I see the term “neurodiversity” used everywhere now, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m interested in the topic. It’s become more popular, mainstream, but with that reach its meaning becomes a little less clear. What is actually neurodiversity-affirming when everyone wants to claim their materials, strategies, resources are neurodiversity-affirming?

How can we distinguish neurodivergent-affirming practice from those hopping on the progressive bandwagon just to check the box?

If you’re familiar with the social model of disability, the short answer is – just ask yourself if the therapy materials follow a social model of disability or a medical model.

I aim to simplify the process in identifying whether a resource is neurodiversity-affirming or not. With a discerning eye and a little bit of background knowledge, you’ll be able to filter out the marketing noise. So you can feel confident the materials you’re choosing and practices you’re adopting are indeed neurodiversity-affirming.

Definitions

There are many terms that have come about since the origin of neurodiversity. “Neurodivergent, neurodiversity paradigm, neurodiversity movement, neurodiversity-affirming”—these terms aren’t always consistent across spaces.

So let’s break down “neurodiversity” as the diversity of brains or brain differences in human nature, and “affirming” as giving encouragement, support, or recognition. “Neurodivergent” simply refers to a person whose brain deviants from what we consider typical.

Cheat sheet:

  • “neuro” = brain; diverge or diverse = difference from typical
  • “-gent” = person; i.e., neurodivergent, a person who diverges from typical
  • “-ence” = noun suffix; i.e., neurodivergence, the state of a brain diverging from typical
  • “-ity” = noun suffix; i.e., neurodiversity, the state of brains differing from one another
  • “paradigm” = thought patterns/concepts; i.e., the perspective that brain differences are valuable
  • “movement” = campaign for change; i.e., pertaining to human rights and equality for disabled people

I personally like to use “neurodivergent-affirming” more than “neurodiversity-affirming” because I like thinking about giving affirmation to actual people rather than affirmation for the concept of brain diversity, but I think “neurodiversity-affirming” is more widely used.

Four questions I consider

I’d like to use all that as a foundation to help us with identifying neurodiversity-affirming and not-affirming practices. Just because a therapy practice claims it’s neurodiversity-affirming, doesn’t necessarily mean it is.

To help in distinguishing truly neurodiversity-affirming practices, these are the questions I keep in the back of my mind.

Does this…

  1. Consider the disabled person’s perspective in what we’re doing?
  2. Consider the disabled person’s perspective as equally valuable as a non-disabled person’s perspective? 
  3. Benefit the disabled person and serve their needs?
  4. Hold equal rights and opportunity to the disabled person as their non-disabled peers?

The answers to the above questions should all be yes if the practice or method is neurodivergent-affirming.

Now let’s go over the shadow or other side of those same questions.

Does this therapy…

  1. Discount the disabled person’s perspective? Does it project another perspective onto them?
  2. Consider a non-disabled person’s perspective as more valuable than the disabled person’s perspective?
  3. Benefit or cater to the needs of the dominant neurotype more than the person with a disability?
  4. Hold the disabled person back from receiving equal rights and opportunities as their non-disabled peers?

Why these questions?

I chose these questions as a guide for assessing whether a therapy material or practice is operating under the social model of disability or the medical model.

Neurodiversity-affirming practices align with the social model of disability. The medical model centers addressing the disability and the social model centers addressing the person with the disability.

These screening questions work because no therapy that operates under the medical model of disability or focuses on eliminating the disability, will pass these questions. Every effort that we can make to change speech/language therapy to be more neurodiversity-friendly is a win.

The neurodiversity movement is considered a civil rights movement for people with disabilities. The movement asserts that brain differences, including disabilities, should be accepted as natural human variation and treated equally as non-disabled brains. Just because neurotypical may be the majority brain, doesn’t mean that it is the right brain. Contrary to our testing materials, there is no “gold standard” of brains.

Why is that? Because when we see neurodiversity as a form of natural variation of human brains, we let go of fixating on those differences we often consider disabilities. This doesn’t mean that a person is no longer disabled; it means we accept that disabilities are a natural occurrence. Our focus becomes helping the person navigate their disability rather than treating and eliminating it.

When we focus on helping the child vs their disability, when we have the mindset to see and meet their individual needs, only then can they begin to thrive.

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