A guide to common terms and language around autism
As much as I love a good old, straight-forward definition, it's very difficult to achieve that when it comes to language around neurodiversity and autism, especially since the autistic advocacy movement is moving so fast.
It's often difficult to keep up and say 'the right things'.
So what is written here, needs to be taken in some kind of flexible context. Terms around autism and ADHD in particular are sometimes open to interpretation, and may well change before I even publish this website!
I am also aware that I may sometimes confuse terms myself ,and as much as I try to avoid that throughout this website, please forgive me if I do slip up at times.
1. Words beginning
neuro: refers to the human brain or neurology.
diversity: means variety.
neurodiversity: *** refers to the wide and normal variation of human brains, including autistic brains, non-autistic brains, ADHD brains - all different types of brains.
neurotypical: The term used to describe people who, according to the dominant societal standard, have a typical brain in terms of developmental, intellectual, and cognitive abilities. They do not have neurodevelopmental differences. They are not autistic, ADHD, dyspraxic and so on.
neuromajority: The majority neurotype, who are considered to be the socially accepted neurotype. In other words, those who are considered neurotypical.
neurominority: A minority neurotype, such as autism or ADHD. The opposite of neuromajority. Those who society considers are not the socially accepted majority neurotype.
neurodivergent *** basically means 'not neurotypical' or the opposite of neurotypical.
It is an umbrella term for anything which is not considered neurotypical and is widely used by people who are autistic or have ADHD, developmental co-ordination disorder (dyspraxia) and so on.
However, the definition also encompasses intellectual disability, mental health conditions, neurological conditions and diseases and is sometimes also used for left-handedness, gender identity disorder, homosexuality, bisexuality, and asexuality.
*** When you have both neurotypical and neurodivergent people within a group, that group would be considered neurodiverse.***
However... whilst these two definitions are the preferred and accurate terms to use, the terms ‘neurodiversity' and neurodivergence are still often used interchangeably. That is to say that you will see neurodiverse used frequently in place of neurodivergence. Although not necessarily accurate, it is widely understood in autism circles as meaning the same thing.
neurotype refers to a particular group of brain type - for example my neurotype is autistic. It is also ADHD. Another neurotype is neurotypical.
neurological disorder or disease: A condition caused by malfunction or damage to the brain, spinal cord and nervous system: the neurological system. For example, Parkinson’s disease, Cerebral Palsy, Huntington’s disease, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, brain tumours, and Alzheimer’s disease. People with these conditions are usually under the care of a neurologist.
neurodevelopmental disorder: The medical term for a disability associated with the development of the neurology of the brain. For example, ADHD, autism, intellectual disability and learning disabilities. Many autistic people prefer to use the word difference because we do not see ourselves as disordered.
neuro-atypical or atypical: meaning not neurotypical. Neurodivergent.
the neurodiversity movement: The Neurodiversity Movement is a collective movement seeking to spread awareness about social justice, civil rights, equality, respect, and inclusion for all neurodivergent people and to eliminate discrimination against them. It aims to remove any pathologising of the neurodivergent brain.
the neurodiversity model: rejects any pathologising (medicalising) of the neurodivergent brain.
Nick Walker PhD has produced a very well explained summary of some of the terms around neurodiversity and neurodivergence:
autism (ASD,ASC): A neurodevelopmental ‘disorder’ or difference, characterised by difficulties or differences in social interaction, communication and sensory processing as well as restricted or repetitive patterns of thought and behaviour and executive function difficulties.
Asperger Syndrome: A diagnostic term for autism throughout the 80s and 90s coined by Lorna Wing and named after Hans Asperger. Often used to describe a form of autism without intellectual disability but is no longer used as a medical term. However, it is still the name of choice used by many adults diagnosed before ASD was introduced as the term of choice, and who are sometimes fondly known as Aspies.
allistic: Not autistic.
autistic burnout: A state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It is similar to workplace burnout but happens with a higher frequency and as a result of all aspects of daily life, not just work. Mental exhaustion and sensory overload build up, resulting in an intense experience of complete physical, mental and emotional exhaustion that goes beyond fatigue. It causes dramatic increases in distress, increased meltdowns and shutdowns, physical pain, the inability to process any more information and loss of skills and abilities.
pervasive developmental disorders: A now outdated term used to group all the different types of autism under one umbrella (autistic disorder, Asperger's syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) as autism spectrum disorders.) The DSM-5 replaced all these conditions with ASD.
Specific learning disorder / difficulty / difference (SpLD):
Difficulty with particular aspects of learning such as reading (dyslexia), written expression (dysgraphia), and/or maths and numbers (dyscalculia). They do not affect a person’s intellectual ability and a person can have more than one. Dyspraxia and ADHD are sometimes included under this umbrella term. The often-preferred use of learning difficulties removes the stigma of the word disorder. (Note: The American term is learning disability.)
alexithymia: A trait which involves difficulty identifying and expressing emotions. People with alexithymia may know they are experiencing emotion but are unable to name it. https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/people-alexithymia-emotions-mystery/
attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD):
A neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. Used to be called ADHD/ADD, but this term is now outdated.
developmental co-ordination disorder (DCD):
Also known as Dyspraxia. A neurodevelopmental disorder affecting fine and / or gross motor co-ordination in children and adults. People with DCD (Dyspraxia) tend to be highly creative, strategic thinkers and brilliant at solving complex problems through innovation.
dysgraphia: A neurological disorder and specific learning disability effecting writing ability and fine motor skills.
dyscalculia: A specific learning disability characterised by difficulty with maths and numbers.
dyslexia: Dyslexia affects the brain’s visual processing abilities causing difficulties with written language: reading, writing, or spelling, as well as short-term memory and concentration. Many dyslexic people have strong abilities in the areas of processing and interpreting visual data including pattern recognition and problem-solving skills, as well as verbal communication and storytelling.
Ableism: A form of disability discrimination and prejudice. When this is applied to autism, it means that non-autistic people consider their behaviour and neurology to be 'normal' and preferable to that of autistic people.
disability: A physical, mental, cognitive or developmental condition that impairs, interferes with or limits a person’s ability to participate in daily tasks, activities, learning or interactions. It is also used in place of the outdated term ‘special needs’ because a person’s needs are not considered ‘special’ or different - they are the same human needs that everyone has.
mental health disorder / psychiatric disorder:A condition which causes disturbed behaviour and altered emotional state. For example, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, phobias, trauma related illness, addiction and eating disorders. Mental health disorders can be initiated or caused by (or independent of) other neurological and physical diseases.
Specific learning differences / disorders / difficulties (SpLD)
An umbrella term for the neurodivergent conditions dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia and ADHD. What used to be called learning disorders (LD)
Two very confusing terms which have different meanings depending on whether you are in the US or UK, r somewhere else:
Learning disability (UK) - also known as intellectual disability in the US. (Yes, it can be very confusing!) A lower than average IQ and a lack of skills needed for daily living.
Learning difficulties (UK) - also known as learning disabilities in the US a weakness in certain academic skills, usually maths, reading or writing.
learning disorder / difficulty / disability (LD in the UK) - also known as intellectual disability in the US:
Unlike specific learning disorder, there is often not a specific diagnosis, and intellectual ability is affected. This diagnosis refers to a reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities. It is sometimes, but not always, associated with a particular diagnosis such as Down Syndrome. A learning disability can vary in its severity and can be mild, moderate (MLD), or severe (SLD).
profound & multiple learning difficulties (PMLD):
When there are several learning disabilities, the term profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD) is used.
speech, language and communication needs (SLCN):
This is an umbrella term used to describe difficulties across one or more aspects of communication. For example, conditions such as aphasia and dysarthria (difficulty controlling the muscles used in speech) stammering, difficulty pronouncing speech sounds, hoarseness and loss of voice, difficulties with the flow or tone of speech, language comprehension and difficulty using words and sentences. Some SLCN are short term and can be addressed through effective early intervention while others remain with a person throughout their childhood and adult life.
Sensory processing disorder (SPD): Also known as sensory integration disorder. A neurological disorder or difference that results from the brain’s inability to integrate certain information received from the body’s sensory systems. The individual reacts in an extreme way to sensory experiences.
intelligence *: A person’s cognitive abilities - memory, comprehension, understanding, reasoning and abstract thought. It is not the same as IQ.
IQ *: Stands for "Intelligence Quotient," and is a score determined by an IQ test which is designed to measure a person's general intellectual abilities.
Intelligence and IQ are often used interchangeably but are not the same thing.
gifted: Students with gifts or talents that give them the capability to perform at higher levels compared to others of the same age, experience, and environment in one or more areas. Because of this the student may need modifications to their educational environment in order to reach their potential.
twice exceptional (2e): A term given to students who are considered gifted and who also have a disability.
Tourette Syndrome (TS): A neurological disorder characterised by severe or very frequent tics.
stimming: Stimming (or stims) refer to self-stimulating or self-soothing movements or vocalisations. Stims are natural human movements or vocalisations that are repetitive and within our conscious control.
perseverations: The continual involuntary repetition of a thought or behaviour. For example, getting stuck or fixated on an idea or a particular verbalisation, movement or activity. They are not the same as obsessions or compulsions.
tics: Tics are repeated sudden twitches, movements, or sounds and are involuntary - out of the person’s control. For example, repeatedly blinking, clearing the throat, shouting out words or jerking limbs.
prosopagnosia: A condition where people have great difficulty recognising faces that they have seen before, even many times. In extreme cases, they may have trouble recognising close members of their family. https://www.faceblind.org/research/
echolalia: Repeating of words and phrases.
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Diseases (DSM):
This is the international tool for diagnosing mental disorders. It includes detailed descriptions, symptoms, and other criteria for diagnosing them. It provides a common language for clinicians to communicate, research and diagnose mental disorders. Currently autism is still included in this manual, although it is not a mental disorder.
International Classification of Diseases (ICD):
The International Classification of Diseases (ICD) is an internationally used diagnostic tool for epidemiology, health management and clinical diagnosis and research. The ICD is published by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Like the DSM, it is used to clinically diagnose autism.
Highly sensitive person /
Sensory processing sensitivity
(HSP / SPS)
HSP is not a disorder or disease. The terms HSP and SPS were coined by psychologists Elaine and Arthur Aron in the mid 1990s. They refer to a personality trait, or variation of temperament, characterised by having an increased sensory sensitivity and deeper cognitive processing of stimuli. The trait can cause both negative and positive experiences. According to Elaine and Arthur Aron, it is possible to measure a person’s sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) on a scale developed by them, known as the Highly Sensitive Person Scale (HSPS). It is not the same as sensory processing disorder or sensory integration disorder.