These days, more and more companies are recognizing the benefit of hiring, understanding, and accommodating neurodivergent brains, and if you’re one of them, you’ll need to understand how the language you use can make or break both your relationship with us and your bottom line.
Knowing which terms to use (and which ones to avoid) can help you avoid offending your new hires while also improving their feelings of psychological safety–an essential in neurodivergent employee retention.
Avoid These Terms (And Use These Instead)
The term “differently-abled” (or even “diffabled”) can come across as condescending. As if the idea of talking about or acknowledging disability or being disabled should be avoided or as if the disabled person is somehow “less than” their peers. Trying to put a ‘positive spin’ on being disabled can feel more alienating than inclusive.
Just use ‘disabled’ or ‘disability’ instead.
- Special Needs
‘Special needs’ is another term that your autistic and disabled employees may feel uncomfortable with. If you think about it, everybody has needs, and they’re all different based on age, life experience, neurology, disability, education, etc. Neurodivergent and disabled people are full, autonomous human beings with individual needs like anyone else. There’s nothing inherently “special” about having those needs or having them accommodated.
Instead, use ‘needs’, ‘modifications’, or ‘accommodations’. Leave the word ‘special’ out of it.
- Functioning Labels
Functioning labels are used to set autistic individuals apart from each other and into groups or categories that are not only limited and offensive, but factually inaccurate. For example, autistic people who are placed into the “low-functioning” category are often less valuable in society and those who are placed into the “high-functioning” category are often deemed “too typical” to need support.
Yikes! That’s not the message you want to send if your company intends to be truly inclusive.
Let’s dig into functioning labels from the perspective of being factually inaccurate. Being autistic is not linear, with “very autistic” at one end of the spectrum and “barely autistic” at the other. It is much more dynamic and complex than that.
For example, I’ve been placed into the “high-functioning” category many, many times because of my ability to write and speak well and mask my autistic traits. Because of this, there are people in my own family who still do not believe my diagnosis, and they never will.
Just because I can do those things well does not mean I don’t struggle mightily in other areas. For example, I cannot do math without a calculator, I can’t orient myself well in space and get lost frequently, I forget names, I can’t recognize faces out of context, I trip over and knock into everything unless I’m concentrating really hard on each individual body movement–which is exhausting, bright lights and loud sounds can force me into an instant fetal position unable to speak or move.
Does that sound “high-functioning” to you?
On the other hand, a person who is placed into the “low-functioning” category because they are non-speaking, unable to mask, have proprioception challenges that complicate personal care, or have more obvious and frequent stims may be able to do very “high-functioning” things like performing complex math calculations, painting an entire cityscape from memory, or playing a piece of music with perfect pitch after having only heard it once.
Would you still consider that person “low-functioning” if you saw them from just that perspective?
In short, functioning labels just don’t work. Instead, use words like ‘needs’, ‘accommodations’, or ‘modifications’.
Autistic People Have a Spiky Profile
The core reason functioning labels don’t work is because of what’s known as the autistic spiky profile. This means many of us excel at things to the point where we become experts in them while we may simultaneously struggle with other things to the point where we need support and accommodations.
While the spiky profile can be confusing for neurotypical people whose brains operate on a more even keel, believing, understanding, and respecting this type of brain function is a critical (and often overlooked) step in creating a neurodiversity-affirming work environment.
- Asperger’s Syndrom
As someone who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome back in 2015, I do fully understand that this diagnosis was, up until very recently, still used separately from autism. We’re actually all just autistic. Furthermore, Hans Asperger, the Austrian pediatrician who coined the term, was found to have worked with Nazis and collaborated in the deaths of what he deemed “genetically inferior” children, and the term fell out of favor with the autistic community after that.
(Do you see how this also ties back into problematic functioning labels?)
Instead, use ‘autistic’ for an autistic person, ‘dyslexic’ for a dyslexic person, dyspraxic for a ‘dyspraxic’ person, and so on. Neurodivergent is another umbrella term that can be used for someone with an atypical brain.
Remember to Always Ask the Individual Person
Being inclusive isn’t just about following a guided list, even if that guided list is written by an autistic person; it’s about getting to know each of your employees as individuals, as human beings, and asking them directly what terminology works best for them and makes them feel safe and included.