What is Autism?

Autism is a developmental disability that affects how Autistic people experience the world around them. Autistic people are born autistic and will be Autistic their whole lives. Some people are diagnosed with Autism following an assessment process, but you can be Autistic even if you don’t have a formal diagnosis. Because of myths about Autism, it can be harder for Autistic adults, Autistic girls, and Autistic people of colour to get a diagnosis. But anyone can be Autistic, regardless of race, gender, or age.

There is no one way to be Autistic; every Autistic person experiences Autism differently. There are some things many Autistic people have in common, which you can read about here.

What is Neurodiversity, and how does it relate to Autism?

Neurodiversity is an approach to learning and disability which views the variation in the human brain regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood and other mental functions as normal, and an essential form of human diversity. Neurodiversity aligns with the social model of disability, in that divergence is not seen as disordered/”wrong”; just as there is no “right” gender, race or culture, there is no one “normal” or ”healthy” type of brain or mind or one “right” style of neurocognitive functioning.

Some examples of neurodivergence include:

  • Autism
  • ADHD
  • Intellectual disability
  • Global Developmental Delay
  • Dyslexia
  • Dyspraxia
  • Dyscalculia
  • Dysnomia
  • Tourettes syndrome
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Neurodivergent people live in a world that was built for neurotypical people, and often have numerous experiences of being excluded, criticised, bullied, or misunderstood.

So instead of attempting to “cure” neurodivergent people, therapists/families/supports should seek to help them thrive by finding ways of living in harmony with their neurological dispositions, and to heal from internalised oppression.

What’s the difference between Neurodiversity and Neurodivergence?

Neurodiversity is a paradigm and includes a wide range of people, and does not describe a single person; a person can’t be neurodiverse, because diversity is a property of groups. So instead of referring to a person a “neurodiverse”, we should describe them as neurodivergent.

Should I say “Autistic person” or “person with Autism”?

The majority of Autistic people choose identity-first language (e.g. ‘autistic person’), embracing autism as part of their identity. However, some people prefer to use language that recognises the person first and autism as secondary to their identity (e.g. ‘person with autism’). Similarly to pronouns, it’s a good idea to ask people whether they use identity or person-first language, or simply note how they refer to themselves and follow their lead!

What is ‘high functioning’ or ‘low functioning’ Autism?

While unfortunately still common, functioning language (i.e. ‘high’ or ‘low’) is generally considered offensive, harmful and reductive by the autistic community.
For ‘low functioning’ autistics, the label means their thoughts and feelings are not recognised, respected or considered valid. For ‘high functioning’ autistics, they are expected to act as neurotypical as they can, regardless of the pain that might cause them.

So essentially, functioning labels feed into stereotypes and do not reflect the complexity of Autism (or the person!). Check out these posts on the @theautisticlife instagram re: functioning labels and the Autism spectrum.

What is ‘masking’?

Many autistic people learn (or are sometimes deliberately taught) ways to ‘hide’ aspects of their autism in order to ‘fit in’ and/or avoid (further) negative experiences. This is called ‘Masking’.

Masking can involve doing things that are actually *painful, uncomfortable, or distressing, such as forcing themselves to make eye contact, join in conversations when they feel overwhelmed, make their facial expressions or vocal tone more expressive, not asking questions etc.

Masking can also involve not doing things that bring them joy and/or help them regulate such as stimming, talking about their special interests, saying they need a break/taking a break, leaving an overwhelming situation etc.

Masking is exhausting; it is common for Autistic people who mask all day at school/work to come home and crash/’meltdown’. Masking can be very detrimental to the mental health of Autistic people, and more and more research is exploring this.

*how uncomfortable/painful these things are will of course vary from person to person



Want to learn more? The below are all written/created by Autistic folks:


*Disabled/Disability are not bad words.

Written by Hilary Morgendorffer, a disabled non-Autistic Senior Clinical Psychologist at The Therapy Hub

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