Last month, The Herald on Sunday published a special report on the debate about how we label our children. The article sparked huge debate – and prompted MSP Daniel Johnson to speak out. Here he tells of his experience with ADHD, and his worries that true progress can't be made until more people speak more openly about the challenges they face

Last week, Peter Kyle, an MP who has been most noted for his role in trying to secure a second referendum on Brexit, managed to gain a huge amount of attention for something unrelated to Brexit. He sent out a series of tweets acknowledging that he had dyslexia and what that had meant for him in his life and as an MP.

This struck a chord with me. First, as a fellow parliamentarian speaking publicly about their neuro-developmental disorder. But perhaps more importantly, I could relate to the sense in which his declaration was more an outpouring prompted by frustration than a carefully crafted political intervention.

When I spoke out in parliament about having ADHD, it was because I was frustrated with the myths constantly peddled about my condition. Peter’s Twitter thread was prompted by people picking over his spelling rather than engaging with his political points.

Peter’s intervention is important. In recent years we have made huge inroads in talking about mental health. But while this is welcome, I am often left with the sense this is little more than “tea and sympathy” – attitudes may be changing but it doesn’t extend to deepening our understanding. I think Peter’s act of speaking out, as someone in public office, helps move the discussion on. But also, by talking about first-hand realities and practicalities he is helping build public knowledge of these conditions.

There are lots of politicians with neuro-developmental disorders. Poor emotional control, overly impulsive, lack of understanding of social norms and expectations – I am sure a few politicians who come to mind when you look at these symptoms. Statistically, between 10 and 20% of people have a condition like autism, ADHD and dyslexia. So on that basis there must be up to 70 MPs and a dozen MSPs with these conditions. Yet as far as I know Peter and I are the only ones to have said publicly that we have one of these conditions.

I would go further. I think politics is a field that positively attracts people with ADHD, autism and dyslexia. As Peter put it, for every down side of these conditions there is a talent or a strength. A reluctance to accept things because they are the norm and a lack of self-imposed restraint can make non-neurotypical people important and courageous advocates. And yet they seem to be reluctant to tell the world about the reality of their everyday life and how their condition impacts on them.

Over the past couple of years, politicians have been more open about their experiences of depression and how they deal with it, but not conditions like dyslexia. Perhaps they consider depression a passing condition that can be overcome and feel more comfortable admitting it, as opposed to telling the world about a lifelong condition, potentially viewed as a weakness.

Until more politicians and other public figures speak out, there will continue to be a sense that these conditions affect other people. I for one am tired of people talking about the need to take conditions like autsim and ADHD seriously but continue to see none of the changes we need in services and support for these conditions. That will only change when more people in the public eye don’t just talk about the friends and family that they know with these conditions, but talk openly about what their condition means to them.

Public figures taking ownership and standing up for the reality of their condition is important for another reason. There is a dangerous, emerging backlash, attempting to dismiss neuro-developmental conditions as nothing more than “labels”. There is an attempt to claim that parents, teachers and doctors attempt to excuse behaviour rather than dealing with emotional issues. This distorts what we are seeking and flies in the face of science.

In his tweets and subsequent interviews, Peter was very clear – he isn’t asking for special treatment, just an acknowledgement that some things he does are more difficult for him. His tweets are going to have more typos – but surely what is important is what he is saying, not whether he puts ‘i’ before ‘e’. When people rail against labels, the assumption is that people are looking for a sick note for life, an exemption from academic standards.

This is not the case. All we are asking for is an understanding that not all people’s brains are the same. Just like some people are tall or short, have blue eyes or brown eyes, some people’s brains mean they struggle to process written words or intuit social norms. We need people to understand that some small adjustments can make all the difference. Visual timetables in classrooms help autistic children understand what’s going on. For Peter, printing text on cream paper helps him read.

Labels are useless if all they do is separate people. They help no-one if they are used to just give people a "pass". But when a diagnosis provides someone with the knowledge of why they find some things more difficult than most people, it enables them to take control. When discovering that you have a particular condition allows you to develop skills or treatment to compensate and cope with the difficulties that they cause, your life is transformed.

A few weeks ago Dr Lorraine Johnstone was quoted as saying that “labelling” children with neuro-developmental conditions was unhelpful.

First, we still under-diagnose these conditions – around 3% of children have a diagnosis of ADHD compared with an incidence of around 5-7% in the general population. More importantly, if all we do is label, she is right. But if diagnosis gives both individuals themselves and the people around them understanding and tools to cope, then it is empowering.

We can only make this breakthrough if politicians and other public figures like Peter Kyle speak out about what life is like if you have dyslexia, autism or ADHD.

• Daniel Johnson is Labour MSP for Edinburgh Southern.