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Neurodivergent (ND) Affirming Approach

Joleen R. Fernald, PhD, CCC-SLP, BCS-CL

October 15, 2023



What is neurodivergent (ND) affirming approach?


A neurodiversity-affirming approach is a mindset and strategy that prioritizes the recognition and inclusion of neurodivergent individuals, such as those on the autism spectrum, within society. This approach seeks to reduce the practice of masking, which involves concealing one's neurodivergent traits to conform to neurotypical norms. Masking often puts a significant emotional and cognitive burden on neurodivergent individuals, and the goal of a neurodiversity-affirming approach is to alleviate this burden while fostering understanding and acceptance.

To elaborate further, a neurodiversity-affirming approach aligns with a psychosocial model of disability. This means that instead of trying to "fix" the neurodivergent individual or their differences, it emphasizes that the responsibility lies with society to enact change and create an inclusive environment. For instance, if an autistic individual is engaging in a conversation with their body turned slightly away, but the communication is effective, the neurodiversity-affirming approach does not pressure them to make eye contact or alter their body position to fit neurotypical expectations. It respects and values the individual's unique communication style.

Additionally, an ND-affirming approach incorporates trauma-informed principles, considering the impact of trauma on neurodivergent individuals. It acknowledges the six "F words" of trauma responses: fight, flight, freeze, fawn, fatigue, and flood. When these responses are triggered, it's essential for caregivers and professionals to step back, understand the emotional state of the individual, and work towards helping them regulate their emotions. The emphasis is on providing support rather than punitive measures.

Another key aspect of an ND-affirming approach is a shift from a deficits-focused perspective to a strengths-based one. Instead of viewing neurodivergent individuals solely through the lens of their challenges or deficits, this approach recognizes and celebrates their unique strengths and abilities. It respects their agency and autonomy, promoting their ability to advocate for themselves and make decisions aligned with their goals and aspirations.

In summary, a neurodiversity-affirming approach is a holistic and empathetic framework that strives to create an inclusive and supportive environment for neurodivergent individuals. It values their differences, focuses on strengths, and empowers them to lead fulfilling lives with agency and dignity.

This ask the experts is an edited excerpt from the course 4776: Neurodiversity: Navigating Scenarios Using a Neurodiversity-Affirming Approach by Joleen R. Fernald, PhD, CCC-SLP, BCS-CL

joleen r fernald

Joleen R. Fernald, PhD, CCC-SLP, BCS-CL

Joleen R. Fernald, PhD, CCC-SLP was awarded Board Specialty Recognition in Child Language from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Dr. Jo follows Greenspan and Wieder’s model, DIRFloortime®  when working with children and families. She is the author of the "Comprehensive Guide to Selective Mutism" and has a special interest in the social-emotional development of young children and its impact on their speech and language skills.  She co-founded a private school called REConnections Education Center in the Tampa Bay area of Florida which supports children with various individual differences.

Related Courses

Neurodiversity: Navigating Scenarios Using a Neurodiversity-Affirming Approach
Presented by Joleen R. Fernald, PhD, CCC-SLP, BCS-CL
Recorded Webinar


Joleen R. Fernald, PhD, CCC-SLP, BCS-CL
Course: #4775Level: Intermediate1 Hour
  'Great communication style - easy to follow and nice mix of explanations and video examples'   Read Reviews
Neurodiversity, neurodivergence, and neurodiversity (ND)-affirming approaches are discussed in this course. Strengths-based assessment, goals and supports that characterize ND-affirming approaches are described. Case scenarios are presented to exemplify ways to help those who are neurodivergent succeed in school and clinical settings.

Neurodiversity: How to Support Agency and Self-determination
Presented by Joleen R. Fernald, PhD, CCC-SLP, BCS-CL
Recorded Webinar


Joleen R. Fernald, PhD, CCC-SLP, BCS-CL
Course: #4316Level: Intermediate1 Hour
  'great intro to neurodiversity paradigm'   Read Reviews
It is imperative for clinicians and educators to be aware of the neurodiversity movement in order to better support all human rights. This course discusses what neurodiversity is and the history of the movement, as well as the potential for trauma related to behavioral interventions. Case examples demonstrate how to apply a paradigm shift to clinical practice that seeks to accept and celebrate differences rather than mask them. This course is directly related to the practice of physical therapy and is therefore appropriate for the PT/PTA.

Supporting Respiratory Equipment on Wheelchair Bases
Presented by Michelle Lange, OTR/L, ABDA, ATP/SMS
Recorded Webinar


Michelle Lange, OTR/L, ABDA, ATP/SMS
Course: #4894Level: Introductory1 Hour
Many people who require respiratory equipment, such as oxygen and ventilators, use a wheeled mobility base. This course will address how to support respiratory equipment on an adaptive stroller, manual wheelchair, or power wheelchair safely and as a part of a team.

Contemporary Guidelines for Exercise and Diabetes: Application to Physical Therapy Cases
Presented by Gina Pariser, PT, LDE, PhD
Recorded Webinar


Gina Pariser, PT, LDE, PhD
Course: #3387Level: Introductory2 Hours
  'Overall the course was very well put together and organized and went along with my learning style'   Read Reviews
Physical activity is established as an important therapy in the prevention and management of diabetes and diabetes-related health comorbidities. This course reviews new guidelines related to physical activity for improving glucose control and cardiovascular health in people with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes and highlights ways to apply these guidelines in different physical therapy cases. This course is directly related to the practice of physical therapy and is therefore appropriate for the PT and PTA.

Evaluation and Treatment of Vestibular Related Impairments in Children
Presented by Jennifer Christy, PT, PhD
Recorded Webinar


Jennifer Christy, PT, PhD
Course: #4183Level: Intermediate2 Hours
  'It began with a review of the internal ear and central vestibular pathways'   Read Reviews
This presents common pediatric diagnoses leading to peripheral or central vestibular dysfunction. The presenter will discuss screening tools, diagnostic tests, outcome measures, and physical therapy interventions for children with suspected vestibular dysfunction. This course is directly related to the practice of physical therapy and is therefore appropriate for the PT/PTA.

Editor's Note: Regarding Pennsylvania credits, this course is approved by the PA State Board of Physical Therapy for 1 hour of general and 1 hour of Direct Access CE credit.

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