What Is Neuroaffirmative Language And Why Does It Matter?


I grew up with a disabled mother, so I’ve always been sensitive to the language that is used around disability. I’ve heard language that conveys acceptance and appreciation and language that dehumanises and ridicules.

When I was training to be an Occupational Therapist, and then later worked in the NHS, I was surrounded by the deficit model of disability. Unfortunately, I didn’t know any different, and adopted this language. Language that I now see was potentially offensive.

It wasn’t until I discovered the neurodiversity paradigm in 2021 that I changed my language (and practice) to become neuroaffirmative.

What is neuroaffirmative language?

Neuroaffirmative language honours neurodiversity and conveys respect, positivity and affirmation of different neurotypes.

If you are not familiar with the neurodiversity movement, let’s start by defining a few key terms:

Neurodiversity refers to the fact that people’s brains work in different ways. These differences are natural variations, not disorders or deficits that need to be fixed. Some people’s brains simply work differently. Neurodiversity encompasses neurodivergent and neurotypical people.

Neurodivergence has been defined as ‘​showing patterns of thought or behaviour that differ from those of most people’1 and ‘having a type of brain that is often considered different from what is usual’2.

The term covers ADHD, Autism, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia (DCD), Dyscalculia, Sensory Processing, OCD, Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia. Some people also include Tourette’s Syndrome. At least 20% of adults in the UK are neurodivergent.

Neurotypical is a term that describes people who are not neurodivergent. People who are neurotypical have brains that function in a way typical of most people.

A big aspect of being neuroaffirmative is listening to the voices of neurodivergent people and following their lead.  

Autistic adults are telling us they want to be referred to with identity first, rather than person first language. For example, ‘Autistic child’ rather than a ‘child with Autism’. This identity first language is often used to show an acceptance of their identity and an acknowledgment of their strengths.

In contrast, person first language has come from the desire to see an individual as being ‘more than their diagnosis’, which comes from the perspective that Autism is a deficit3. Similarly, they identify with the term ‘Autistic’ instead of the negative ‘Autistic Spectrum Disorder’.

Why does terminology matter?

Society has viewed neurodivergent conditions as medical disorders that need to be ‘fixed’. The neurodiversity movement challenges this view, instead viewing neurodivergence as part of a spectrum of natural human diversity and an essential part of identity4.

Traditional terminology that portrays autism with a negative lens includes the terms:

  • ‘child with autism,
  • ‘autistic symptoms’,
  • ‘at risk of autism’
  • co-morbidities

Preferred language which sees autism as something to be celebrated without minimising support needs sand challanges inlcudes:

  • as ‘autistic child’,
  • ‘autistic characteristics’
  • ‘may be Autistic’
  • co-occurring conditions

Rather than locating the problems neurodivergent people face within the individual, neurodiversity views the disabilities associated with different conditions as being due to unsupportive or discriminatory environments, systems and practices.

Importantly, as well as affecting the attitude and behaviour of health and education professionals, using the language of neurodiversity and identity first can be very positive for the individual.

Studies have found that Autistic individuals who identify with the concept of neurodiversity perceive their Autism more positively and as an identity rather than a disorder. This offers self-acceptance and positive self-regard that can protect against mental health conditions5.

Time to change our language

Understanding neurodivergence as neurological differences rather than disorders has significantly affected my practice as an occupational therapist. Instead of the focus of my assessments and interventions on trying to ‘fix the child’, by developing the child’s skills, I want to help parents and teachers create more inclusive environments.

It has also affected how I parent my Autistic son. I’m much more aware of talking to him about the strengths and challenges of different neurotypes.


I am still learning and challenging my previous ways of viewing neurodiversity. For all of us, re-education and challenging old patterns of thinking are necessary, as many of the terms that were acceptable only a few years ago are outdated now6.

I would encourage you to learn more about neurodiversity. I believe it’s really important that you adopt neuro-affirmative language. The language you use has power!

(This blog post was adapted from the chapter ‘A Note on Terminology’ in my book ‘Inclusive PE for SEND Children’)

  1. Oxford’s Learner’s Dictionary. “Neurodivergent”, Oxford Learner’s Dictionary. https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/neurodivergent ↩︎
  2. Cambridge Dictionary. “Neurodivergent”, Cambridge Dictionary. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/neurodivergent ↩︎
  3. Autistic Not Weird. The Autistic Not Weird 2022 Autism Survey. https://autisticnotweird.com/autismsurvey/ ↩︎
  4. Monk, Ruth et al. “The Use of Language In Autism Research”. Trends Neuroscience, vol. 45, no. 11, 2022, pp.791-793. doi: 10.1016/j.tins.2022.08.009 ↩︎
  5. Reframing Autism. “Introduction to Autism, Part 5: Neurodiversity (What iis it and why do we care?) Reframing Autism. https://reframingautism.org.au/introduction-to-autism-part-5-neurodiversity-what-is-it-and-why-do-we-care/ ↩︎
  6. To see examples of this see survey results on changing language use. Results and analysis from Autistic Not Weird Survey. https://autisticnotweird.com/autismsurvey/ ↩︎