Is Narcolepsy Neurodiversity or a Medical Condition?

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Narcolepsy is a neurological disease that affects sleep and wakefulness cycles.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke believes that 135,000 to 200,000 people in the United States suffer from narcolepsy.

People with narcolepsy experience excessive daytime sleepiness and may also fall asleep unintentionally or have trouble sleeping at night. It can have a significant impact on daily activities, social interactions, and performance at work or school.

However, can narcolepsy be considered a neurodivergence? That is, instead of being treated as a medical condition, it would be treated as a distinct characteristic of a person.

Currently, there is no firm consensus on whether narcolepsy is a neurodivergence. Keep reading as we explore what we know about this topic so far.

Neurodiversity is a term that refers to the wide variations that we humans have in terms of neurological development and function.

The term neurodiversity is believed to have been first used by sociologist Judy Singer in the late 1990s. Singer, who is autistic, seeks to define autism not in terms of a disorder, but rather as having traits neurological different from what is considered neurotypical.

People who experience what is considered typical neurological development or function are called neurotypical.

Those who have differences in their neurological development or function may choose to call themselves neurodivergent.

Neurodivergent people accept, process, or react to information differently from neurotypical people.

Although the concept of neurodivergence may have originally developed in the autism community, people with many types of neurological or neurodevelopmental disorders can be considered neurodivergent. These may include:

Being neurodivergent in a society that focuses on the neurotypical can come with many challenges. This can vary greatly from individual to individual.

However, rather than focusing on these challenges, neurodiversity also aims to emphasize the positives and abilities that can accompany neurological variations.

According to a 2009 study, some people with autism often have strengths in working with computer and mathematical systems, and may excel in occupations that may involve evaluating computer coding or managing a database.

Another one 2020 review notes that while people with ADHD may have issues with time management and concentration, research has found they also have strengths in creative thinking, passion, and courage.

The concept of neurodiversity moves away from the binary of “normal” versus “abnormal” cognition. Instead, it asks us to recognize and defend different types of neurological functions.

When looking at conditions that fall under neurodivergence, narcolepsy is not included. Unlike autism and ADHD, there has been little to no dialogue in the scientific community about narcolepsy as a neurodivergence.

However, this does not mean that the subject is not covered elsewhere. In fact, there are many discussions on various news and social media sites regarding narcolepsy and neurodivergence.

In general, opinions differ. But, overall, there is no consensus on whether narcolepsy is a neurodivergence.

The Neurodivergence Argument

A common theme for people who believe that narcolepsy should be considered a neurodivergence is the effect narcolepsy has on dreams and potentially creativity and new ideas.

People with narcolepsy enter rapid eye movement (REM) sleep much faster than most people, often after about 15 minutes to fall asleep. REM sleep is the phase of sleep during which dreams occur most often.

2015 research found that, compared to people without narcolepsy, people with narcolepsy remember their dreams more frequently, have lucid dreams more often, and have more recurrent dreams.

Anecdotal reports from people with narcolepsy attribute many of their most visionary or creative ideas to vivid dreams. For this reason, they postulate that narcolepsy is a neurodivergence.

The Neurotypical Argument

Some people say that while narcolepsy can make them feel tired or “foggy,” which can impact cognitive function, they feel like they generally take in and process information in neurotypical ways.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines a disability as a physical or mental health condition that makes it more difficult for a person to perform certain tasks or interact with other people or their environment.

Symptoms of narcolepsy can have a significant impact on a person’s ability to function. In some situations, narcolepsy can lead to problems that lead to it being considered a disability.

Excessive daytime sleepiness can affect productivity at work and school. Feeling so tired during the day, regardless of how much sleep you slept the night before, can also mean that it may take longer to complete daily tasks like cooking and cleaning.

Sleep attacks and cataplexy, a sudden loss of muscle control, can happen without warning and can also disrupt your daily life. These symptoms can make certain activities, such as driving, more dangerous.

A study 2016 found that, compared to people without narcolepsy, people with narcolepsy reported a lower quality of life. This can include things like:

  • negative mood
  • difficulties in interpersonal relationships
  • problems at work, such as reduced productivity, work stoppages and work accidents
  • increase in unemployment and welfare registrations

Narcolepsy is also covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which protects people with disabilities from discrimination in several areas, including in the workplace. For example, under the ADA:

  • Employers cannot discriminate against people with disabilities who can perform their job functions, with or without accommodations.
  • Employers cannot adopt employment practices that discriminate against people with disabilities. These may include, but are not limited to, recruiting, hiring or firing practices, or the manner in which work assignments are carried out.
  • Employers must provide reasonable accommodations, such as longer breaks or an adapted work schedule, for employees with disabilities.

People who have a condition that affects their ability to work may be able to receive disability benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA).

Although narcolepsy is not on the SSA’s list of assessed neurological disorders, you may still be able to apply for and receive disability benefits. When they receive your request, the SSA will review:

  • your medical history, including the condition you have, when it started, and the types of treatments you have received
  • if you are currently working and if so, what is your monthly income
  • the extent to which your condition affects your ability to perform basic occupational activities such as standing, walking, and lifting objects
  • if you can still do the same job as before your diagnosis or if you can do any other type of job

After the review, the SSA can approve or deny your application for disability benefits. If you disagree with the decision, there is a process by which you can appeal.

Neurodiversity encompasses the many different ways people receive, process, and respond to information. Instead of focusing on the challenges, this concept emphasizes the benefits of neurodivergent people.

Neurodivergence is most commonly associated with conditions such as autism, ADHD, and dyslexia. Currently, there is no consensus on whether narcolepsy is considered a neurodivergence.

Narcolepsy can impact a person’s quality of life. Its symptoms can cause significant disruption in daily tasks at home, work, and school.

Therefore, narcolepsy can be considered a disability. As such, in certain situations, it may be possible for some people with narcolepsy to receive SSA disability benefits.

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