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  • Writer's pictureSara Tookey

Celebrating Neurodiversity: Understanding the Autism Spectrum

Updated: Apr 24

Written by Dr Sara Tookey


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April is World Autism Month, a time to raise awareness and promote acceptance and inclusion for the millions of individuals worldwide on the autism spectrum. At True North Psychology, we believe having a deeper understanding of autism and neurodiversity is essential for providing supportive and affirming care for this vibrant community.




 


What is the Autism Spectrum?


Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a neurotype - referring to the kind of brain an individual has. Neurotypes, like race, gender, and sexuality, are a core part of one's identity. Autistic people make up approximately 7% of the UK population and approximately 6% in U.S., Sweden, Japan and the Netherlands (Autism Rates by Country).


Autism is linked to a broad range of conditions characterised by differences in social interaction, communication patterns, sensory processing, and repetitive behaviours. It is considered a "spectrum", meaning symptoms and traits can present in various combinations and severities.


While autism is a lifelong neurological difference, it is crucial to understand that it is not an illness or disease. Many self-advocates within the autism community view autism as an integral part of their identity and a unique way of being and experiencing the world.





Embracing neurodiversity - people with arms around one-another, looking at beautiful view


The Neurodiversity Paradigm


The concept of neurodiversity embraces the variation of human brain function and cognitive styles as a natural part of human diversity. Just as we celebrate diversity in cultures, races, and ethnicities, the neurodiversity movement promotes acceptance and appreciation for the unique strengths, talents, and ways of thinking that come with neurological differences like autism.


The neurodiversity paradigm is a shift away from a deficit-based medical model that views autism solely through a lens of impairments and disorders (Cherewick and Matergia, 2023). The medical model's deficit-based approach has been criticised for neglecting societal factors like stigma and ableism that impact the lived experiences of autistic people (Kapp et al., 2013). 


Instead, neurodiversity recognises the unique strengths and modes of thinking that come with being neurodivergent, including exceptional abilities in areas such as pattern recognition, attention to detail, logical reasoning, and visual processing (Happé & Frithe, 2020


A neurodiversity-affirming lens recognises:


  • The deep impact of ableism and stigma on autistic individuals

  • The many strengths associated with an autistic neurotype

  • That neurodivergence enriches our communities


The neurodiversity paradigm emphasises the importance of listening to autistic voices and valuing their lived experiences, strengths, and perspectives. Autistic advocate Scott Lentine, speaks of the desire of the autistic community to be accepted for who they truly are without having to mask or camouflage their authentic selves.

"Wanting to be free. Wanting to be me. Trying to make people see. And accept the real me."

By creating an inclusive environment where neurodivergent individuals can freely express their unique identities and ways of being, we enrich our communities and benefit from the diversity of human experiences.



Understanding Strengths and Support Needs


Each autistic individual will have a unique profile of strengths and support needs based on their neurology, life experiences, and environmental contexts. An individual's needs can vary across different settings, stages of life and from day-to-day.


Some common support needs in the autistic community include emotion regulation, executive functioning skills (like planning and organising), building relationships or social connections, deepening self-understanding and cultivating self-acceptance, developing self-advocacy skills, and managing sensory input.


Autistic strengths
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At the same time, an autistic neurotype brings many valuable strengths, such as:


  • Methodical approach - analytical thinking, detail-focused, spotting patterns and repetition

  • Creativity - innovative ways of thinking and finding novel solutions to problems

  • Observant - ability to notice fine details, precise and thorough

  • Resilience - determined and persevering in the face of obstacles

  • Memory - excellent long-term memory and superior recall

  • Sustained focus and attention - ability to sustain deeply focused attention in pursuing areas of deep personal interest

  • Integrity - Honest, loyal and committed to what is fair and just


It's important to appreciate that strengths borne of neurodivergence are not mere compensation for perceived deficits, but intrinsic sources of ability, talent, and ways of being that enrich our world.



rainbow coloured spectrum art with the words "you belong" surrounded by leaves


The Importance of Inclusive Support


By embracing a neurodiversity-affirming perspective, we can better support autistic individuals in ways that respect their autonomy, inherent self-worth, and the value their diverse neurology brings to our communities. This involves:


  1. Listening to Autistic Voices: Hearing the real-life perspectives and lived-expertise of autistic self-advocates is crucial for understanding their needs and developing truly supportive, relevant services and resources.

  2. Building Self-Determination: Empowering and creating opportunities for autistic people to explore their interests, make autonomous choices and have control over decisions directly affecting their lives is key to fostering independence, self-awareness and acceptance.

  3. Providing Accommodations: Making adjustments to physical environments, communication methods and sensory experiences reduces disabling barriers and creates more inclusive, universally accessible spaces for neurodivergent people to learn, work and thrive.

  4. Fostering Acceptance: Actively challenging stigma, stereotypes and misconceptions about autism through education, representation in media and societal inclusion efforts is vital for promoting true understanding, acceptance and appreciation for neurodiversity.



By recognising the inherent humanity, strengths, and contributions of neurodivergent individuals like those on the autism spectrum, we can build a richer, more equitable and truly neuro-inclusive world that benefits from the diversity of human experiences and perspectives.




Conclusion and Summary


The neurodiversity paradigm calls us to expand our view of autism beyond deficits and truly listen to autistic voices and lived experiences. Doing so allows us to gain a deeper understanding of the unique strengths, thinking styles, and invaluable perspectives this community offers. While providing supportive accommodations is important, it's equally essential to cultivate acceptance and appreciation for neurological differences. This World Autism Month, we highlight the continued need to dismantle stigmas, increase inclusivity, and embrace neurodivergence - allowing individuals to embrace their authentic selves without pressure to camouflage. When we make space for diverse neuro-types, we all benefit from the breadth of human cognitive variation. An equitable world is one that celebrates different ways of being; it's time we recognise the immense contributions of the autistic community.






 


WANT TO LEARN MORE?


stack of colourful books

Resources and supportive communities for those interested in learning more about autism and the neurodiversity paradigm:



The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) is a leading advocacy organisation run by and for autistic individuals. Their website provides extensive information and resources on autism acceptance and neurodiversity.


"NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity" by Steve Silberman is a highly acclaimed book that explores the history, science, and politics of autism and the neurodiversity movement.



Other Autism Advocacy Organisations:






Reframing Autism (AU based)



 

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Do you need therapeutic support?


At True North Psychology we provide a neurodiversity-affirming and inclusive approach to therapy - listening to neurodivergent voices and providing appropriate accommodations and approaches to supportive our clients and staff.


Psychologists on our platform have experience of working with neurodiverse individuals and some have special interests and expertise in the areas of ADHD and Autism. 


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References


Cherewick, M., Matergia, M. Neurodiversity in Practice: a Conceptual Model of Autistic Strengths and Potential Mechanisms of Change to Support Positive Mental Health and Wellbeing in Autistic Children and Adolescents. Adv Neurodev Disord (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41252-023-00348-z


Happé, F. and Frith, U. (2020), Annual Research Review: Looking back to look forward – changes in the concept of autism and implications for future research. J Child Psychol Psychiatr, 61: 218-232. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcpp.13176


Kapp, S. K., Gillespie-Lynch, K., Sherman, L. E., & Hutman, T. (2013). Deficit, difference, or both? Autism and neurodiversity. Developmental psychology, 49(1), 59–71. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0028353


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