Inclusive Language Guide – Neurodiversity Edition

Inclusive Language
Inclusive Language

Last Updated on

May 3rd, 2024 12:00 pm

There are many ways to talk about neurodivergent people, and for the most part, these terms have been used interchangeably. However, there are some important differences between them that you should know about.

Our inclusive language guide will help you understand the relationship between inclusive language and neurodiversity. We also delve into terminology, how meanings differ in context, and which ones to use when talking with neurodivergent individuals.

Editorial Preface: About Our Language Approach

You may notice that, at time of writing, we don’t always adhere to our own guidelines around language. It’s a conscious decision we had to make, for one reason.

That’s because, as a one-man operation, we have to reluctantly rely on using archaic and sometimes ableist language with negative connotations. We do this to rank for search terms that allow us to educate those visiting our website. This is also known as Search Engine Optimization.

Once we are in a position to promote the site far and wide, our articles will all be edited to conform with the preferred terminology of inclusivity and diversity. But until then, it’s a necessary compromise we have to make to ensure our articles reach those who can benefit from reading them!

Thanks for understanding. Let’s get into learning more about inclusive language!

What is Inclusive Language?

Inclusive language is a term used to describe the use of inclusive terms and phrases when referring to people with disabilities, mental health conditions, or other differences in ways that are respectful, accurate, and supportive. It’s important for those who work with chronic illnesses, mental illness, or intellectual disabilities to be aware of what language they use so that everyone can feel included and respected.

Language inclusivity involves communicating effectively with others by being clear, honest, and open-minded. If you’re trying to communicate with someone who has an invisible disability, it’s important to ask questions like “How do I make sure I am understanding you correctly?” and “Can you tell me more about yourself?”. You may find that asking questions helps you learn more about the person you’re speaking with.

Inclusive communication includes both verbal and non-verbal forms. Verbal forms include things like listening, paying attention, and asking questions. Non-verbal styles of communication include body language, facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice. Do note that for many, in particular Autistic individuals, these cues aren’t always understood. So it’s important to be clear and concise when taking this approach.

Why is Inclusive Language So Important for the Neurodiversity Movement?

The term neurodiversity was coined by Australian sociologist Judy Singer in the 1990s. People with neurodivergent identities (as opposed to neurotypical) experience a wide range of emotions, thoughts, behaviors, and sensory experiences that are different from what most people experience. These differences can make it difficult for neurotypicals to understand or relate to their experiences.

As a result, many people who are a part of the neurodiversity movement have difficulty feeling accepted, supported, understood, and included by others. External attitudes towards their behaviour can lead to feelings of rejection, loneliness, depression, anxiety, and even self-harm.

When we use inclusive communication, we show respect and understanding for all individuals regardless of their intellectual disabilities, sexual orientation, gender, race, or neurodiversity. We acknowledge that everyone has unique strengths and challenges that balance working together and leading an independent daily life.

We also recognize that our own lives are not the only ones worth living. By choosing our language carefully, we help build an environment where people who are neurodivergent can thrive.

How Inclusive Language Creates Unity at Work and School

Colleagues and teachers can create environments of universal design, where all students with disabilities feel safe, valued, and included. They can also offer opportunities for students with disabilities to learn about themselves and each other through shared experiences.

Inclusive communication in the workplace and school settings helps create a sense of unity and fosters a supportive environment for neurodivergent individuals. It encourages collaboration, understanding, and empathy among peers, teachers, and colleagues.

When everyone is aware of the language they’re using, it reduces the stigma and discrimination often faced by neurodivergent individuals. Inclusive recruitment and education enables participation in society, where people feel respected and valued by people without disabilities, which in turn boosts their self-esteem and confidence.

When everyone feels welcome, supported, and included, everyone benefits.

Inclusive language in a meeting of ladies of all nationalities at work smiling

Inclusive language brings people together from all walks of life in the workplace

Inclusive Language in Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation

It’s well-documented that a high percentage of autistic people are also members of the LGBTQ+ community. Inclusive language in the Autistic community is essential in the case of gender identity and sexual orientation, in particular pronoun usage.

For example, instead of saying “you,” say “your name” or “the person you mentioned.” Instead of saying “he/she,” say “person X.” You may want to consider using gender-neutral pronouns as well such as “they” – Even “you” is a gender-neutral pronoun!

Here are some examples of acceptable pronoun usage:

Neurodivergent people deserve to be treated respectfully and accurately no matter their identity or background. If you’re unsure if something is right, ask yourself first whether what you are about to say or write would offend someone in the Autistic community and beyond.

The word "neurodiversity" under torn blue paper with rainbow colored cogs

Neurodiversity can thrive with the introduction of inclusive language

Person-First and Identity-First Language Terms

Some people in the Autistic community believe that person-first language is helpful because it acknowledges the complexity of human experience. In addition, many people with disabilities say that person-first language helps reduce stigma and discrimination against those with disabilities. However, others disagree. They argue that person-first language can reinforce stereotypes and lead to negative attitudes toward people with disabilities.

For example, using person-first language means starting sentences with “a person with…” or “an individual with…” and ending statements with “with…”. In the phrase “a person with Autism Spectrum Disorder”, the sentence separates the person. Instead, the phrase “Autistic people” is preferred by the Autism community, since it describes a part of their identity that they value and pride.

For many Autistic people, however, they do not feel that neurodiversity is what identifies them, and they would much rather be a person “with” something. Preferred terms ultimately come down to the perceptions of yourself and those around you whether a specific condition is to be embraced, or is seen as a disadvantage.

And in some cases, terminology such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can prove grammatically problematic, since unlike “Autistic people”, you cannot have “ADHD people”. Alongside outdated naming practices, this is one of the reasons avid campaigners worldwide are advocating for a renaming of the condition.

Lady with glasses putting her hands up in university classroom

Identity-first language is a personal preference amongst the majority of neurodivergent individuals

What is Ableist Language?

Ableist language refers to umbrella terms in language, often (but not always) used by a neurotypical person that undermines a person’s disability, or what is perceived a disability in context of the conversation. It’s a key term that’s mentioned throughout the language of neurodiversity and disability, but not many are aware they are doing it.

For example, telling someone with ADHD to “Just focus and get on with it” is seen as ableism. Even if it comes from a kind place and comes down to a lack of understanding that people with ADHD struggle to regulate focus, it’s important to understand why that person can’t focus.

After all, you wouldn’t ask someone in a wheelchair to “Just get up and walk” or ask a deaf person to “Listen”, would you?

What’s more, other disabled people can also be ableists, even in their own disabled communities. This is known as “lateral ableism”, such as in the case of “Well I have ADHD and I can do that!”.

Failure to acknowledge everyone’s individual differences often occurs in the ADHD community and Autistic community, due to a strong sense of social justice and variance in ability to read social interactions. It’s a classic example of lateral ableism.

How Can I Adopt A Social Model of Inclusive Language?

There are several simple things you can do right now to start practising more inclusive language:

1. Be Aware. Think before you speak. Before you say something, ask yourself if it’s proper and consider whether it will add value to the conversation. If you aren’t sure, don’t say anything at all!

2. Ask Questions. When someone shares information about themselves, ask questions like “What does that mean?” or “Is there another way to say that?”

3. Show Respect. Make sure you’re paying attention to tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, and gestures. Take note of how you’re responding. Are you showing interest? Do you seem distracted? Are you interrupting?

4. Listen. Try to listen carefully without judgement and without trying to fix or change the person speaking. No matter the reason, their interpretation of the world is different to yours, and that includes the language used, as well as the intent behind their message.

5. Speak Clearly. Keep your speech concise, clear, and focused on the topic being discussed. Avoid jargon, slang, acronyms, and technical terminology. But at the same time, avoid over-generalised umbrella terms where clarity is required.

Acknowledge Different Models of Disability

Disability is a very broad term in itself by definition, so it’s also important to acknowledge the context in which disabilities are being discussed. Here are some examples of how language differs depending on which model of disability is in use:

Social Model of Disability

The social model of disability focuses on social issues, in particular barriers and discrimination that high societal standards create for individuals with disabilities. Language in the social model emphasizes the need for change and inclusion in societal normsn.

Medical Model of Disability

The medical model of disability views disabilities as individual impairments that need to be treated or fixed. Language in the medical model often focuses on the medical condition or diagnosis to avoid ambiguity, with the idea that there is one “healthy” type of brain, the neurotypical brain.

It’s the model that promotes the basis of disability by its purpose.

Examples of Other Models of Disability

There are other, more niche, models of disability besides social and medical models used in a variety of contexts. These include (but not exclusively):

  • Religion
  • Economic
  • Moral
  • Human Rights approach
  • Charity
  • Biopsychosocial

Understanding the context with which inclusive language is used is a non-negotiable when engaging in inclusive discourse.

Inclusive Language for All

We believe that inclusive language is essential to creating a safe space for people with neurological differences, intellectual disabilities, and traumatic brain injury. When we talk about neurodiversity, we mean that there are many types of brains and minds out there. And just because one person’s neurocognitive function is different to someone else’s, doesn’t mean that they are any less worthy of love, support, and inclusion.

Inclusive language helps us understand others better by acknowledging everyone as they really are. It shows respect for all people. It builds community and allows us to connect with one another, and redefine societal norms for the better.

Language helps us become more aware of our own biases and prejudices. It’s these biases that suppress those around us from achieving greatness. And finally, when we use inclusive language and improve societal standards, we help ourselves feel less alone.

Keep reading and see what else you can learn about being neurodivergent today!

Recommended Reading
The Inclusive Language Field Guide: 6 Simple Principles for Avoiding Painful Mistakes and Communicating Respectfully

Filled with real-world examples, high-impact word substitutions, and exercises that boost new skills, this book builds a foundational toolkit so people can evaluate what is and isn't inclusive language on their own.

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Rob Butler
30-Something Millennial with ADHD and suspected Autistic and Dyspraxic. Thought leader behind this website. Big visions of a better future for everyone, but forgets where he is half the time.Loves Rugby, his kids, and anything silly. Hates U2 and Marmite.

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