Updated: Apr 3
Language matters, it matters even more when you are neurodivergent. It is important for children and adults to have the right vocabulary; this helps to develop a deeper understanding of yourself and builds confidence. Language enables effective communication and having the right vocabulary is a path to getting your needs met and self-advocacy. If you don't have the language to describe yourself, your emotions, your body sensations and experiences it can affect your mental health and ability to achieve your true potential.
Language can provide a change of perspective, a move away from deficit-based thinking. This is not to say that you can't still be disabled and need a high level of support, but it is a different way of seeing yourself and others, a move towards a truly inclusive society where disability is not stigmatized. This article is focusing on Autism as a neurodivergence to give continuity to my thought process and hopefully bring clarity.
The terms neurodivergent and neurodivergence were coined by Kassiane Assumasu (2000). This article highlights some key vocabulary; it is not an attempt for a comprehensive neurodiversity affirming glossary although that is very much needed.
Identity first language
I advocate for the use of identity first language within a neurodiversity affirming framework.
● Autism is a difference in neurotype, it is a neurodivergence (diverging from the neuromajority of the population). Autism cannot be separated from the person.
● Autism is a part of a person's identity, it affects every aspect of life, it is how you think, process, interact, learn, communicate and respond.
● Use identity first language e.g., 'Autistic person' rather than person first language = 'person with Autism'.
● Neurodiversity is the range of 'human minds, the infinite variation in neurocognitive functioning' (Dr.Nick Walker)
● ‘Neurodiversity is a neutral paradigm, what sits within it can be positive or negative contextually’ (Kieran Rose)
● Neurodiversity is a collective term, it describes everyone.
● Every individual is part of a neurodiverse society regardless of differences of neurotype, disability, mental health, medical conditions, race, ethnicity, gender, or age.
● Neurodiversity is not a theory or a movement, it is a fact.
● To argue one neurodivergence is more important to another is akin to saying one race is more valid or important to another.
● An individual cannot be neurodiverse, they can be described as being 'neurodivergent in a neurodiverse society'.
● You could say, 'Our school is neurodiverse'. This would mean it has lots of different people of all different neurotypes, both 'neurotypical' (NT), (also sometimes referred to a neuromajority or predominant neurotype) and those that are 'neurodivergent' (ND). Your school cannot be neurodiverse if it is exclusively for Autistic children, although in all likelihood they'd also be multiply neurodivergent too!
● Neurodivergence according to Dr Nick Walker is the 'state of being neurodivergent', it is an umbrella term to describe a multitude of different ways of processing, seeing the world and various conditions that are often classed as mental disabilities, disorders or mental illness or pathologies.
● This view is supported by David Grey-Hammond who says neurodivergence is a ‘shared experience amounting to identity and culture’
● Neurodivergence is a divergence away from what is currently valued as 'typical' or 'normal' (hence the terms neurotypical, neuromajority, predominant neurotype), (Luke Beardon 2017)
● Neurodivergence is not a synonym for Autism.
● If a group of people are all Autistic, they cannot be described as neurodiverse to each other as they are all neurodivergent.
● You can only be neurodivergent in comparison to another person who is of a different neurotype.
● The term neurodivergent defines how a person processes information that diverges from what society regards as 'normal neurocognitive functioning'. (Dr. Nick Walker)
● The very idea that there is a 'norm' that has an elevated status is what creates barriers, marginalization and segregation.
● There are multiple ways for a person to be neurodivergent and some people say they are multiply neurodivergent.
● If you are Autistic, you are neurodivergent.
● If you are Autistic, you do not have a medical condition or an illness that needs fixing or any interventions to try and change. It is the environment and people around you that need to change to meet needs as summarised: Autism + environment = outcome (Luke Beardon 2017)
● If you are neurodivergent you could be Autistic with other neurodivergences such as ADHD, Alexithymia, Bi-Polar Disorder, Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, Dysgraphia, Hyperlexia, OCD, Sensory Intergration Disorder, Synesthesia, Torrettes Syndrome, Maers Irlen Syndrome - this list goes on, it is not an attempt to be comprehensive.
● Autism and ADHD are innate neurotypes, you are born Autistic. However, severe trauma, health conditions or drugs could lead to your brain processing information in a different way permanently and this could also lead a person to describe themselves as being neurodivergent, this is an acquired neurodivergence.
● You could say, 'I am neurodivergent'.
This could mean that you are Autistic with multiple specific needs including dyslexia, alexithymia, sensory processing difficulties, the list is long and complex!
It could also mean you have an acquired neurodivergence such as OCD or many others.
· ‘Acquired neurodivergence happens in response to a medical condition or an event’ (Therapist Neurodiversity Collective).
· David Gray-Hammond (Emergent Divergent) and many other neurodivergent advocates are trying to depathologise mental health conditions and view conditions such as OCD, Psychosis, Alzheimer’s as an acquired neurodivergence.
· An innate (sometimes referred to as clinical) neurodivergence such as Autism or ADHD is a natural state for that person, it is their baseline of being.
· An acquired neurodivergence can potentially get more severe depending on the health of the individual, however it can be managed or resolved with the right support from a neurodiversity affirming provider with pharmaceutical support if needed.
· For further information about this please see the links below.
The need for teacher re-training
Language is important, it empowers people to advocate for themselves and others. However, it is equally important to use the right language so as not to cause further confusion and marginalisation. Neurodiversity affirming language needs to be embedded into our education, health, and social care settings.
We need the next generation of teachers and children to grow up understanding and using neurodiversity affirming language in their everyday vocabulary. The neurodiversity movement is helping with this awareness however, for it to be truly accepted and understood we need this language weaved into teacher education and training programmes so it can feed down naturally into classrooms, homes, and society. Language matters, language can help destigmatize and empower people, it can help support mental health and well-being. If you have language, you have the understanding and words to get needs met and fulfil your potential.
For further information I would recommend the following authors, researchers and advocates; all of which have fantastic well researched information and valuable resources which have helped inform my thinking and this article.
**Article written from my lived experience as a parent and teacher. Knowledge gained through various personal research and neurodivergent communities.
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