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A Guide To Becoming Neuroaffirming

Emma Offord is a clinical psychologist specialising in neurodivergence. She is the founder of Divergent Life, a neuroaffirming private practice. Emma is passionate about the neurodiversity movement, developing more empowered ways to think about neurodivergence, providing creative and somatic forms of therapy for the ND community.

 
Executive Contributor Emma Offord

At Divergent Life, we believe helping people to understand their neurobiology is a basic human right. Our philosophy is that neurodivergent people, especially those receiving a late diagnosis, have suffered a lifetime of being misunderstood, othered, and labelled, leading to core emotional wounds.


Thoughtful young woman in casual clothes with notebook standing near blackboard with colorful brain sketch

Providing a neuroaffirming approach to support them through their neurodivergent discovery is about treating them as the wonderful, complex human beings they are. Not insisting that they change and adapt, or are somehow less than and need fixing.

 

What does it mean to be neuroaffirming?

Neuroaffirming is a relatively new term in the lexicon of neurodivergence. While the word neurodiversity has been used since the 1990s, the practice of being neuroaffirming is much more recent.


We are moving away from the medical model of neurodivergence that states that neurodivergence is a disorder of the brain. As more research is conducted across the world, we are coming to realise that the brain in all its complexity is diverse. No two brains think the same, or respond the same way in a given situation.


However, what is apparent is that there is a predominant neurotype that has become the ‘norm’ around which our contemporary lives, cultural practices, and societies have been designed. There is an argument to say that the predominant neurotype, that which is referred to as neurotypical, is simply the neurobiology that most suits a capitalist structure. But that is another discussion for another day.


To be neuroaffirming means to focus on strengths and the rights of the individual, as outlined in this article by Autism Acceptance. The aim is to provide affirming approaches, language and adaptations that allow all neurotypes to thrive. The language of deficits, disorders and developmental delays is disputed, replaced instead with the language of differences and strengths. With the very real challenges that neurodivergent people experience attributed to lack of social and structural design that supports neurotypes that fall outside of the narrow window of neurotypical.

 

What is neurodivergence versus neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity or neurodiverse simply refers to all the varying neurotypes. As stated previously, every brain is different. There is a huge propensity for variation. And that is what makes a species successful. It is, after all, the basis upon which natural selection works. Over time, we have evolved this complexity into our species and our species’ survival has depended upon it.


Neurodivergence or being neurodivergent on the other hand, refers to a group of individuals whose neurotype falls outside of what is currently deemed to be typical for the human population.


Therefore, it is correct to say that a person is neurodivergent. But not that an autistic person for example is neurodiverse. We are all neurodiverse, because diversity makes up the human population. It is inherent in our genetic code, biology, neurotypes, and evolutionary history.

 

What are the strengths and challenges that neurodivergent people experience?

This is a huge question, and one that we will continue to explore on Brainz, because it is in fact too large a question for a subsection of a single article. However, we can explore this a little here.


Firstly, and most importantly, strengths. Looking at neurodivergence from a strengths-based perspective is fundamental to being neuroaffirming. This isn’t to discount the struggles that neurodivergent people experience, but rather that we believe that to support neurodivergent people to become the very best version of themselves, we need to start with strengths. And eliminate the language of deficits.


Neurodivergent people have largely spent most of their lives feeling like they don’t fit in, are othered, and alienated by society. School can be incredibly challenging for some, where navigating the complex nuances of social interactions can leave many children confused and isolated. Or they are high masking high performers who appear to sail through school, but at huge cost to their mental health and sense of self.


Equally, as we move on through life, our struggles are either dismissed as ‘being in our heads’, or we are shamed for being different. We may expend all of our energy surviving the working week, with no time for social interaction at the weekends. We may have a public meltdown, and rather than be supported to recover with dignity, we end up being ridiculed, shamed, or medicated.


So this is why we prefer to look at neurodivergence through a strengths-based lens first. Providing a safe and nurturing environment to build confidence, reset the nervous system, and then develop strategies to cope with the external world.


So, strengths then. We are taking a look at ADHD, autism, and giftedness here today...


ADHD strengths


  • High energy: ADHDers often have a great deal of energy, which can be channelled into positive outlets such as sports, dance, and other physical activities.

  • Out-of-the-box thinking: ADHDers often think outside the box and have a unique perspective on the world, which can lead to innovative ideas and solutions. They may make unique connections between ideas, and approach problems in unconventional ways.

  • Enthusiasm: ADHDers often approach new experiences and challenges with enthusiasm and a sense of adventure.

  • Sense of humour: Many ADHDers possess a great sense of humour and quick wit, often making others laugh and easing tension in social situations.

  • Resilience: ADHD individuals face challenges in daily life, which builds resilience and determination. They learn to persist in the face of adversity, bounce back from setbacks, and develop a strong sense of perseverance.


Autism strengths


  • Exceptional focus: Autistic individuals often exhibit intense focus and concentration on tasks that interest them. This can lead to a deep level of engagement and proficiency in specific areas of interest.

  • Keen attention to detail: Autistic individuals often have a remarkable ability to notice and pay attention to small details that others may overlook. This can be advantageous in activities that require precision or careful observation. This is an advantage in fields such as science, engineering and mathematics, where precision and accuracy are crucial.

  • Excellent memory skills: Many autistic individuals possess excellent memory skills, allowing them to retain and recall information with great accuracy. This can be helpful in learning and acquiring new knowledge.

  • Unique perspective: Autistic individuals often have a unique way of perceiving and understanding the world. They may think in unconventional ways, which can lead to original insights and creativity. Their unique perspective enables them to find alternative solutions to problems. They perceive reality in a unique way and will often find a different solution than another person would.

  • Dedication to routine and structure: Many autistic individuals thrive in structured environments and find comfort in predictable routines. This can contribute to their ability to follow instructions, complete tasks, and develop a sense of security and stability.


Giftedness strengths


  • Emotional intensity: People with emotional giftedness often feel things more intensely, which can lead to a strong sense of empathy and a desire to help others.

  • Intuition and sensitivity: Many individuals with sensual giftedness possess heightened intuition and sensitivity to their surroundings. They may pick up on subtle cues, emotions, and nonverbal communication, making them empathetic and perceptive individuals.

  • Strong imagination: People with intellectual giftedness often have a vivid imagination, which can lead to a love of storytelling, art, and other creative endeavours.


You can read more about giftedness on InterGifted. Divergent Life leader, Dr Emma Offord is a giftedness profiler.

 

Neurodivergent challenges

Contrary to popular belief, not all autistic brains experience sensory overload in all situations. And not all ADHDers can’t sit still. These are stereotypes that have developed because there is still so much to learn and understand about neurodivergent brains and their environmental and social preferences. That being said, neurodivergent people can experience sensory overwhelm. And ADHD does include hyperactivity which can manifest physically. Just not always.


Challenges a neurodivergent person may experience include but are not limited to:


  • Difficulty switching tasks or having their plans changed without notice

  • Difficulty remembering more than one instruction or question being asked at a time

  • Reading between the lines so prefer explicit and accurate communication, rather than implied meaning

  • May need extra breaks to prevent becoming overwhelmed

  • Can get bored easily especially if they get a lot of work done in less time than a neurotypical brain, this can lead to a kind of burnout called bore-out

  • May need flexible deadlines or shorter deadlines

  • Being stuck in traffic can be highly stressful for neurodivergent people if they are forced to sit still for long periods of time, which can be deeply physically uncomfortable

  • Can find lots of noise distracting

  • Can also find an environment that is too quiet makes their thoughts too loud which can be more distracting

  • Temperature regulation for ND people, especially those going through perimenopause or menopause, can be problematic

  • Bright lighting can be overstimulating and trigger headaches and sight related issues that make ND people very tired

  • Flexibility regarding clothing choice, some ND people will choose to wear clothing that is comfortable and practical, rather than fashionable

  • Many ND people thrive with spontaneity, but others don’t and find making on the spot decisions very challenging

 

A guide to becoming neuroaffirming in 5 steps


1. Learn what the different types of neurodivergence are


They include:


  •  Autism

  • ADHD

  • OCD

  • Tourettes

  • Dyslexia

  • Dyslaculia

  • Dyspraxia

  • Executive dysfunction

  • Dysgraphia

  • Misophonia

  • Slow processing speed, either verbally or aurally

 

2. Change your language

One of the biggest and most positive impacts you can make is to begin using appropriate language. Language that is affirming, strengths-based, acknowledges challenges, but avoids deficits and disorders is preferred.


Examples:


  • Refer to an individual as being neurodivergent, not having neurodiversity, or blanketing everyone under neurodiverse. We are all inherently neurodiverse because everyone’s brain is different and unique

  • At DL we prefer to use terms that align with a person’s neurobiology. For example, you don’t ‘have’ autism, you are autistic, because it is how your neurobiology works. However, this can be person specific, so it is best to check with the individual. In that context, you can see how the word ‘disorder’ that appears at the end of all of these diagnoses becomes problematic. Even ‘condition’ seems perverse, because neurobiology isn’t a condition, although your neurobiology can be affected by a huge array of external factors

  • Neurodivergent people are not weird, strange, oddballs, or all savants

  • We are not all a little bit neurodivergent, autistic, OCD, or ADHD. Humans are all neurodiverse, but minimising the challenges neurodivergent people experience due to social, cultural and structural barriers with this statement is not neuroaffirming.

 

3. Consider the nervous system

The nervous system of a neurodivergent person can be extremely highly attuned to their surroundings. The mammalian nervous system is a work of wonder, constantly scanning our environment for signs of safety and danger. Through a mix of having more sensitive autonomic nervous systems and experiencing a higher level of trauma because of their neurodivergence, neurodivergent people can be in a state of functional fight, flight, or freeze. This is extremely exhausting and is often why neurodivergent people experience burnout.

 

4. Learn about sensory preferences

As we mentioned earlier, not all neurodivergent people are sensitive to sensory overwhelm. Some ND people are very sensory seeking and need the stimulation of sensory stimuli. They may need loud music to focus. They may need complete silence. They may have deep aversions to certain types of food. They may actively seek out spicy, novel foods. If you’ve met a neurodivergent person who tells you they hate labels and seams in their clothes, can’t stand having wet hands, love heavy metal to go to sleep to... you’ve met one neurodivergent person whose sensory preferences work that way. The next ND person you meet will have a completely different set of preferences. And preferences may change depending on their menstrual cycle of they’re women, how tired they are, the environment they are in.

 

5. Become trauma-informed

Trauma leaves long-lasting effects within the body, that can last for decades. Trauma that hasn’t been processed, giving the person affected a chance to rewire their brain, can lead to all sorts of health problems. The buildup of cortisol in their bodies and brains starts to impact the functioning of their short-term memory and executive function, leading to a reduction in productivity, enjoyment in life and depressive episodes. Health issues include, but aren’t limited to, inflammatory disease, diabetes, headaches and migraine, chronic pain, some cancers, and trouble sleeping. The long-term effect of these issues can be a shortened lifespan. So being neuroaffirming means supporting neurodivergent people to process their trauma, reduce their cortisol levels, and return their nervous system to a comfortable homeostasis.

 

Conclusion and summary

Becoming neuroaffirming is the first tool in becoming an advocate for your neurodivergent friends, colleagues, and family members. With at least 20% of the population diverging from the predominant neurotype, you will know someone who is silently struggling with feeling different and misunderstood. And they may not even know why.


By being neuroaffirming, you are showing that person that you care about them and value them as an individual. You are not lumping them into a homogeneous group to be othered. You are seeing them as valued members of society with unique gifts and perspectives to share with the world.


If you want to become neuroaffirming, suspect you are or have a neurodivergent diagnosis, or know someone who does, then download our Becoming Neuroaffirming Booklet for more information.


Divergent Life is a private psychology and coaching service specialising in remote neuroaffirming neurodivergent assessment.


Our mission is to support neurodivergent people to flourish and thrive. 

 

Understanding your neurobiology and how it interacts with the world around you is a basic human right. Through your neurobiology, we will help you forge a path towards relational, educational, physical, and psychological safety.

 

We provide diagnostic assessments, therapy, coaching, and group programmes, specialising in the experiences of neurodivergent women and men, and supporting children and families, too. We use a neuroaffirming, trauma-informed approach, getting curious with our clients about their vulnerabilities, challenges, and strengths.

 

We work with you to understand your diagnosis and self-identification through a trauma lens. This helps you reduce the impact of neurodivergent trauma, becoming confident and knowledgeable about your own neurobiology.

 

Divergent Life has a small team of specialists who work alongside Dr Offord to provide a range of therapeutic and coaching services. You can find out more at our website or follow us on Instagram @divergentlives.

 

Follow me on Instagram, LinkedIn, and visit my website for more info!

Read more from Emma Offord

 

Emma Offord, Neuroaffirming therapist, coach, and thought-leader

Emma is a thought-leader in neuroaffirming approaches to neurodivergence diagnosis and support. She is trailblazing new ways of defining neurodivergence through the lens of giftedness and strengths. While still recognising and validating the challenges and stigma neurodivergent people face, Emma is leading the way in dismantling societal norms associated with the medical model of disorder. She’s the founder of Divergent Life, a neuroaffirming organisation providing diagnosis, therapy, and coaching to individuals, and guidance for organisations to become neuroinclusive.

 

Informational sources:


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