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Depathologizing Neurodivergent Language

Updated: Nov 12, 2023

Neurodiversity describes the natural variation in human neurological functioning. This paradigm appreciates differences as district ways of being with inherent value, rather than disordered variations of a “correct” way of being. Brain differences have traditionally been pathologized in the western medical model. This means that differences in being, perceiving, and expressing, have been seen as deficits within the individual which should be cured or corrected. 

The trouble with this perspective is the presumption that different ways of being need be rectified rather than embraced; that disability lives within the individual, which can and SHOULD be corrected. This pathologized perspective makes sense when describing infections, cancers, and acute traumas. Illness and injuries often cause objective disruption to one’s quality of life and longevity with recovery and cures as attainable and desirable outcomes.

When describing developmental differences, such as Autism, ADHD, and learning disorders through this pathologized lens, traits that often cause no objective harm to the ND individual absent environmental barriers, are equated to disease. Suffering, to some extent, is presumed.  

However, the neurodiversity paradigm, rooted in the social model of disability, acknowledges the roles of the environment and society in disability. It purports that one who is different may suffer not because of the difference alone but because their environment does not support their way of being. 

Viewing all neurodiversity in a pathologized, medical model further others diversity, overlooking the distinct value of varied perspectives. Through the pathologized lens, extant effort is misplaced on supposed treatment and cures rather than supporting perfectly whole individuals as they are. 

An important note: The neurodiversity-affirming perspective does not dismiss the truth that many ND individuals experience significant disability secondary to their differences and low support environments but it does not presume disability and suffering on the basis of neurological difference alone. 

On that note, let’s explore more de-pathologized ways of communicating neurodivergent identities and experiences. 

Instead of saying “a person with autism” or a person with “autism spectrum disorder”…

Say Autistic person. This shift from “person-first language” to “identity-first language” shifts away from describing “a person with a condition” and towards an appreciation for autism as a core feature of one’s identity that the person will never be without. Saying someone who is autistic is autistic is not offensive. However, disregarding an overwhelming preference for describing this way of being is. (87% of autistic adults prefer identity-first language, Taboas et al., 2022 ) 

Instead of describing someone as “high or low functioning”…

Describe their “support needs,” which are variable and context-specific. In other words, support needs are the amount of external support that is needed for that individual to live comfortably and safely (low, moderate, high). Describing someone as “high functioning” due to their likeness to neurotypicality discounts their internal struggle and supports necessary to function as such. 

Instead of describing someone who does not identify as neurodivergent as “normal”…

Use "neurotypical" or typical. You can use "allistic,"

if they are non-autistic. 

Instead of saying deficits…

Use “differences” or “traits,” which are neutral descriptors of diversity. 

Instead of describing “co-morbidities”…

Use “co-occuring,” which is a neutral way to describe two or more conditions that commonly occur together that does not imply suffering by default. 

Instead of non-verbal for individuals who don’t communicate through spoken language…

“Non-speaking” is more accurate. Nonverbal means without words and dismisses the fact that many ND individuals understand and use words through non-spoken means.

These minor language shifts are an important step towards reframing perception of neurodiversity. Much more work still to go.

-Rachel Robertson, MOT, OTRL


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