Please note that within this blog, CHAT will use identity-first language (i.e. Autistic person, rather than person with Autism), as many activists in the Autism community believe that this language choice reflects Autism’s centrality to their identity and disrupts the negative associations harbored against their diagnosis. We encourage readers to honor the preferences of Autistic individuals in order to use the most affirming language possible.
As speech-language pathologists, we are equipped with the tools and training to enhance our clients’ communicative abilities. Yet communication does not exist in a vacuum – at CHAT, we contextualize communication within systemic inequities and social justice. For this reason, CHAT seeks to amplify the neurodiversity movement, whose activists and community members may be misunderstood and even pathologized by SLPs in their quest to support and treat. We hope that by centering Autistic activists within this movement, we can transform the field of speech-language pathology into one that is more equitable.
First, what exactly is neurodiversity? Coined in the 1990s by Autistic sociologist Judy Singer, the term was used to build community among Autistic individuals who advocated that Autism was a neurological difference rather than a disorder. Activist and writer Lydia X.Z. Brown further expounds on neurodiversity in their 2013 definition through three main tenets:
- The belief that differing neurologies are a natural part and form of human diversity
- The belief that atypical or divergent neurologies are not indicative of disease, defect, disorder, or illness
- The philosophy that neurological difference should be celebrated and accepted as natural and normal.
Neurodivergent and Autistic activists challenge us to view Autism not as a disorder to be treated, but rather as a variation of neurocognitive functioning and an aspect of one’s identity. They contend that to be Autistic does not automatically warrant intervention, but requires acceptance and accommodation. With this understanding, how can we as speech-language pathologists provide affirming therapy to Autistic and neurodivergent individuals who seek intervention? How can we disrupt ableist assumptions and remain person-centered, allowing our clients to be the drivers of their treatment goals? Rather than advocating for our clients, how might we collaborate with them?
The neurodivergent community has already answered these questions, and it is time we listen. In the Spectrum Life, speech-language pathologists Amy Donaldson, Karen Krejcha, and Andy McMillan highlight the importance of a strengths-based approach and understanding a social model of disability. The social model of disability identifies the systemic and institutional inequities that keep neurodivergent individuals from participating in mainstream society. Rather than claiming that the individual is the problem that needs to be “cured,” the social model of disability strives to remove the barriers neurodivergent people face and develop accommodations that support their skills. To this end, a strengths-based approach not only uplifts clients’ unique abilities resulting from their neurodivergence, but also leads to better learning outcomes. For instance, Donaldson argues that reframing restrictive and repetitive interests as “focused and passionate” validates a client’s identity while empowering them as equally involved in intervention.
Indeed, the neurodiversity movement challenges us to reimagine communication as something more expansive, diverse, and justice-oriented than merely verbal speech. As we work towards a more just world for people with communication differences and diagnoses, we must continually center these activists themselves. Below, we list several social media accounts, organizations, and resources created by Autistic and neurodivergent community leaders.
Social Media Accounts: