Neurodiversity Glossary

Updated: Nov 5, 2021


An open dictionary sits on a table, a ring holds up the page

In honour of ADHD Awareness Month, I defined one ADHD-related term each day of October on Twitter. However, there are just so many neurodiversity-related terms that I couldn't get to. Suffice it to say that I couldn't let those words go undefined!


Below is a non-exhaustive list of terms (and definitions) related to aspects of the neurodivergent communities. This list will be updated from time to time (I hope). Please note, that terms and definitions tend to shift in usage over time. This should be seen as a snapshot of related terms based on my knowledge and opinion, not a definitive or prescriptive guide.


Now on to the terms! Last Updated October 31, 2021

 

Accommodations Changes in tools, technology, equipment, environment, or demands necessary for a disabled and/or neurodivergent person to succeed. For example, letting a student write their test in a separate, quieter room, or giving a student text-to-speech software so the computer can read the notes for them.


Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) An older term for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and sometimes used to refer to ADHD inattentive type.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

A genetic neurodevelopmental condition that changes the way that the brain develops. ADHD particularly impacts the frontal lobe and amygdala, and the main symptoms are poor executive functioning skills and difficulty with self-regulation.


Alexithymia

Meaning ‘no words for feelings,’ alexithymia refers to an inability to identify, describe, and/or name emotions. Many autistic people, and some people with ADHD, can be said to have alexithymia.

Allistic A term used to refer to anyone who isn't autistic

Anorexia An eating disorder characterized by low weight, food restriction, body image disturbance, fear of gaining weight, and an incredibly intense desire to be thin. Research suggests that anorexic people are considerably more likely to be neurodivergent (and autistic particularly).

Acquired Brain Injury (ABI)

Any non-congenital injury to the brain, almost exclusively happening after birth. ABI’s can have various impacts on the person’s life depending on the region of the brain impacted and the degree of injury. ABI is form of acquired neurodivergence.


Asperger's/Asperger Syndrome

This term was formerly used for a specific type of autism, sometimes described as “high functioning” autism. This separate diagnosis was removed when the DSM5 came out. Named after a Nazi scientist who performed unethical experiments on autistic children, many people who were previously diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome prefer to avoid the term and instead just describe themselves as autistic.

Aspie Supremacy The false belief that people with Asperger Syndrome are superior to people with other forms of autism, and sometimes to non-autistic people as well. A main argument used by people who subscribe to this ideology is that they are the next step in human evolution. This ideology has roots in eugenics.

Attention Regulation One of the executive functions. It is used to refer to the ability to choose and control how you focus your attention. Many people with ADHD struggle with attention regulation, and have difficulty staying focused.


The autistic pride symbol, a rainbow infinity symbol, made of dots

Autism A genetic neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by difficulties with social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behavior.

Autism Speaks A prominent autism-focused non-profit. Autistic people have roundly criticized Autism Speaks. Some of the complaints levied against Autism Speaks are that it is focused more on helping parents of autistic children, rather than autistic people themselves, and that it promotes the controversial practice of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA).


Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) An eating disorder involving intense restrictions on the types of food and the amount of it you eat, but unlike anorexia, people with ARFID aren't worried about their body image. Autistic people are considerably more likely to exhibit ARFID-like restrictions due to sensory issues around food textures, tastes, and smells.

 

Bipolar Disorder A mood disorder characterized by depression, with periods of abnormally-elevated mood that last from days to weeks.


Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) A personality disorder characterized by severe mood swings, impulsive behavior, and difficulty forming stable personal relationships.

Bulimia A serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder. People with bulimia may secretly binge—eating large amounts of food with a loss of control over the eating—and then purge (induce vomiting), trying to get rid of the extra calories in an unhealthy way.

 

Comorbidity/Co-occurring conditions A term for when you have more than one condition, disorder, or disability. For example, a common comorbidity is ADHD and autism.


Crisis mode A term used for when an ADHD'er is functioning on urgency alone. An example is when an ADHD'er has to deal with so many deadlines that they go on auto pilot to prioritize and finish tasks. It is characterized by an unsustainably high stress level, relatively strong executive functioning, and an intense urgency.

 

Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome (DSPS)

A sleep pattern where folks feel sleepy significantly (at least 2 hours) later than is acceptable or conventional. Delayed sleep can lead to struggles waking up at a desired time and can lead to impacts on social, occupational, or educational functioning. DSPS is particularly common among people with ADHD.

 

Echolalia A term for when someone repeats noises, sounds, or vocalizations around them. This can be a means of communication for those with significant barriers to other forms of social communication.


Executive dysfunction

A core feature of ADHD, executive dysfunction refers to a weakness in any one (or more) of a broad set of mental skills including working memory, flexible thinking, starting and switching tasks, and regulation of attention, emotions, and impulses. In many parts of the ADHD community, executive dysfunction is also used to describe troubles getting started on tasks (i.e., task initiation) particularly.


An Asian woman holds a fidget toy extended out in front of her

Fidget Toys (or fidgets) Tools to help a neurodivergent person self-stimulate (stim) or fidget discreetly so they can focus better.


Fidgeting

Using small, repetitive movements such as bouncing a leg or tapping a finger as a way of adding stimulation in otherwise understimulating situations. Many consider fidgeting a type of stimming.

 

Hyperfixation

Common to people with ADHD, hyperfixations are short-lived but intense, consuming interests that people are repeatedly drawn back to. These hyperfixations often fade or suddenly disappear after a period of weeks or months, but may return eventually.


Hyperfocus

Brief, intense, and consuming periods of focus where distractions, worries, and even time can slip from our minds.

 

Identity-first language

When referring to a disabled person by placing their disabled identity first. For example, “autistic person” would be identity-first language, whereas “person with autism” would not. Many disabled communities prefer identity-first language.

Individualized Education Plan (IEP) A plan put in place with the support of parents and teachers for a disabled student. It is customized to best suit their needs – this can be something as minimal as allowing the student to write their tests in a separate room to something more involved like requiring a personal teach assistant. It can even include being in a special education program or alternative education program (which includes attending some mainstream classes and some special education classes).

Intrusive Thoughts Sudden, distressing, or disturbing thoughts that are out of character for a person to have. Intrusive thoughts are a hallmark of some forms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and are more common among people with ADHD.

 

Learning Disability Learning disabilities are a type of condition in the brain that cause difficulties comprehending or processing information and can be caused by several different factors. Some can be genetic, or caused by a brain injury. Learning disabilities include dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, non-verbal learning disability, and others. A significant portion of people with ADHD also meet the criteria for at least one learning disability.

 

Masking The incredibly taxing act of concealing neurodivergent traits in order to pass as neurotypical. Often needed to reduce barriers in other aspects of their lives, this can include avoiding stimming in public, trying to make consistent eye contact, talking when they would prefer to not talk, and more.

 

Neuroatypical A term referring to people with atypical developmental, intellectual, and cognitive abilities. Some consider it another term used to refer to neurodivergent people.

Neurodivergent

Anyone whose neurology differs from that of neurotypicals can be said to be neurodivergent. This includes people with neurodevelopmental conditions such as ADHD, learning disabilities, or autism; acquired neurological differences, such as ABIs or cerebral palsy; or persistent mental health conditions, such as OCD, anxiety disorders, or MDD.


Neurodiversity Like ‘diversity’ itself, neurodiversity refers to the inclusion of people with multiple different neurological or neurodevelopmental conditions. One person, then, can not be neurodiverse any more than they can be diverse.


Neuromajority A term used to refer to a group of people whose neurotype makes up the majority of the populace.

Neurominority A term used to refer to a group of people whose neurotypes differ markedly from the majority of the populace.

Neuronormative A term used to describe the belief/attitude that neurotypicality is the only normal and natural mode of cognition and perception.

Neurotype A term used to refer to one individual form of brain wiring.

Neurotypical A term used to refer to non-neurodivergent people, i.e. non-autistic, non-ADHD people who don't have persistent mental health conditions, learning disabilities, or acquired neurodivergent conditions.


Two people sit at a table in a restaurant talking with sign language

Non-speaking A term used to refer to people who are unable to communicate verbally. Their methods of communication range from sign language to writing/typing to using an assistive device.

 

Person-first language The opposite of identity first language, this means referring to a disabled person as "a person with ___". Many disabled people do not prefer person-first language. However, preference for this type of language is largely dependent on the person and community in question. For example, most autistics report not wanting to be referred to as ‘people with autism,’ but people with Down syndrome report preferring person-first language.

 

Reasonable adjustments

A particularly British term for Accommodations.


Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria (RSD) An extreme emotional sensitivity and pain triggered by the perception that a person has been rejected or criticized by important people in their life. It may also be triggered by a sense of falling short or failing to meet their own high standards or others' expectations. RSD is a common experience of people with BPD, PTSD, and/or ADHD.


Rumination A term used to describe staying stuck on a certain negative thought, or idea, or task.

 

Savant A person who is extraordinarily skilled in a single area. Often used to describe an autistic person who is viewed as a genius, and exemplary in their chosen field.

Scripting A technique where neurodivergent people (and particularly autistic people) mimic sentences, words, or phrases from media or other people. Scripting can be a means of communication in its own right, but can also be a means of improving one’s ability to communicate or mask in social situations.

Self-diagnosis Self-diagnosis is a term used for people who, upon research, figure out that they identify with a label (such as self-diagnosing as autistic). Self-diagnosis is often followed by proper testing and evaluation, but may not be when significant barriers to assessment are present. For example sometimes people can't afford to pay for proper testing, or they get turned away (this commonly happens to women when it comes to both autism and ADHD). Due to the lack of any proper diagnosis, these people don't qualify for supports/services most of the time.


A person covers their ears surrounded by others using party noise makers

Sensory Overload An experience that happens when your senses take in more information than your brain can process. In sensory overload, the brain enters fight, flight, or freeze mode in response to what feels like a crisis. This will cause a person to feel uncomfortable or even panicky depending on the severity. For autistics, sensory overload can lead to meltdown or shutdown.


Social Scripting A technique neurodivergent people use in order to practice dealing with various social situations. They come up with a scenario or a "social situation", such as asking for help in a store, or ordering food, and they practice it until they feel like they are ready to engage in a real social situation.

Special Interest A term coined for the interests autistics can be incredibly passionate about. For an autistic person, special interests can be incredibly special to them and can be their way of interacting and relating to the world around them. An autistic person will often learn as much as possible about their special interest, and in a lot of cases, can retain the information even if they move on to something else. Some autistics will have a ton of special interests, while others might just have one. They can last for their entire lives, or for a few years or even less.


Spoon Theory A metaphor to refer to the amount of energy someone has in a day. Every little thing you do costs a certain amount of spoons, and you only get a certain amount per day. You may run out of spoons early in the day, so that leaves you with 2 choices: take from tomorrow's reserves or resign yourself to being unable to function for the rest of the day. (Alternatively, for people who have a much harder time with metaphors, you can explain it as a phone battery that isn't fully charged. You can only do so much with your phone before you can recharge it – except you're unable to recharge it so you have to pick and choose what you use it for).

Stimming Any self-stimulating behavior used by neurodivergent people to regulate or even express themselves. Examples of stimming are hand flapping, leg bouncing, and tapping on a surface.


Stimulant Medication A type of medication commonly used in treating ADHD. Stimulant medications start a biological process which increases the release of dopamine and norepinephrine. They aim to help focus a person's thoughts and ignore distractions. Some examples are Adderall and Concerta.


Synesthesia A sensory condition where specific inputs like sounds, letters, tastes, or smells automatically trigger additional sensations like color, texture, or even shape.

 

Tics

Sudden and involuntary twitches, movements, or sounds. Folks experiencing tics describe them as feeling similar to a sneeze, sometimes avoidable, but an uncomfortable building tension before release.


Time Agnosia (or Time Blindness)

An inability or weakness in perceiving the passage of time (without assistance), estimate how long tasks are going to take, plan for the future, and see future events as real or controllable.


Time Horizon

The period of time in which you feel like tasks, events, and activities seem real or controllable. If an event (such as an exam) is outside the time horizon, it may feel as though it doesn't need attention, or that it's some time in the distant future. This is noticeably shorter for people with ADHD.


Triad of Impairments In diagnosing ASD, they use three different symptoms as the main diagnostic criteria; these are referred to as the Triad of Impairments, which are problems with social communication, problems with social interactions, and repetitive behaviours.

 

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