Here’s a quick breakdown of some terms commonly seen when talking about neurodiversity. I use many of these in my writing so want to make sure everyone understands, and also by understanding this language we can help build a world more accesible to neurodiverse people. If you have any questions about these or any other terms let me know in the comments below!
Neurodivergence means that someone’s brain learns, processes, and/or behaves differently from what is considered the norm. Autism and ADHD are most commonly associated with being neurodivergent, but the term also encompasses many other conditions and ways of braining (so to speak) such as: OCD, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Bipolar, Dyscalculia, Down Syndrome, epilepsy, and other chronic mental health conditions.
Neurotypical describes someone who’s brain tends to function in the way that is considered the norm, more aligned to how the world is set up. This can be seen abbreviated to NT.
Allistic means not autistic. It doesn’t necessarily mean someone is neurotypical, it just means that they’re not autistic.
Some people use terms such as ‘high-functioning/ low-functioning’ to describe the presentation of neurodivergent people, especially autistic people. However many neurodivergent people don’t like the use of these labels at all. This is because high-functioning essentially means ‘more able to act neurotypical’ and erases the very real challenges in their lives, and challenges from being able to present more neurotypical when they are not! Meanwhile ‘low-functioning’ tends to write people off as having less value or ability to do anything because they don’t conform to neurotypical standards. There are many more issues with these labels, but all to say that these labels fail to encompass the experience of neurodivergent people and puts them in boxes – unless a neurodivergent person tells you it’s ok to use these labels specifically to describe them, it’s best to avoid them.
Stimming stands for self-stimulatory behaviour. It involves the repetition of some kind of movement, sound or behaviour to regulate a person’s nervous system. While all people may stim sometimes, it is a common trait in neurodivergent people – especially those with autism or ADHD – to stim regularly, although some people may have been trained or forced not to stim which can be very damaging. Examples may be flapping hands, bouncing their legs, humming – the list goes on and on. Unless the behaviour is immediately dangerous to the person you should never try to stop them (and even if it is, proceed with caution and sensitivity).
Nonverbal means a person does not speak. You may hear the term ‘nonverbal autistic’ or ‘non speaking autistic’. Being nonverbal does not mean a person is less worthy or less able to communicate, nor does it mean anything about their intelligence or personality; it simply means they don’t speak – and it is important that they are provided the resources to express their own experience, needs, and access education. It’s also very important within the autistic community that we uplift and listen to nonverbal autistic voices – especially POC nonverbal voices – as they are often the most ostracised. Here are three pages on Instagram you can have a look at:
- @ galaxibrain
- @ fidgets.and.fries
- @ nigh.functioning.autism
Ableism refers to the system, and as a part of that the individual actions and words, that discriminate against disabled people (many neurodiverse people are disabled, which is not a bad word). Ableism is often not understood or recognised and it is intrinsically linked with racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and economic inequality. It affects the life of disabled people everyday.
Masking means a neurodivergent person is covering up their traits. Many people learn to do this to be accepted easier, and may not even know they are doing it, and it can lead to serious burnout. Sometimes people are forced to mask in situations for their own safety.
Sensory Seeking/ Sensory Avoidant
These terms can refer to specific behaviour or the whole experience of an individual. For example someone may describe themselves as ‘sensory seeking’ meaning that they often act in a way that looks for more sensory input to regulate their nervous system and how they are feeling. This would mean they are under sensitive to input like noise, texture etc. Meanwhile someone who was sensory avoidant would be extra sensitive to sensory input, so they would look to lower how much sensory input they had. People may not even realise this is what they are doing. Some people may be sensory seeking at times and sensory avoidant at others – it’s not always the same.
Sensory overload is when your five senses take in more information than your brain can process at that time. This can set off a fight, flight or freeze reaction which can feel really scary and like a crisis to the individual, especially if they don’t understand what’s going on. It can present in lots of different ways. The difference between sensory overload and an anxiety or panic attack is that sensory overload will usually subside/ lessen when sensory input is decreased.
Tics commonly occur alongside lots of neurodivergent conditions. They are involuntary sounds or movements and the person cannot stop these from happening.
Echolalia is the meaningless repetition of something someone has just said. Autistic people, those with Tourette’s or developmental/ neurological conditions can often have echolalia.
ABA stands for applied behaviour analysis. It’s a therapy that many autistic people, especially children, are subjected to to try and modify their behaviour so it is seen as safer or more acceptable. The problem is it often teaches autistic kids to mask and many people have come out later in life to speak out against the trauma they experienced from ABA. There is a lot of pushback from the autistic community on this kind of therapy being used, but the conversation is complicated as many parents of autistic kids often have no other choices when worried about their child’s safety or where their children will go everyday. This is not a field of great knowledge for me so once again I would refer you to research autistic viewpoints if you’d like to know more about ABA (fidget.and.fries on Instagram ein particular has a downloadable file of all their extensive writings on ABA).
Self-diagnosis is a term often seen with autistic and ADHDers. It means that they have not chosen to or been able to pursue an official diagnosis from a ‘professional’, but that they recognise themselves to be neurodivergent. Many people do not have equal access to professional diagnosis – and the diagnostic system itself is very outdated – so they have to self-diagnose. It’s important they are respected and listened to regardless. Some people may also choose not to pursue an official diagnosis because they are worried about the repercussions of this.
Person-first language vs identity-first language
Identity first language puts the condition of a person first – for example ‘autistic person’. Person first language puts the person first – for example ‘person with autism’. They’re are arguments for both. Some people see person first language as emphasising the fullness of a person without defining them by their condition, while identity first language can be seen as recognising how the condition is an intrinsic part of a person and not something to be ashamed of. A large part of the autistic community in specific is in favour of identity first language, however it will always come down to personal preference, and each person’s preference should be honoured when referring to them specifically.