One of the best ways to support, celebrate and show understanding towards a neuro-divergent person, is to be neuro-affirming. Sounds scientific and complex right? Not really. It’s actually quite simple to adopt a neuro-affirming mindset and from this, positive behaviours and attitudes can flow.

A challenge many Autistic individuals face is societal expectations that it is the neuro-divergent person who must change and adapt to fit into a ‘mainstream’ or neuro-typical environment. Whether this is a workplace, education facility, social setting or among family members, the onus in many situations is on the neuro-divergent person to change.

On the flip-side, a neuroaffirming mindset means realising and accepting that diversity exists in how we reason, think, ponder, feel, behave and engage with others and the world around us – and that is perfectly okay and not something that needs to be ‘corrected’.

Being Autistic myself, I experience first-hand the immense difference in interactions with people who are neuro-affirming. Rather than being conscious of differences and adapting my behaviour, which is limiting and distracting, I can relax and focus on being myself and the contribution I want to make.

Characteristics of neuro-affirming behaviour

A neuro-affirming person embraces differences in thoughts and behaviour and believes they are what makes each person special, worthy and unique.

Neuro-diversity is considered valid and the varied ways of thinking and approaching situations are valued, embraced and respected.

Rather than trying to change the neuro-divergent person, a neuro-affirming person recognises it is often societal and environmental stimuli and barriers that increase pressures already experienced by neuro-divergent people, and it is these external factors that need to be adapted.

A neuro-affirming person does not inflict ‘mainstream’ expectations, and realises any attempt to change, limit or modify behaviour will limit potential, contribution and overall wellbeing.

Why is being neuro-affirming so important?

There are many benefits to society as a whole when people adopt neuro-affirming mindsets. For the Autistic and neuro-divergent individual, specific benefits include:

Improved mental health and wellbeing

The pressure on Autistic people to mask, make eye-contact or adjust inherent self-regulating behaviours in neuro-typical situations can lead to poor mental health, anxiety, stress and low self-esteem.

As referenced by Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect), in this fact sheet, from a young age and through to later life, people on the autism spectrum are more likely than other people to experience mental ill health, most commonly anxiety and depression. Data from surveys shows that up to 46% of children on the autism spectrum between 3-16 years and 70% of children aged 10-14 experience at least one mental health condition.

It’s little wonder that low self-esteem escalates in Autistic people when stigma surrounding their differences is viewed negatively. This often leads to bullying and exclusion, which exacerbates the cycle of stress and anxiety that comes from masking and other modifications in an attempt to fit in.

Individuals and workplaces with a neuro-affirming approach allow Autistic people to be themselves. This mindset focuses on strengths, resulting in a subsequent improvement in self-esteem and mental health.

Academic improvement

When an educator adopts a neuro-affirming approach, accommodations are made to ensure the Autistic student is supported to reach their potential. This could mean changes to the physical environment which enable an Autistic student to move around or stim without being judged, or allowing sensory support aids, such as noise reducing headphones.

Recognising that an Autistic student is not being uncooperative when they perform self-regulating behaviours is also a huge step to demonstrating acceptance.

Educating other students to understand that diverse thinking and behaviours are positive, interesting and valuable, will also go a long way to helping neuro-divergent students feel accepted, experience decreased levels of distress and achieve better academic results.

Connections and relationships

When an individual is neuro-affirming it can lead to more positive relationships – among family, colleagues, friends, classmates or in special interest groups.

The simple act of valuing how an Autistic person communicates and embracing their differences breaks down barriers and allows the neuro-divergent to be themselves.

Actively making adjustments that enable the neuro-divergent person to embrace their individuality and avoiding negative language when referring to differences, shows support, care and acceptance, creating an environment that fosters positive relationships and connections.

Becoming neuro-affirming

Choosing to be neuro-affirming is the first step to creating positive change. Once this mindset is adopted, supportive behaviours and language flow more easily.  Research shows that adaptations that empower neurodivergent people, also empower everyone.

The magic for Autistic people happens when they are engaging with people who accept them for who they are, and embrace their uniqueness which creates an environment where everyone can be themselves.

As one of our teens from our social hubs said “I love it when I can just be – you know? When I can just exist as I am.”

By Madeleine Jaine-Lobsey

Review this resource

You may also like

Check out these related resources

View more resources