I thought it would be useful to have a post dedicated especially to the vocabulary around neurodiversity and autism specifically. I am starting with autism but intend to return and expand to include as much information about neurodiversity as possible. If you want me to add or change something, let me know!
The terms included are:
A movement that promotes acceptance and respect of neurological “disorders”, seeing them less as disorders but more as different neurotypes. It presents different types of neurological diversity as different ways of experiencing the world – as equal and as such deserving respect and acceptance. It discourages the pressure to make neurodivergent people “fit in” and to stigmatise them if they don’t (which is what the society does).
A term that signifies someone differing in mental or neurological function from what is considered typical in society. This refers to many neurotypes, including autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, epilepsy, OCD, Tourettes, etc.
A person exhibiting or characteristic of typical neurological development. Not neurodivergent.
A type of neurodivergent person whose entire identity consists of different ways of thinking, communicating, understanding, being, processing, and feeling. Common autistic traits: black and white thinking, joy from movement and stimming, difficulty regulating temperature, perfectionism, having no filter, honesty, strong sense of justice, shutdowns, finding it hard to follow instructions, loyalty, difficulty understanding sarcasm, heightened sense of smell, strong connection to animals, anxiety, literal thinking, feeling different to peers, sensitivity to noise and textures, talking too loud or too fast, face blindness, difficulty with motor skills, sensitive, intense interests, need for structure, hating change, not understanding social cues, difficulty with eye contact, needing longer to process, etc.
A person who is not autistic. This can be a neurodivergent or a neurotypical person.
Short for self-stimulating behaviour. Stimming is repetitive behaviour that autistic (and other neurodivergent) people do to stimulate their senses. This has many functions but it is vital to autistics’ overall wellbeing and mental health. It can serve to process emotions, express emotions, calm oneself down, regulate sensory input, help oneself focus, or just for fun. Stimming is often viewed as weird and something that should be stopped (as it doesn’t fit with the conventions of behavioural etiquette in society) but it is natural and very important to autistic people and should therefore not be discouraged. Forcing autistic people to stop stimming causes increased anxiety, trouble with focusing, and meltdowns. Accepting and encouraging stimming helps autistic people feel comfortable and safe.
Meltdown & Shutdown
There are various definitions and explanations of these terms on the internet. One explanation I found particularly interesting is that these two are basically the same thing, with one being an external and the other an internal reaction to being overwhelmed. While they seem completely opposite not the outside, when I reflect on how I feel during both, I can say personally, this is true. But I am not claiming it’s true for all autistics.
A meltdown is a loss of control stemming from over/understimulation, stress, demands, overwhelming emotions. It can look like crying, self-injurious stimming, irregular breathing, etc. It is involuntary and it is not a tantrum. When this happens, know that the autistic person is severely overwhelmed and has reached their limit. Be kind.
A shutdown is a withdrawal from the environment, also stemming from over/understimulation, stress, demands, overwhelming emotions. The person closes in on themselves. Just like with meltdowns, when an autistic person shuts down, know that they are severely overwhelmed and have reached their limit. Be kind and give them space. Do not force them to speak or do anything they don’t want to.
Masking is a social survival strategy. It is the conscious or unconscious act of suppressing autistic traits and covering them with allistic behaviours. It varies from person to person, but in general it includes forcing oneself to look people in the eyes, adjusting face and body to seem relaxed, mimicking others’ facial expressions and gestures, suppressing the impulses to stim and react naturally, etc. It is especially common in females with no intellectual disability. Masking can lead to not diagnosing or misdiagnosing autism. As it is very draining and tiring, masking without proper breaks and rest (and periods of being “authentically autistic”), it often leads to autistic burnout.
The use of conscious or unconscious strategies, which may be explicitly learned or implicitly developed. Basically, it is a combination of masking and compensating behaviours. Meaning, in addition to suppressing autistic traits and replacing them with allistic behaviours in the presence of other people (and subconsciously even when by themselves), autistic people find ways to compensate for their disability so that it is not/less noticeable. This can include learning social cues from television, films, or books, practicing facial expressions, body language, and vocal phrasing, rehearsing scripted conversations, researching the rules of social interactions, etc.
Repetition of spoken words or sounds usually vocally but sometimes (usually while masking) inside the head. This helps the person’s brain process the words and sounds and helps with communication, processing what is going on, language skills, and general comfort of the person.
Puzzle piece as a symbol for autism
Popularised by the organisation Autism Speaks, the puzzle piece has come to represent allistic-lead narratives about autism as an illness that needs to be cured.
Terms like high-functioning, low-functioning, mild, severe, Asperger’s, etc. These labels stem from harmful stereotypes and actually describe the level of nuisance and inconvenience the autistic person presents to allistic people. They don’t describe anything about the person themselves.