Some of you are experts. Some have never heard of the term. So let’s start with the basics. Neurodiversity. What is it?
Neurodiverse adj : 1. Displaying or characterized by autistic or other neurologically atypical patterns of thought or behavior; not neurotypical.
2. the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits, regarded as part of normal variation in the human population (used especially in the context of autistic spectrum disorders).
It’s a viewpoint that brain differences are normal, not a deficit, and unfortunately at this time, it is not as widely practiced as it should be. For simplified purposes, the opposite of Neurodiverse is Neurotypical. That means your brain functions and processing information the way the majority of society expects, encourages and rewards.
Boy oh boy, learning to celebrate and understand autism has been a much needed evolution for me. When I first realized I had not one, but two autistic children, I was terrified of what their future held. Scared of what I assumed they WOULDN’T be able to do in life. I mourned for them, for things I assumed everyone wanted and they wouldn’t have. Spoiler alert: I was so wrong. Truly. After learning to THINK DIFFERENTLY, and after wiping away outdated parental expectations, I learned how to love my boys EXACTLY the way they already are. (Greyson and Parker, you are perfect, just the way you are. You are not broken, you are not something to be cured.)
I want to offer to you, my friend reading this now, the Cliff Notes version of what that evolution contained.
Don’t Assume Person First!
Listen to autistic voices. Read their blogs, listen to their podcasts. Honor their contribution to the world. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network says, “Nothing About Us Without Us.”
Many articles like the following share this perspective on Person First Language, “As educators strive to be inclusive of all children, one way to begin is to actively use person-first language, a form of linguistic etiquette in which we describe a trait or diagnosis as something a person has rather than as who they are—e.g., “a person with diabetes,” not “a diabetic.” This is a way to honor and welcome students with different abilities. Indeed, how we discuss and describe our students profoundly impacts their sense of inclusion in the classroom.”
The problem is, someone who isn’t autistic wrote them. While this was well intentioned, it can not be assumed that Person First is everyones preference. As the opposite perspective (and from a self-advocate, aka- autistic) author Lydia Brown shares, “In the autism community, many self-advocates and their allies prefer terminology such as “Autistic,” “Autistic person,” or “Autistic individual” because we understand autism as an inherent part of an individual’s identity.
When in doubt, I refer to the experts, ie autistic adults, and I defer to identity-first, or to what someone prefers for themselves. Which leads me to the next point.
Don’t Assume Everyone Is The Same. (And it’s probably best to not assume anything at all.)
The Neurodiverse community are actively advocating for a deeper understanding and recognition of individual experience over general awareness of ‘conditions’ and labels. Not all autistics rock or flap their hands or can do Math like Dustin Hoffman in Rainman.
Each person is a human being in their own right, they have different interests, abilities, preferences, intellect, and hopes and dreams. The only thing you can assume is that they ALL want to be appreciated and accepted for who they are.
Don’t assume they can’t hear you just because they can’t speak.
Don’t assume they are lacking intellect. That is not part of an autism disorder.
Don’t assume just because they don’t know how to connect with peers, that they don’t want to.
Don’t assume that behavior is out to get you. It’s usually a student communicating in the easiest way for them at the time.
I could go ON with fill in the blanks after “Don’t Assume:” What would you add to the list?
The way you talk to autistics, and the way you talk about autism MATTERS. Sometimes parenting and teaching is HARD. It’s imperative to have somewhere to vent and express yourself. However, I would never do that on social media channels or in front of kids, autistic or not. Usually when I’m at the end of my rope or struggling, it’s because of my own current mindset or lack of patience and nothing to do with my childrens’ behavior. I would hate it if the person I spent the most time with spoke poorly about me, or saw everything I did with a deficit mindset.
If you are talking about them and they are in the room, include them in the conversation. If it’s praise- Hey, Grey- I’m going to tell Mom how well you did double digit addition today! You know I’m so proud of you. Or sharing concerns: Grey, I need to tell Miss Andrea that you didn’t sleep well last night and this morning has been a struggle.
Language matters- even the little things like replacing ‘Obsession’ with – passion or special Interest. If I know everything about a topic I’m considered an expert, while an autistic is considered “obsessed.”
Don’t Pathologize Something Just Because It’s Different.
Neurodivercity can bring strengths and skills, a new way of looking at something. Autistic behaviour is defined as abnormal because it’s not how the majority behaves. That’s not cool.
When Grey was two, I was asked in an evaluation- Does he rock or spin or flap his hands?
No, I replied. Is that something he is going to start to do?
What do I do if that happens? I asked concerned. Like one day he would just explode like a firework.
Then we will come up with a protocol to stop him. For example, if he flaps his hands, we will say, “hands down” and then put his hands by his side. Then you will say, “Good hands down.” You can also remind him to have quiet hands.
I was also taught to make sure he didn’t line up cars or items, or look at things out of the corner of his eye.
I wanted to take notes so I could make sure to get everything done correctly. I didn’t know at the time how awful that is. I’m all for exposing my boys to new ways of playing/looking at things, but I realized I need to be willing to look at things differently too. Besides, I LOVE to line things up! In my closet, in my fridge, on shelves. But that’s ok just because I’m Neurotypical?!
Assume CAN Until Proven Otherwise:
This one may drive you insane, it may make you doubt yourself during the in between, you may be the ONLY one with this mindset. And when it clicks, or comes together or works, it will be some of the greatest experiences of your life.
One of the greatest tragedies is when a perfectly capable student is given work well below their abilities because it’s assumed that’s all they can handle. This doesn’t just apply to work. This could be the leisure activities (Junior high kids are entitled to enrichment that doesn’t involve baby toys/puzzles). Students need exposure to age respectful games and activities. If you don’t know what typical kids their age are into, just ask. Typical kids and parents love to help out.
Include autistic students in all the school’s or communities warm fuzzies. This could be School Jobs or award ceremonies (alone or with peer help if needed), this could be field trips and science fairs, school sports, and activities. This won’t be appropriate for every student, but they also should never ALL be excluded just because they are in a Special Day class.
It’s up to us to show the world the importance of Diverse Minds by showing through example how to change the narrative of autism. We can reframe current perceptions of autism. Neurodifferences are skills and behaviors the world needs more of, and can and should be embraced by all.