD are more likely to be autistic than people without OCD.

What happens in an OCD brain?

While researchers know that Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a result of communication problems in the brain, research has been limited to the specifics of what happens in an OCD brain.

What scientists have recently begun to realize is that people with OCD have excess activity in frontal regions of the brain, including the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC).

Additionally, OCD disrupts communication between the frontal cortex and another part of the brain known as the ventral striatum. This could explain their intrusive thoughts, high levels of anxiety, intense level of awareness, and extreme vigilance.

While these hypotheses are gaining fruition, neuroscientists are still quite uncertain about what happens in the brain to cause OCD.

Does trauma make you neurodivergent?

Trauma typically underlies anxiety disorders, such as OCD and PTSD, and affects how individuals with these conditions process, interpret and respond to information and stimuli (i.e., thoughts, feelings, fears, doubts, mental images, and/or urges).

Neurodivergence can be innate, such as in the case of autism, or produced by experiences / traumas, like the effects of a traumatic brain injury or traumatic life event such as a war.

Can you become neurodivergent?

Typically, no. Many forms of neurodivergence are innate parts of our brains. These differences in how our brains work might not be diagnosed or recognized until later in life, but that does not mean that they were not already there.

However, in some cases, neurological conditions can be acquired and lead to neurodivergence. Examples include  traumatic brain injuries, strokes, and Alzheimer’s disease.


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Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Julia Simkus

Research Assistant at Princeton University

Undergraduate at Princeton University

Julia Simkus is a Psychology student at Princeton University. She will graduate in May of 2023 and go on to pursue her doctorate in Clinical Psychology.