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‘Much better set up to do my best work’: What does ‘neurodiversity-affirming practice’ mean to the autistic community?

University of Nottingham May 2023

‘Much better set up to do my best work’: What does ‘neurodiversity-affirming practice’ mean to the autistic community?


Charlotte Naylor
Thesis submitted to the University of Nottingham for the degree of Doctorate of Applied Educational Psychology


The term ‘neurodiversity’ has had a substantial impact on research, policy, practice and discourse since being coined in 1998. More recently, literature has begun to discuss neurodiversity-affirming (NDA) practice, while some professionals advertise their services as NDA. However, what is meant by NDA practice is presently unclear, with little research on the topic. The neurodiversity movement has emerged from the autistic self-advocacy movement, which argues for autistic empowerment in the development of autism research and practice. Thus, this thesis argues that to conceptualise NDA practice, insight should be sought from the autistic community. A novel qualitative survey was co-produced with 7 autistic community collaborators. Responses from 44 autistic individuals, including 19 autistic professionals describing their practice as NDA, were analysed using reflexive thematic analysis. Six themes were generated. These related to NDA practices as a philosophical orientation, with professionals engaging reflexively with the neurodiversity perspective of autistic differences. Learning from autistic community-generated knowledge, and redefining “normal” to include autism, rather than seeking to normalise autistic people, were interpreted to be fundamental to NDA practices. It seemed NDA practices would include a ‘culture of acceptance’, embracing the strengths, needs and complexities of individuals and neurodivergent communities, and would seek to reduce autistic minoritisation. Potential benefits of this approach were viewed as reduced anxiety, a reduced need to ‘mask’ with professionals and a reduced sense of burdensomeness; all potentially facilitating greater access to, and engagement with services.
It is suggested professionals may reflexively consider the values, beliefs and paradigms that are reflected in their choice of interventions, language and outcomes. To develop NDA practices, professionals and researchers should consider co-production with the autistic community. Further work is necessary to understand NDA practices from the perspective of non-autistic neurodivergent communities.