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Neurodiversity Affirming Language at Amherst Psychology

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

Identity-first language

Amherst Psychology is committed to using terminology that affirms and promotes the wellbeing of all clients. With respect to our neurodivergent clients and the neurodivergent community in general, we use language that values autism and ADHD as an integral part of a person's identity - rather than a disorder or something that is separate to who they are. For example, we use "an autistic person" rather than "a person with autism" because that is widely accepted as more affirming. There is less consensus about the most affirming language for ADHD but "ADHDer" rather than "has ADHD" is emerging as a good option.

Is it 'neurodivergent' or 'neurodiverse'?

An individual can be neurodivergent or neurotypical, but they cannot be neurodiverse because they are just one person. A couple or a group can be neurodiverse. Of course if a neurodivergent person refers to themselves as neurodiverse, we'll just go with that. Below is an excellent guide to 'neurodiverse vs neurodivergent' from @scrappapertiger

'Disorder' can be unhelpful

In addition, many autistics and ADHDers feel that using "Autism Spectrum Disorder/ASD" or "Attention Deficit Disorder/ADHD" is problematic because they don't identify as having a disorder. It is not something to be treated, but celebrated and explored. Unfortunately, there is a long history of restrictive 'therapy' or 'treatment' practices for autistics that sought to 'normalise' them. Of course, what is actually required is a change in the way people and environments embrace diversity and make changes to remove barriers for neurodivergent people.

Levels of functioning

Another thing that helps us to be affirming is to avoid terms like 'high functioning' or 'level X' when referring to an autistic. For example, "Maria has high functioning autism" or "Dishan is level 2". Someone's supposed high level of functioning is often due to very taxing masking they are performing or might be very specific to a certain context. Conversely, supposed low levels of functioning can often be better understood as unresolved factors in the environment that are unnecessarily challenging. Or, again, as specific to a situation.

Furthermore, decision making about the allocation of funding has given rise to assessing levels of support required by the individual and this is really the only context where those levels should be mentioned. Formal scenarios such as funding applications and assessment reports are typically less affirming in their descriptions of the person's needs and in the language used. Thankfully, this is changing but there are times when non-affirming language is required for neurodivergent people to access support.

Undoubtedly, our language for all mental health concerns will continue to evolve. And so will our understanding of whether an individual's ability to engage with their environment in a typical way indicates a need for treatment or support versus a need for change in aspects of that environment.

Four principles

Here are four principles to keep in mind that will help us to be affirming in our language and our interactions with autistics and ADHDers. In fact, they're great tips for affirming interactions with people in general 😊

  1. What terminology does this community of people prefer?

  2. What terminology does this individual prefer? It may be different to most others that share their experience, so it's worth asking.

  3. Do we even need to refer to their differences? Is it truly relevant that this person is autistic or an ADHDer in this context? And does this person prefer to have that aspect of their identity front and centre?

  4. Do we need to refer to their ability to navigate neurotypical social environments? As in, "They're high functioning", "You'd hardly even know they were autistic" or "They're very ADHD". Ask yourself if it is relevant, respectful and affirming.

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