Neurodiverse, special needs, on the spectrum, autistic, people with autism, are just some of the ways people’s different abilities are described. What do they mean? How are they different? How might these terms come up for you as a parent?
Neurodiversity is the concept that differences in brain functioning within the human population are normal and that brain functioning that is not neurotypical should not be stigmatized (Merriam-Webster, 2021). The term “neurodiversity” was first used by Judy Singer in the 1990s.
Judy was an autistic Australian sociologist and her findings led to a movement for social change. Her goal was to eliminate the stigma of neurodiversity as a disability and instead appreciate it as a necessary contribution to society. According to the BBC, 1 in 7 people have some form of neurodiversity. There are many diagnoses for individuals with neurodivergence, which may include: autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, hyperlexia, dyspraxia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and Tourette syndrome (TS).
The neurodiversity movement is focused on increasing acceptance of everyone’s difference and recognition that differences are not things that need to be changed or “corrected”. Accepting neurodiversity also means validating the experiences of these individuals and not dismissing their experiences as deficits. Through understanding, we can create a more accepting world for everyone, rather than focusing on making others fit into a world that is inherently different.
With autism being an increasingly common neurodivergent diagnosis, many of those within the autism community are doing their part to support the movement. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) describes autism characteristics as things that are done differently. Thinking, processing senses, movement, communicating, socializing, and displaying daily living skills are all done differently. Every autistic person may demonstrate their differences distinctly as, “there is no one way to be autistic”.
“There needs to be a lot more emphasis on what a child can do instead of what he cannot do.”
— Temple Grandin
You may have already noticed an increased attention and societal efforts in supporting the neurodiversity movement. The Autism Society changed the name of April’s “Autism Awareness Month” to “Autism Acceptance Month” to promote a change from labeling people with Autism to truly understanding and appreciating these individuals. By integrating a tailored environment to each individual's specific needs, this movement does away with the “one size fits all” narrative and instead focuses on meeting the needs of Autistic and other neurodivergent diagnoses.
Even the words, “autistic individuals” compared to saying a “person with autism” may feel like an adjustment. Before the neurodiversity movement, it was assumed that using person-first language was the preferable way of describing neurological differences. According to the website, AutisticNotWeird.Com, when surveyed 51.26% of people with an autism diagnosis prefered the label of “autistic person” over “person with autism”. Only 11.8% of people with an autism diagnosis preferred the term “person with autism”. The shift from previously used “person first language” is also part of recognizing how individuals prefer to describe themselves within the neurodiversity movement.
What are some ways that you show appreciation and acceptance of those who are neurodiverse?
- Have conversations with people who are neurodivergent
- Have conversations with parents of neurodivergent children
- Celebrate their strengths and honor their interests
- Welcome different perspectives and ways of thinking
- Provide opportunities to exercise creativity and imagination
- Be open to various types of communication (i.e writing, speaking, illustration, or demonstration)
- Read and research about neurodiversity to understand its importance and impact
Given the increasing prevalence of autism, which was 1 in 44 as of 2018 according to the CDC, it’s likely your kids will interact with autistic children or other neurodiverse children at school. What are some ways you can help support your kids with understanding neurodiversity?
- Ask your school district and home room teacher what resources they have
- Ask your home room teacher for books on your child’s grade level that explain neurodiversity
- Ask the comfort level of parents of neurodiverse students to share their experiences
- Set up playdates or birthday parties that are inclusive of neurodivergent classmates
- Ask family members of neurodivergent classmates how you can help support them in attending the playdate or birthday party
- Visit or spend time attending community events in the city of Mesa right here in Arizona. The only Autism Certified City in the USA! (Certification from the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards)
The neurodiversity movement calls for greater understanding of the scope of our, and our children’s, cognitive variances. It recognizes each of our neurological functions as part of our identity and something to be respected, appreciated and celebrated.
“We are freshwater fish in saltwater. Put us in fresh water and we function just fine. Put us in salt water and we struggle to survive.”
- Anonymous autistic student
Sally Borella is passionate about the advancement of the neurodiversity movement and how it can progress the quality of services available to autistic individuals. She is the Vice President of Clinical Services at Action Behavior Centers and regularly facilitates continuing education opportunities for autism services providers.