If you have a loved one with a neurodivergent brain and are embarking on your therapy journey, it’s important to work with a clinician who understands and honours neurodiversity, i.e., neurodiversity affirming. I believe Amy Yacoub, an SLP with TherapyWorks explains this concept really well on her website. She said, “Neurodiversity affirming. The idea that individuals have differences in their abilities and how they interact with the world around them – differences which are not considered to be deficits that need to be ‘fixed.’ Rather, those who view individuals in this light consider neurodiversity to be natural. The world should be accepting of people’s differences in how they think, learn, process, and perceive information.”
Doesn’t that sound like a much more uplifting approach to working with your loved one? Instead of focusing on “deficits,” building upon their strengths, accepting their differences, and teaching them how to advocate for their communication and/or learning style? Examples of conditions those who are Neurodiverse may have include:
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Other neurological conditions
If you want to be a neurodiversity-affirming clinician (or even an ally), it’s important to shift your thinking and consider how our own words or actions can have an impact on those who are neurodivergent. Let’s use autism for an example. One of the characteristic traits of autism is difficulty with social communication; this could mean difficulty maintaining eye contact during conversation, difficulty staying on topic, difficulty with conversational turn taking, etc. When a clinician works with an autistic individual on making eye contact, or reducing “stimming,” this actually encourages masking (camouflaging social behaviors that are innate to them to try adapting to ‘neurotypical’ people around them). Research and adults with autism report that continuous masking can have negative effects on neurodiverse individuals. Attempting to hide behaviors can result in anxiety, depression, loss of identification, and delayed identification or diagnosis of Autism. Not only is this encouraging masking, but it’s also indirectly teaching the autistic child that their style of communication or what they have to say isn’t valid and needs to be fixed. Doesn’t that sound discouraging?
To wrap this post up I want to leave you with some considerations if you want to take the next steps to becoming a neurodiversity ally. These ideas come from Meg Proctor of LearnPlayThrive. The main idea is that language matters – it shapes how we see ourselves and how we see others, which influences how we treat ourselves and others. Some of these common phrases can actually be stigmatizing and damaging to neurodivergent individuals.
“Autistic person” vs. “person with autism.” Did you know that autistic individuals actually prefer identify-first language rather than person-first language? Many of us were taught that person-first language is the correct way to address individuals with disabilities. The message of person-first language is this: autism is bad. The person must be separated from it. But the vast majority of autistic adults are telling us that they do not want to separate autism from their identity. Instead, it’s a positive and important part of their identity with its own strengths and beauty.
Functioning labels – you may have heard neurodivergent individuals being described as high or low functioning. These labels can be offensive and only look at the child from the outside rather than what’s going on inside. Instead of using functioning labels, the DSM-V has shifted to a “level of support” model. They describe autistic people as needing support, substantial support, or very substantial support.
Being verbal and speaking are not the same thing. Just because a child doesn’t speak does not mean they don’t have verbal abilities. Some non-speaking kids even have very advanced verbal skills. Many times we’ll find a non-speaking child using advanced language when given the appropriate communication device. Some children who were initially non-speaking at a young age eventually learn to speak fluidly. They were never non-verbal. They just weren’t speaking yet.This is a simple one: we can use “non-speaking” for kids who don’t speak, not “non-verbal.”
Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I hope we can all work together to support our neurodivergent learners!
Blog Post by Registered Speech-Language Pathologist, Devan Buchanan