What Does it Mean to be Neurodiverse-Affirming?


And why it is important.

The brain has natural variations and differences and this does not mean that some people’s brains are flawed—it means that they are naturally different and that is not something that needs to be fixed or corrected. Being neurodiverse affirming means that we can recognize these differences and see them as natural and see them as strengths as well as, in some cases, a disability. Every brain is unique.

Neurodiverse: usually is referring to people with ADHD, sensory processing disorder, learning disabilities, on the autism spectrum or a combination of these like AuDHD (autism and ADHD).

Neurodiverse affirming care is extremely important—it means that the care that is being offered is not an attempt to force, coerce or encourage neurodiverse folks into being neurotypical or an attempt to make them ‘fit in.’ Affirming care focuses on promoting self-determination, self-advocacy and self-esteem. This type of care treats neurodiverse folks with respect and includes them in the goal setting process—giving them the right to say no and give consent. A collaborative process is very important in sending the message of ‘what you say matters and you have control over your own life choices.’

Modalities that are neurodiverse friendly

Strength-based approaches

Strength-based approaches help identify the person’s strengths and skills—literally every single person on this planet has strengths, whether they recognize it or not. This approach doesn’t view people as having deficits and attempts to enhance the strengths that the person already has and build off of them. This approach also aims to boost self-esteem and confidence.

Creative expression approaches

Creative expression approaches focus on helping people express themselves, use their voice and embrace their creativity—this approaches includes art therapy, music therapy, play therapy, sandtray therapy, recreational therapy and any other therapy or enrichment activity that utilizes artistic and creative expression as a way to build self-esteem, confidence and enhance overall wellbeing. Creative expression approaches can be great for non-verbal folks because they can express themselves through painting, play, in a sandtray or however they want. Both strength-based and creative expression approaches celebrate clients passions and talents.

Sensory friendly accommodations

Neurodiverse affirming also means that sensory needs are taken in to consideration. Many neurodiverse folks have sensory sensitivities and this can cause sensory overload from certain stimuli.

Neurodiverse folks can benefit from these sensory accommodations:

Sight—Providing a space that doesn’t have too much light or sudden changes in lights.

Touch—Welcoming and inviting people to bring their own sensory objects or to provide them—such as fidget spinners, stress balls, slinkies or silly putty.

Taste—Providing drinks or snacks that are safe for the person.

Hearing—Being able to provide a space that is free of loud and abrasive noises.  Providing noise canceling head phones. Welcoming people that want to bring their own headphones or music.

Smell—The place is not heavily scented and ideally is scent free.

Bonus—Providing a safe space/sensory room—a quiet and safe place where the person can go to get away from the group and decompress.

*Welcoming Augmentative and alternative communication tools for those that communicate this way.

Sometimes it is not possible provide all of these. For example, if you are in a city and there is a lot of honking and traffic outside—that can’t be control. Being sensory friendly means that you are making an attempt to accommodate these needs.

Other things to look out for…

Unfortunately, there are not a lot of trainings offered on how to be neurodiverse affirming and many graduate programs don’t cover this topic. This sadly means that many people working in the mental health field don’t have the training, education or experience with helping these folks. But…there are some that do and some that are amazing and here are some questions you can ask to help figure out who is affirming and experienced and who isn’t.

What kind of questions can I ask a therapist to find out if they are neurodiverse affirming?

Have you worked with neurodiverse/autistic/ADHD folks before?

How much experience have you had working with neurodiverse folks?

What education do you have around neurodiversity? Autism? ADHD? Or other…

Are you familiar with terms like, stimming, masking, autistic burnout and ________?

What does it mean to you do be neurodiverse affirming?

Do you have sensory friendly accommodations?

Ableism is a type discrimination that favors able-bodied and neurotypical people.

Ableist approaches to working with neurodiverse folks may look like…

-Teaching folks to mask their autistic behaviors such as stimming.

-Attempts to de-sensitize ‘sensitivities’.

-Makes the assumption that there is something about autistic behaviors that needs to be corrected—in favor of neurotypical behaviors.

-Does not include the person in the goal setting process.

-Teaches people to obey and comply.

-Encourages or forces people to make eye contact when it is overwhelming for them.

-Teaching people they should ignore their discomfort and prioritize other people’s comfort.

-Use of pressure, punishment or overly repetitive tactics.

-Does not listen to the person or take them seriously.

Intersectionality—race, gender and sexuality

Neurodiverse folks are truly diverse and may be of any race, gender or sexual orientation. When working with neurodiverse folks, it’s important to take all of their intersectional identities into consideration and value their differences as what makes them a unique individual. The term ‘intersectionality’ refers to when a person has interconnected or overlapping identities that each have their own experience of discrimination. For example, a white, LGBTQIA+, autistic person may have totally different life experiences and challenges than a heterosexual, Asian, autistic person—that is why taking in race, gender, sexual orientation and other factors into consideration is important when working with these folks—being neurodiverse can differ very broadly from person to person. No two people are the same.

Trauma-informed approaches

Working with neurodiverse folks requires being trauma-informed as well, because, like the rest of humans—neurodiverse people are susceptible to trauma. Some neurodiverse folks have very sensitive nervous systems which can make them more likely to be impacted by trauma and develop PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). This population can be even more vulnerable to trauma because of their ongoing experiences of rejection, judgement, oppression and abuse.

A trauma-informed approach…

-Prioritizes safety—it is important that the person feels safe in the spaces they are in.

– Prioritizes building a relationship that the person feels secure in—this establishes more of a sense of safety and trust.

-Attempts to reduce triggers, anxiety and overwhelm.

-Attempts to reduce the risk of re-traumatization.

-Helps the person feel in control by asking for their consent in every step of the process.

-Views stimming as something that may be calming the nervous system.

Importance of advocacy

-For accessing more support for neurodiverse folks.

-Promoting acceptance and inclusivity in all spaces.

-Modeling how to educate yourself and check in with your own biases.

-Promoting education around how to be neurodiverse affirming.

-Promoting more opportunities for neurodiverse folks in the workplace, in school and other spaces.

Being neurodiverse affirming is necessary in order to provide the support these folks deserve and need—and to not perpetuate any more trauma and suffering. The ultimate goal of working with these folks needs to be increasing quality of life and to treat these folks like they are whole as they are—not broken. We can provide safe spaces that are pressure-free zones—where they can feel like they are able to express their authentic selves without judgement or consequences. Places that adapt to them and provide support for their needs instead of making them adapt to others.

 Places that they feel like they can thrive in.

Let’s celebrate the strengths and uniqueness of these folks who truly make the world a better place!

By Faith Elie, MA, MA, LPC

From Somatic Psychotherapy Michigan

Want to learn more? Feel free to reach out to Tink Tank Animate.