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What exactly is Neurodivergence-Affirming Practice?

Great question! To preface, 'Neurodiversity' is a term coined by Judy Singer in 1988 to describe the variation in neurotypes across and between all humans, both neurotypical and divergent. 'Neurodivergence' refers specifically to neurotypes that diverge, or differ, from the neurotypical majority. Neurodivergence-affirming practice is thereby an approach to working alongside individuals with neurotypes that diverge away from the majority of 'typical' neurotypes in the population. This can include Autistic folk, people with ADHD, learning disabilities; the umbrella is broad and Sonny Jane Wise at Lived Experience Educator has developed a delightful infographic that illustrates what may be conceptualised as neurodivergence:

Working affirmingly means seeking to understand and appreciate the unique ways in which neurodivergent individuals think, learn and communicate, rather than trying to change or "fix" them. This framework also acknowledges that many (or most) dominant medical and therapeutic models, therapies and theories have been developed based on neuromajorative populations and can therefore neglect to understand and support neurodivergent experiences and needs. In short - what we know and how we are trained may not be 'all that' when working with Neurodivergent folk, so we do it differently. What are some of the ways we can do things differently?

  • Recognising and valuing the strengths and abilities of neurodivergent individuals, rather than conceptualising said differences as deficits, faults or pathologies. This requires nuance, though! Some neurodivergent folk will be bothered by aspects of their differences and will seek support for this. That's okay - working affirmingly doesn't mean we assume that everything is sunshine and rainbows and super positive (that's just toxic). The difference is that we collaborate with neurodivergent clients on their understandings of themselves rather than assuming pathology or deficit.

  • Creating inclusive and supportive environments that can offer flexibility in accommodating the needs of neurodivergent individuals. This includes their sensory preferences and aversions, communication needs, social and play needs, and self-regulation needs.

  • Collaborating with neurodivergent individuals to set goals and work out what appropriate and helpful support needs may be. This means that we don't 'speak' for clients, don't make decisions for them about what they need, and don't set goals for them. We do all of this WITH clients. Not their parents, not their teachers, not their carers. Sure, it's important to seek the input of folk around the client, but the client needs to be centred in terms of advocating for what they need help with, what they think will work, as well as being given lots of opportunity to let us know when things are not working or not helping.

  • Building on the last point, promoting self-advocacy and self-determination for neurodivergent individuals is key. Historically, neurodivergent people have been spoken for and spoken over. We need to change this, and we do this by always making space for our clients to advocate. They may not know how, so our job is then to support the development of this skill.

Neurodivergent-affirming practice should also be informed by awareness of our own views, biases and experiences as clinicians, as well as those embedded in the systems clients live within. Constant reflection is needed to check and balance potential ableist and oppressive beliefs/practices that we may not even be aware of. This doesn't mean a clinician is malicious if they become aware of ableist beliefs or thoughts! It is simply reflective of living in a society build around neuromajority standards and expectations. The beauty of noticing these standards and expectations is that we can then consciously choose to challenge them for ourselves and with our clients, leading to work that is affirming of neurominority needs and experiences. Working affirmingly also requires us to wear an intersectional lens, considering the intersectionality of neurodivergence with other marginalised identities, groups and needs including race, culture, religion, socio-economic background, physical disability, gender and/or sexuality. A prime example is the experience of neurodivergent women: Historically, neurodivergent women have been overlooked/under-identified/misdiagnosed given that diagnostic criteria has been largely developed from samples of boys and men. This is doubly so for neurodivergent women of colour, as the samples of boys/men have generally been Caucasian. In essence:

  • When we know better, we can do better.

  • Rather than assuming things about your client, ask them!

  • If you don't know, ask! (Your client, supervisor, or the evidence base).

  • Be aware of your own ways of being and how your client's ways may differ to yours. Neither ways are better or worse than the other, they're just different.

  • Cultural humility and sensitivity is needed when working with neurodivergent people, just as it is when working with clients of other diverse backgrounds.

  • Listen to the neurodivergent community.

Want to know/read more? Here are some excellent resources:

  • Thoughts from the Autistic community about what makes an affirming practitioner.

  • A list of Autistic advocates and Autistic-developed resources and training courses.

  • Keep an eye on Reframing Autism, an Autistic-led organisation who produce resources and training for professionals as well as the wider community.

Do you have a favourite resource about affirming practice that you'd like to add to this list? Feel welcome to comment below with it so it can be added!

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