GW4 Neurodevelopmental Neurodiversity Network

March 18, 2021
Alanna Shand

On behalf of the GW4 Neurodevelopmental Neurodiversity Network and to mark Neurodiversity Week (15th – 21st March) Alanna Shand, a Research Assistant for the University of Bath, explains how the GW4 Neurodevelopmental Neurodiversity Network initiative aims to advance understanding of neurodevelopment & neurodiversity.

Neurodevelopmental conditions, such as autism, ADHD, intellectual disabilities, dyspraxia and dyslexia, are lifelong conditions which can affect many aspects of functioning, including language, communication and learning. Such conditions are highly prevalent in the population. For example, estimates suggest that autism affects at least 1% of the UK population, whilst ADHD affects approximately 1.5% of children (UK Parliament, 2020; Centre for Mental Health, 2014). Furthermore, 10% of the UK population has dyslexia (GOV.UK, 2017).

Given the prevalence of these conditions, the term ‘neurodiversity’ was introduced to highlight that neurodevelopmental conditions are part of normal variation in the population. As a spectrum of abilities, it is important to appreciate both the strengths and difficulties associated with neurodiversity. Many neurodivergent people have made vital contributions to research and society. For example, Richard Branson, Chris Packham and Greta Thunberg are just a few well-known neurodivergent people who have made valuable societal contributions in recent years. However, whilst there are highly successful neurodivergent people, there are also individuals with severe neurodevelopmental conditions who require support.

Conducting beneficial research to help meet the needs of such a diverse group is a real challenge faced by researchers. This is further complicated by the fact that, even though neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism and ADHD often overlap, they are usually researched and managed separately. This apparent gap between research and practice further inhibits neurodivergent people from benefitting from current research findings.

Striving to overcome these difficulties, we established the GW4 Neurodevelopmental Neurodiversity Network – an interdisciplinary group of researchers, clinicians, neurodivergent people, and third sector organisations. Led by Dr Punit Shah, our core team comprises of researchers from the GW4 universities of Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter. While supported by GW4, we are working towards a step-change in the understanding of neurodiversity and improving the lives of neurodivergent people and those with neurodevelopmental conditions. We hope that this will have broad implications for research and policy on social justice and mental health – helping to establish more inclusive, innovative, and reflective societies.

Central to our approach is the involvement of neurodivergent people. Dr Punit Shah recently hosted an online talk surrounding the concept of neurodiversity as part of the Minerva Public Lecture series. During this lecture, Sanjay Kumarendran and Duncan Honeybourne, neurodivergent members of our network, provided their personal insights into neurodiversity, considering both the positive and negatives of the approach. If you are interested in neurodiversity, we highly recommend viewing the recording of this talk (available shortly on Vimeo) to hear more about lived experiences of these individuals.

Furthermore, we recently commissioned Patrick Samuel – Asperger Artist – to explore neurodiversity by creating a piece of artwork that captured the essence of this concept. Titled ‘Different’, Patrick’s abstract painting (as pictured below) celebrates neurodiversity as a difference. We are proud to have taken part in this collaborative project and would be interested to hear your thoughts on this artwork.

Neurodiversity artwork

We are already seeing important outputs from collaborations within our network. In February, researchers from the universities of Bath and Cardiff published a paper on mentalising. Mentalising – otherwise referred to as mind-reading or Theory of Mind – is the ability to understand the thoughts of others. This paper establishes a new, easy-to-use questionnaire measure of mentalising called the Four-Item Mentalising Index (FIMI). This measure is a valuable new tool which will facilitate quicker and more accurate measurement of mentalising and will help us further understand how mentalising abilities may vary with neurodiversity. If you would like to access this measure, please use the following link: http://www.bitly.com/mindreadingquestions.

We are a continually growing network. Whether you are an academic keen to get involved in research, a third-party organisation excited to collaborate with us, or a neurodivergent person looking to find out more and participate in our research, we want to hear from you. To contact us, please email neurodnetwork@bath.ac.uk or visit our website and complete our contact form.

Finally, we would like to thank GW4 for providing us with this opportunity to collaborate and address these ever-important areas of research.