What is Neurodivergent Affirming?

‘Neurodivergent (ND) affirming service provision’ is a term that refers to the importance of services to be facilitated differently in order for people with a neurodivergent brain to complete them. In order for a service to be ND affirming, it must have taken steps to consider the differences in ND brains (when compared to NT brains) and made changes and accommodations to support a person who has an ND brain to thrive.

You can watch some training on ND Affirming Practice here (these are the same two links from the course):

Let’s face it, the world is established to make NT people feel good about themselves and to make ND people feel broken, unwell, mentally ill, stupid, ignorant, and socially incompetent. To say that the NT brain has ‘privilege’, doesn’t even come close to explaining the significant advantage that the NT brain has in this world, in Australia, in QLD, in my suburb, even, until recently, in my house.

Let me take you on a little trip around society and point out some pretty unfair situations, institutions, rules, expectations, and social norms. Before we can work out how to be ND affirming, we must first have our minds exposed to what is not ND affirming. We must first receive that metaphoric punch in the guts as we realise that we have been part of, and are still part of, making a massive number of people (eg. ND people), feel broken, feel unwell, feel unable to cope.

Here are some rules and situations which exist to dictate how we should behave to be considered a compliant, included, valued person. Those who don’t follow these established norms are considered to be quite deviant, by society’s general expectations.

  • Children need to follow directions from adults.
  • Children need to do what Teachers tell them, even if they don’t want to.
  • Children must eat what they are given and be thankful.
  • Children must say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ and look at people when they are talking to you.
  • Children should play outside more, not be sitting on their iPad’s all day.
  • Children should not say rude words.
  • Children should develop, based on the milestones set. Walking and talking around 1 year of age, engaging with others from the same time, seeking out friends and social situations, looking at people.
  • Children who don’t develop ‘typically’ are considered to be ‘delayed’.
  • Children who don’t speak are considered to be ‘non-verbal’, even if they verbalise fine, they just don’t speak.
  • Clever children who trick other children, or who lie about things to achieve their goals, are considered naughty and punished.
  • Children are not more clever than adults, this is not allowed.
  • Children cannot give directions to adults; this is considered rude.
  • Children must wait to speak, and not interrupt.
  • Children need to all have the same sensory profile and need the same amount of affection as their peers.
  • Children should sleep through the night, if they don’t, there is something wrong.
  • Designed to be in pre-designed groups, with no consideration of diversity.
  • Demands at every stage, from arrival at school, to every single task associated with school.
  • Teachers make ongoing demands – it’s literally their job to do this.
  • Everyone must sit for the same amount of time, stand for the same amount of time and have the same amount of breaks.
  • You can’t talk too much, or you get in trouble.
  • You have to do the same curriculum, including content you like, as well as content that you don’t like. Even things that you don’t want to learn, have to be learned.
  • The way you are taught is by someone standing and talking to you, regardless of what your individual learning style is.
  • There are heaps of kids there, but there are tricks to making them like you. These tricks are not written down anywhere, nor are shared with anyone. If you don’t work out these tricks, you will have no friends.
  • If you have no friends, you will be teased and mocked by other children.
  • If you tell children you want to be alone, you will be called weird.
  • If you tell children you want to be their best friend (before you actually are), you will be called weird.
  • If you want to share information you consider important at times that others don’t believe are suitable, you are told to be quiet, or you called weird.
  • You are asked to do your own work, then a Teacher tells you how wrong your work is.
  • If you’re really clever and more intelligent than your classmates, you still need to go at their pace.
  • If you’re struggling to keep up with your classmates, you will get in trouble, or be given extra work that you also find really hard.
  • If you need movement to regulate and you cannot learn when you’re not regulated, then you just can’t learn as you’re only allowed movement when the Teacher lets you.
  • The Teachers have some sort of extreme power and can even control your home life, after school, by requesting you to use your own time at home, to do more of the work that you didn’t like while at school.
  • There is supposed to be a set of rules, but Teachers constantly break them for certain children, or change them based on situations that they decide. There is no rule book which lists these exceptions.
  • You are graded based on the ‘average’. You are instructed based on the ‘average’. Even if your brain is not ‘average’, you must still be taught and graded by the ‘average’.
  • School is the same time every day, regardless of whether you are well, or not.
  • For those who have fast moving brains which love to learn, school uses rewards and incentives to push our brains to go further, but then we must wait for everyone else to catch up.
  • School places us in difficult situations, with lots of expectations, but there is nothing in the curriculum to teach us how to manage these situations.
  • Teachers are not educated about Autism as a neurotype, only as a behavioural problem.
  • Teachers are not educated about Developmental Coordination Disorders (DCD’s) like Dyspraxia, Dysgraphia, Dyscalculia and Dyslexia. They cannot identify it in children and children who have these DCD’s go undiagnosed in most schools. As a result of the DCD, these children feel stupid, don’t understand why they can’t do certain things that their peers do, get sick of getting it wrong and going slow, get incredibly anxious around any time that these skills are required.
  • Most Teachers don’t know what masking, or stimming is. Those who do know what stimming is, don’t allow it in the classroom in most situations.
  • Fidgets can be disruptive to other children, so they are not allowed in most schools.
  • NT children talking and laughing can be painful and exhausting to some ND children, but this is still allowed and the ND children need to ‘deal with it’.
  • Teachers have the same expectations for all children, regardless of any diversity. The quiet ones are expected to talk, the loud ones are expected to be quiet. The wriggly ones are expected to sit still. There is one way to do everything and it’s not possible to change this as there is only 1-2 Teachers/Assistants in each class.
  • If you don’t fit the standard, this means there’s something wrong with you.
  • If the content doesn’t interest you, this means something is wrong with you.
  • If the environment is too loud, or overwhelming, this means something is wrong with you.
  • Shopping centres are loud, noisy and have people bustling everywhere.
  • People think you’re rude if you don’t smile and appear like you want to spend time with them.
  • In shops, people talk to you as soon as you enter and keep talking to you, even when it’s clear you don’t want to talk to them.
  • It’s considered ‘rude’ to be honest, unless you’re saying something that makes other people feel good.
  • You cannot express, or meet any of your sensory needs in public, unless it’s veiled to look like something that people are familiar with.
  • Everyone must wear clothing considered ‘normal’ to the neuromajority.
  • Every bank, most businesses make you phone them to do anything. There needs to be people engagement at most levels of business and organisation. You need to be good at phone calls.
  • People are under no obligation to be quiet and respect people’s sensory needs, conversely, you can’t be louder than what’s considered normal.
  • Everything is lit quite bright, with no option to change lighting in community and shopping environments.
  • To access most services, you need to engage with large groups of people.
  • Most people believe that “you should only speak if you have something nice to say”. There is no honesty, unless it validates people. Being honest is considered to be rude and we have no right to be rude.
  • It’s expected that everything we do, is done to validate others. We must clap when someone wins something, we must respond with ‘hello’ when someone says it to us. We must answer questions when asked.
  • In order to access services, we must fill out lengthy forms, regardless of if we’ve asserted that we are dyslexic or have any kind of disability. We don’t get the help for the issue, until we brave the issue to access the help. So ironic.
  • Service providers are allowed to cancel anytime, with no penalty. However, if a participant is overwhelmed and cannot manage anyone today, then they will be charged for the appointment anyway. You must organise to not be overwhelmed on every appointment time, or you’ll lose your funding.
  • Services have to be provided on the service providers terms. They will phone you, even if you don’t like the phone. They will email you lengthy pieces of information, even if you don’t like reading. There is minimal control in the terms of engagement.
  • Most providers will engage with you as if you have a problem, you are less than them, and they know more than you because of their qualifications.
  • Most providers will expect that your goals are to be more normal and to function in the usual way, conducive with the neuromajority.
  • Notes are often taken about you that you cannot access.
  • You may be asked to provide private information which is shared with the entire organisation.
  • Language is used which many of us don’t understand and questions are asked which we don’t know how to answer.
  • Clear information about what is going to happen is not provided. We don’t know what is next. The fear of the unknown can be overwhelming.
  • Service providers can gaslight you into believing things need to be fixed, or changed, because other people want them fixed, or changed and this is how they do business.
  • If you seem difficult, or change your mind, you may lose the services.

As you can see, the world is built and run by the neuromajority – the neurotypical. Anyone who doesn’t fit the norm, anyone unable to meet the expectations, anyone who looks different to what’s expected, is considered broken. Broken people need fixing and this is what the world is focused on. People are broken because they are being looked at from a lens that only considers one neurotype unbroken. People are broken because the rules about how to be ‘unbroken’ are not written down anywhere, yet must be followed. People are broken because one type of brain apparently has the right to decide how all types of brains must function.

This is why it’s so hard for NT people (Ally’s) to make their service provision ND affirming. In order to achieve this, you must totally change the lens you see our neurotype from. We must shift from seeing Autism and ADHD as a disability and instead, start seeing it as a neurotype. Next, we must adopt the lens of this neurotype, which can only be done by those who are this neurotype, and redesign services to make Au/DHD brains thrive and feel able to regulate and manage.

The fundamental difference in what motivates the sensory, purpose-driven ND/Au brain, compared to the validation seeking motivation of the NT neurotype is the reason that NT services keep failing to get it right. Not understanding this is why NT led services are often unsafe places for neurodivergent brains.

Being ND affirming includes:

  • Seeing people from their lens, not your own.
  • Seeing Autism and ADHD as a neurotype and a culture, not a disability.
  • Not determining if someone needs help, based on how different they are to what’s considered normal by the neuromajority.
  • Having Au voices guiding your services, checking your practices, and providing you information and support.
  • Not requiring small talk, forced social interactions, eye contact or ‘whole-body listening’.
  • Not using any of the practices determined to be harmful, based on international consensus from neurodivergent professionals. A list of these can be found in the resources below ‘Non-ABA Evidence Based practice’.
  • Changing physical environments to manage the sensory conditions (lighting, noise, smell, food).
  • Don’t use conversion, compliance, or exposure therapies at all, ever.
  • Never record a person when they are having a meltdown, or in distress.
  • See meltdowns as a personal crisis, not as a ‘behaviour’.
  • Never restrain, seclude, or coerce people. Hands off!
  • Stop seeing communication as verbal speech and recognise it in gestures, stimming, body movements, AAC and even just by participation.
  • Don’t have cumbersome enrolment or access requirements for people to access service, if the services you provide are aimed at people who don’t manage cumbersome enrolment requirements. Have another way for people to get help, without all of the ‘process’.
  • If you’re working with neurodivergent participants, be trained to be aware and mindful of sensory stimulus and aversion. If you’re working as a specialist behaviour practitioner, become an expert at sensory stimulus, assessment, profiles, and response.
  • Understand interoception and respect the huge role it plays in the lives of many Au individuals.
  • Accept the constant interruptions and talking over people. Allow people to engage with you, to learn and to access services in a variety of different ways. Make it ok for people to be looking at their phone while talking to you, for them to be bouncing on their seat, or walking around while chatting to you.
  • Have capacity for ‘overwhelm’ or ‘meltdown’ cancellation, without charging participants. Understand that this cannot be avoided and the burden of knowing you’ve also lost funding as a result can be so overwhelming and even more distressing.
  • Have space where you meet people. Always focus on meeting people in a place they feel safe, be clear about what you need to do. Avoid eye contact at the first meeting, stay focused on your task and keep it simple on the first meeting.
  • Never set goals based on social norms, or what anyone other than the person themselves want. If mum or dad has their own goals, then this ok, but the person’s goals must be what the person wants, not their parents.