To acknowledge Neurodiversity Celebration Week, we asked Sarah and Stephanie to share about their organization, how their neurodiversity is infused into their work, and their thoughts on neurodiversity in healthcare. 

1.    Please share a little bit about your work.

Autism Included, a 501(c)(3) organization, was established to champion the well-being of autistic children. We achieve this by advocating for a nurturing and accepting environment, delivering autism-affirming services, and driving cultural shifts through coaching and education to create a world where autistic children can flourish. We currently have three main programs. Our outpatient clinic, Access Speech and Allied Therapies, provides autism-affirming speech and occupational therapy services and assistive-technology evaluations to children attending public, private, and charter schools. We also partner with early childhood education programs to provide frameworks for the inclusion of autistic students and enhanced staffing to support their needs. This year, we will be launching our newest program, A-PLUS Professional Development, a series of trainings for therapists, parents, and educators. We’re on a mission to promote and expand access to autism-affirming and neurodiversity-positive services and spaces, and we believe these three programs achieve just that. 

2.    In your practice, you use the term “neuro-inclusivity.” Can you tell us a bit more about what this term means and other terms that are important when addressing neurodiverse individuals?

Neuro-inclusivity refers to the intentional, meaningful inclusion of neurodiverse individuals— those with significant brain-based differences from the general population—by creating environments that reduce barriers to participation. Specific “neurodiversity-positive” practices are necessary but not sufficient for true neuro-inclusion; it requires examination of implicit bias and broad culture change. It should be noted we didn’t coin this term, but it’s much more commonly used outside of the U.S. 

Regarding other terminology, we use identity-first language rather than person-first language when discussing autism. This is because we view autism as an inextricable part of one’s identity rather than a disorder or pathology, and our choice of language was driven by the preferences of many autistic adults (including Stephanie). Much of our terminology has shifted to reflect disability as social and relational, rather than deficits-based. For example, we don’t use functioning labels but rather describe levels of support a child needs to achieve a particular goal in a specific environment. We strive to be intentional about the language we use, as language is one of the most important drivers of cultural change. 

3.    As neurodiverse individuals yourselves, what does Neurodiversity Celebration Week mean to you? 

Neurodiversity Celebration Week is an opportunity to both celebrate the enormous contributions of neurodivergent people across the world and bring awareness to what the neurodiversity movement is all about. We want to celebrate and increase awareness of neurodivergence—the idea that human brains can exist and develop in a variety of ways that are all valid and worthy of celebration—and not just showcase neurodivergent individuals who meet neurotypical standards of achievement (the implication being that they can “succeed despite their difference”). The neurodiversity movement is, at its core, a social justice movement.  

4.    In your opinion, how do neurodiverse healthcare professionals enhance patient care?

One word—representation. There’s nothing one could learn in a book that would replace the lived experience of being a person in a neurotypical world with a non-neurotypical brain. Neurodiversity in health care is important because healthcare professionals serve a diverse population, and acceptance, understanding, and ethical standards of care are improved with a culture that values inclusion and diversity. It also provides representation for those we serve, who can more closely relate to and feel seen by their providers. As speech therapists, we have noticed that people who are neurodivergent themselves often seem to have a fundamentally easier time interpreting the communication of other neurodivergent people, which can be such an asset to a team trying to figure out what communication breakdowns are occurring with a neurodivergent client. 

5. What is one piece of advice, from either your personal life or your professional practice, you would give to other health professionals who care for neurodiverse individuals?

From our professional experience, our biggest piece of advice would be to (1) challenge your assumptions, and (2) listen to neurodivergent people. This is especially important when working with nonspeaking autistic individuals. Much of what we were taught about autism, neurodivergence, and therapy for neurodivergent individuals is simply inaccurate, and many common practices are ineffective and, much more importantly, unethical. It’s hard to feel like you don’t know what to do for a client, but it’s important to recognize the real harm that compliance-based therapies can cause. Listen to autistic self-advocates. Even if you are neurodivergent, it can take time to recognize and unpack the ableist assumptions we’ve all picked up. One last piece of advice: From our personal experience, this [social justice] work can be very heavy. For those invested in doing the hands-on labor of change, it’s important to have above-average work-life balance and self-compassion. Be kind to yourself and find like-minded allies. We’re stronger together.