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FAKE vs REAL: Neuro-Affirming

Updated: Jun 7


A two panel cartoon by Autball.  1: A white box at the top reads: FAKE NEURO-AFFIRMING.  A Red figure stands with a Light Blue/Blue figure and says, “Oh no, we don’t target things like eye contact and hand flapping anymore. We know how harmful that can be for individuals with neurodiversity. We even got rid of our puzzle piece stuff! But e still focus on *other* stims, and social skills, and tolerating distress, and sensory desensitization, and…” Light Blue/Blue looks skeptical.  Behind them are three posters: one about Whole Body Listening (open eyes, open ears, closed mouth, quiet hands, and calm feet); one that reads, “They say I’m neurodiverse, but I say I’m perfect,” and has a rainbow infinity symbol on it; and one about the ABC’s of Behavior (Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence).  2: A white box at the top reads: REAL NEURO-AFFIRMING.  A Yellow/Gold figure stands with a Light Blue/Blue figure and says, “We aim to help a person understand how their particular brain and body work, and how to work *with* that instead of against it, and how to accommodate themselves and advocate for their needs in a world not built for them, and basically just make sure they know that it’s okay to be different.” Light Blue/Blue looks pleased.  Behind them are three posters: one about Bumper, A Whole Body Learner (What do you look like when you are learning?) by Autism Level UP; one that reads, “Beauty in Diversity - All Brains, All Bodies, All Humans,” featuring a diverse group of people, by Neurowild; and one about the Four A’s of the Advoc8 Framework (Agency, Autonomy, Acceptance, and Authenticity) from Kieran Rose, The Autistic Advocate.

The language of the Neurodiversity Paradigm is soooo hot right now. Everyone from ABA centers to social media creators are adopting it to sound like they’re safer and more knowledgeable than they are.


But you can’t just pop some neuro-word in place of “autism” and stop picking on a couple of Autistic traits and call yourself “Neuro-affirming.” That’s the low-hanging fruit of #neurodiversitylite.


REAL Neuro-affirming practice comes from a complete shift in mindset, unlearning all the harmful things you once thought were true, and learning about all the things you never even knew you didn’t know. It’s also an ongoing process, not just something you can learn from reading an article or taking a single training.


ABA practitioners are probably the worst offenders right now, mainly because they know they need to rebrand as more and more people learn about what ABA really does to people, but also because their practices in particular are THE furthest away from being Neuro-affirming compared to any other discipline.


They are not the only ones, though, so be wary of neurodiversity lite in ANY resource aimed at autistic people that appears to be saying all the right things, including: OT, speech, play/talk therapy, early intervention, education, your favorite parenting expert or social media personality who just discovered the world of Neurodiversity, etc.


Look beyond someone’s use of the “right” words or symbols. Do they talk about teaching people to fit into the normative world, or how to more safely and authentically navigate a world not made for them? Do they talk about making the person easier to deal with, or making life easier for the person? Do they concentrate on external behaviors, or are they more concerned with internal experiences? Does most of what they know come from people who studied autistic people from the outside looking in, or from actual autistic people who can speak from lived experience? And are they even using the words right??


The good news is that there are SO MANY resources out there BY autistic and otherwise Neurodivergent people for anyone who wants to learn how to make their practice actually more Neuro-affirming. SO MANY!! Three such resources are featured in the second panel from AUtismLevelUP, Neurowild, and The Autistic Advocate. (Big thanks to them for letting me include their work in the cartoon!) Links to whole bunch more are below.


This is part 1 of a 5 part "FAKE vs REAL" series about the ways harmful practices are being made to sound more appealing through the co-opting of language and how to spot the differences between helpful and harmful approaches.

Part 2 on Self Regulation Skills here

Part 3 on Frustration Tolerance here

Part 4 on Sensory Desensitization here

Part 5 on Communication Support here


 

EXPLANATION OF WHAT’S WRONG IN THE “FAKE” PANEL:


- The phrase “individuals with neurodiversity” misuses the word “neurodiversity” and utilizes person first language. The Neuro-affirming phrase would be “neurodivergent people,” or “autistic people” if they specifically meant autistic people.


- Getting rid of puzzle piece stuff is merely a surface level first step, not an end point.


- Not forcing eye contact and allowing hand-flapping are also only surface level first steps. The fact that they still target other stims means they do not understand the importance or functions of stimming, making them incapable of being Neuro-affirming.


- Social skills training aimed at ND people usually centers NT social skills as the “right way” and frames ND social skills as the “wrong way,” making them shame inducing and not at all affirming.


- “Tolerating distress” most often means “suppressing distress.” Neuro-affirming practice would concentrate on identifying and avoiding triggers, helping the person stay regulated, and teaching the person how to accommodate and advocate for their needs so that they are not distressed in the first place.


- “Sensory desensitization” is not a thing that can be done to someone without harm. It is usually done with exposure therapy, which should not be done TO someone who cannot consent. It is also inappropriate for sensory issues, which tells us they don’t understand sensory processing differences at all.


- The posters: Whole Body Listening is based on neuronormative expectations; “They say I’m neurodiverse” is incorrect usage of the word “neurodiverse” (it should be “neurodivergent”), and “but I say I’m perfect” insinuates that being “neurodiverse” is a bad thing, while the use of the rainbow infinity symbol with such a non-affirming message adds to the dissonance; the ABC’s of Behavior is an indicator that ABA/behaviorism will be used, which is the opposite of Neuro-affirming practice.


EXPLANATION OF WHAT’S RIGHT IN THE “REAL” PANEL:


- The person accurately explains what Neuro-affirming practice looks like, without needing to use (or misuse) any Neurodiversity “buzzwords.”


- Bumper, A Whole Body Learner, is a resource created by Autism Level UP that encourages people to discover what it looks like for them to be ready to learn, acknowledging that there is no one right way to appear attentive.


- The poster by Neurowild indicates that they value difference and neurodiversity and that they know there is no one right way of being.


- They use the Advoc8 Framework, a resource created by Kieran Rose, The Autistic Advocate. Using this framework means they want to help the people they work with achieve Agency, Autonomy, (Self) Acceptance, and Authenticity.


 

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES: Neuro-affirming Resources of all kinds including books, trainings, posters/graphics, educational materials, and more.








Lived Experience Educator https://www.livedexperienceeducator.com


All Brains Belong VT https://allbrainsbelong.org


Foundations for Divergent Minds https://www.divergentminds.org/education.html






The Occuplaytional Therapist https://www.occuplaytional.com

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