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Neurodiversity Affirming Practice: Promoting Inclusion and Celebrating Diversity

Updated: May 23

As psychologists, it's important to understand and incorporate Neurodiversity Affirming Practice in our work. This approach emphasises the importance of recognising and accepting the unique differences and strengths of individuals with neurological differences. By shifting our perspective from a deficit-based model of disability to a social model of disability, we can create more inclusive and supportive environments for all individuals.

The traditional medical model of disability often views conditions like autism as a disorder that needs to be fixed or cured. However, the Neurodiversity Affirming movement and the social model of disability challenge this perspective and instead emphasise the importance of acceptance, accommodation, and celebration of neurodiversity.

It's important to recognise that the Neurodiversity Affirming movement is not intending to diminish the experiences of those with autism or to diminish the need for services and support. It's not intended to deny that autism is a disability or to minimise the challenges that individuals with autism may face. Instead, it's a shift in perspective that emphasises the idea that neurological differences are natural variations in the human brain, rather than pathologies that need to be cured or fixed. Instead, the use of more affirmative language and the promotion of Neurodiversity Affirming practice is intended to shift the focus away from a deficit-based model of disability towards a strengths-based approach. This can help to empower individuals with autism to recognize and build on their unique strengths and to feel more included and valued in society. It can also help to promote more inclusive environments that recognize and accommodate the diverse needs of individuals with different neurological profiles.

Autism, like other neurological differences, is still considered a disability because it can create barriers to accessing certain aspects of society. For example, neurodivergent individuals may experience challenges in social communication, sensory processing, and executive functioning that can make it difficult to navigate certain environments. However, the term "disorder" suggests that there is something inherently wrong or pathological about these differences, which can lead to stigmatisation and a focus on deficit-based interventions. The term "neurodiversity" emphasizes the idea that neurological differences are simply natural variations of the human brain, rather than disorders that need to be cured.

By embracing this perspective, we can appreciate that the challenges neurodivergent people face is about a person/environment mismatch. We are shifting away from the medical model which asks us: "How can we change the person to suit the environment?", and moving towards: "How can we change the environment to accomodate the person?"

The social model of disability recognises that disability is not an inherent characteristic of an individual, but rather a result of societal barriers and attitudes. This means that we need to look beyond an individual's diagnosis and focus on the environmental and social factors that may be creating barriers for them. People thrive in environments that accomodate and include them. This may look like:

  • Ensuring the environment accommodates the sensory profile of the person. Are there any modifications that can be made to light, noise, or the tactile space to allow that person to participate without distress?

  • Using direct, and clear language when speaking to neurodivergent people

  • Where possible, creating and adhering to routines that support the individual. If there are going to be changes in a routine, provide enough notice so that person is able to mentally prepare

  • Providing ample time to transition between tasks

  • Providing access to self-regulatory tools, and encouraging stimming

  • Using, and support the individual in using visuals when they are overwhelmed

  • Allowing access to SPINs (Special Interests). This is a way a neurodivergent person recharges and regulates. These should never need to be 'earned', they are important to a neurodivergent person's mental health

  • Understanding that your goals as a neurotypical person may not align with those of a neurodivergent person. If you are creating goals for therapy, ask yourself: Who is this goal benefiting- the neurodivergent person, their family, or society? Your goals should be towards promoting the well-being of the neurodivergent person. We do this by collaborating with them about their goals, and ensuring that they are not about making the lives easier of those around them only.

Part of your work as a psychologist may be about recognising and reflecting on your own biases about neurodiversity. Understanding that neurodivergent people come in all shapes, sizes and with different support needs. Ensure your work is person-centred and seeks to address the barriers your client is facing to thrive in an environment that was not designed for them.

One of the key aspects of Neurodiversity Affirming practice is the use of affirmative language. This means using language that recognizes the individuality and value of people with neurological differences, rather than language that emphasizes their deficits or limitations. For example, instead of using terms like "autism spectrum disorder", which can carry negative connotations and imply that there is something wrong with the individual, we can use terms like "autistic" or "neurodivergent" to emphasise the person's unique neurological profile. Neurodiversity affirming practice is about embracing and celebrating the diverse ways in which individuals think, learn, and process information. It recognizes that neurological differences are not deficits, but rather unique ways of experiencing the world. By doing so, we can help individuals with neurological differences to recognize and embrace their strengths and feel empowered to navigate the world in their own way.

Incorporating Neurodiversity Affirming practice in our work as psychologists can have a profound impact on the lives of individuals with neurological differences. The shift away from using the term "disorder" to describe autism reflects a larger movement towards more affirming and empowering language that emphasises the unique strengths and perspectives of individuals with disabilities. This shift can help us create more inclusive and supportive environments for all individuals.

Amanda Interested in learning more? Check out my essential trainings for working with neurodivergent people:

and my upcoming two-day workshop:

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