Narcolepsy is a neurological condition that affects sleeping and waking cycles.

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

People with narcolepsy experience excessive daytime sleepiness and may also fall asleep unintentionally or have disrupted sleep at night. This can greatly impact daily activities, social interactions, and performance at work or school.

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

Currently, there’s no evidence that narcolepsy is 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 as humans have in terms of neurological development and function.

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

People who experience what’s considered typical neurological development or function are referred to as neurotypical.

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

Neurodivergent people take in, process, or respond to information differently than neurotypical people.

While the concept of neurodivergence may have initially developed in the autistic community, people with many types of neurological or neurodevelopmental conditions can be considered as neurodivergent. These can include:

Being neurodivergent in a society that focuses on the neurotypical can come with a variety of challenges. This can vary greatly on an individual basis.

However, rather than center on these challenges, neurodiversity also aims to emphasize the positive aspects and abilities that can come with neurological variations.

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

Another 2020 review notes that while people with ADHD can have trouble with time management and concentration, research has found that 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 champion different kinds of neurological function.

When you look at conditions that fall under the umbrella of neurodivergence, narcolepsy isn’t included. Unlike autism and ADHD, there’s no discussion whatsoever among those in the medical community regarding narcolepsy and neurodiversity.

Narcolepsy is a diagnosable neurological condition with specific abnormalities found on testing (abnormal polysomnography and CSF studies).

The argument for neurodivergence

A common theme for people who do believe narcolepsy should be considered neurodivergence is the effect that 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 of falling sleep. REM sleep is the sleep stage in which dreaming most commonly occurs.

Research from 2015 has found that, compared with people without narcolepsy, people with narcolepsy recall dreams more frequently, experience lucid dreams more often, and have more recurrent dreams.

Anecdotal reports from people with narcolepsy attribute many of their more visionary or creative ideas to vivid dreams. Because of this, they posit that narcolepsy is neurodivergence.

The argument for neurotypical

According to the same 2015 study mentioned above, lucid dreams in narcoleptic patients may be due to the fact that narcoplepsy itself impacts the dream process, and that sleep onset REM (which occurs in narcoleptics) is a mechanism by which lucid dreams occur.

Neither of these arguments support neurodivergence.

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

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 do certain tasks or interact with other people or their environment.

The symptoms of narcolepsy can significantly impact a person’s ability to function. In some situations, narcolepsy can cause challenges that lead it to be considered a disability.

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

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

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

  • negative mood
  • difficulties with interpersonal relationships
  • issues at work, such as lower productivity, missed work, and work accidents
  • increased unemployment and welfare enrollment

Narcolepsy is also covered under 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 can’t discriminate against people with disabilities who can perform the functions of their job, with or without accommodations.
  • Employers can’t enact employment practices that discriminate against people with disabilities. These can include, but aren’t limited to, recruiting, hiring, or firing practices, or the way in which job assignments are made.
  • Employers must provide reasonable accommodations, such as longer breaks or an adjusted 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).

While narcolepsy isn’t on the SSA’s list of evaluated neurological disorders, it may still be possible for you to apply and receive disability benefits. When they receive your application, the SSA will review:

  • your medical history, including the condition that you have, when it started, and the types of treatments you’ve received
  • whether you’re currently working and if so, what your monthly earnings are
  • the degree to which your condition impacts your ability to do basic work activities like standing, walking, and lifting objects
  • if you can still do the same work as before your diagnosis or if you can do any other types of work

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

Neurodiversity embraces the many different ways that people take in, process, and respond to information. Instead of focusing on the challenges, this concept puts an emphasis on the advantages of neurodivergent people.

Neurodivergence is most commonly associated with conditions like autism, ADHD, and dyslexia. There is no medical evidence to support the fact that narcolepsy is considered neurodivergent.

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

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