top of page

Autism Vocabulary

The language we use to describe any group of people is important, and the language used in relation to people who are neurodivergent is evolving rapidly. Some terms that were commonly used previously have fallen out of favor, and some are now considered offensive. This is happening because people who are neurodivergent are finding their voices as advocates and guiding others who are not affected by neurodivergence in how they want to be referred to. It reflects a transition from a medical model of autism to the neurodiversity paradigm.

 

Everyone has an opinion, often a strong and loud one, and like with any group, opinions in the neurodiversity community sometimes conflict with each other. Most people in the neurodiversity community respect that what's right for another person may not be right for them. It's always polite to ask someone how they prefer to be referred to and ask for grace from those who might be offended because nearly every term in this list has controversy surrounding it.

 

If a term is in this list, unless noted, there is a community of people who identify with the language. If you are interested in the controversy around any of these terms, feel free to Google it.

A person with autism: See Aspie, Autie, Autist, Autistic, and On the Spectrum.

Ableism: Discrimination against someone because they are not able to do what most others are able to do or inappropriately holding them to the same standard.

Allistic: Someone who is not affected by autism (also see Neurotypical).

Asperger's Syndrome (AS): Also referred to as Asperger's Disorder (AD), this is a formal diagnosis from the DSM-IV, now diagnosed as Autism Spectrum Disorder, Level 1 in the DSM-V (also see Autism Spectrum Disorder).

Aspie: Someone who has Asperger's Syndrome, now diagnosed as Autism Spectrum Disorder, Level 1.

AuDHD: The term is a helpful portmanteau that combines the neurotypes of autism and ADHD and describes individuals that resonate with both identifications.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): The current formal diagnosis from the DSM-V as of 2013. The diagnosis includes a general assessment of the level of support needed, for example, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Level 1 (also see Levels).

Autie: A person with autism.

Autist: A person with autism.

Autistic: Used as an adjective or a noun. Refers to traits associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or the person who has those traits (also see Aspie, Autie, Autist, and On the Spectrum).

Autistic Disorder: A formal diagnosis from the DSM-IV, now diagnosed as Autism Spectrum Disorder, Level 3 in the DSM-V (also see Autism Spectrum Disorder).

DSM-V: Released in 2013, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the diagnostic tool published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) that serves as the principal authority for psychiatric diagnoses in the United States.

Executive Functioning Skills: In general, these are the skills that enable people to effectively and efficiently complete tasks and interact with others. Experts are unable to agree on exactly how many executive functioning skills there are, but some examples include planning and organizing, managing time, problem-solving, utilizing working memory, controlling emotions and impulses, monitoring our behavior, and learning from past mistakes. Many people with autism and ADHD especially struggle with these, which directly impacts their quality of life.

High-Functioning Autism (HFA): Not an official medical term or diagnosis but used in research literature to refer to autistic people without impaired cognition and without significant support needs. Not always used by autistic people themselves because they feel it ignores the level of effort it requires from them internally to function at the level they are functioning at to comply with neurotypical expectations (also see Low-Functioning Autism).

Identity-First Language: Referring to a person with a description of them in the context of their disability of difference such as "autistic person." People who use this construct see their autism as part of who they are and identify proudly with it (also see Person-First Language).

Levels: Included in the current formal diagnosis according to the DSM-V and something that confuses people the most. The level refers to a general assessment of the level of support the person needs to function. Level 1 = Requiring Support; Level 2 = Requiring Substantial Support; and Level 3 = Requiring Very Substantial Support. 

Low-Functioning Autism (LFA): Not an official medical term or diagnosis but I'm including it here to explain that it's used in research literature to refer to autistic people with impaired cognition. It's not usually used by autistic people themselves (also see High-Functioning Autism). 

Masking: The act of suppressing behaviors that may be one's natural responses, or performing behaviors considered neurotypical for the purpose of being accepted by others and fitting in. Some examples include suppressing stimming behaviors, pushing through uncomfortable sensory environments like a loud office space or chaotic classroom, or forcing/faking eye contact during conversations. While all people mask to a degree depending on the context, the problem with autistic masking is that it often leads to fatigue and ultimately autistic burnout.

Neurodivergence: The way in which a person's brain functioning and behavioral traits differ from the mathematical norm or majority.

Neurodivergent (NG): A person whose brain develops and functions in a way that is considered diverging from the mathematical norm or majority. Includes people with autism, ADHD, giftedness, dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyspraxia, and more.  

Neurodiverse: A group of people who have differences in their brain functioning and behavioral traits between them. A group of neurotypical people is not neurodiverse because they all have similar brain wiring. A group of autistic people is not neurodiverse because they all have similar brain wiring. A group is only neurodiverse when they have mixed neurotypes. An individual can never bee neurodiverse because neurodiverse always refers to a group, not an individual.

Neurodiversity: The idea that individual differences in brain functioning and behavioral traits are considered normal variations in human biology rather than deficits.

Neurotypical (NT): A person whose brain develops and functions in a way that is considered the norm or part of the majority (also see Allistic).

On the Spectrum: Usually refers to the set of behaviors and developmental challenges associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder but can also be used as an autistic person's identity, e.g., "I am on the spectrum."

Person-First Language: Referring to a person with wording that describes them as a person first, followed by a description of their disability of difference such as "person with autism." People who use this construct see themselves as whole, complex people who are not defined solely by what makes them different (also see Identity-First Language).

Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS): A formal diagnosis from the DSM-IV, now diagnosed as Autism Spectrum Disorder in the DSM-V (also see Autism Spectrum Disorder).

Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder (SCD): A stand-alone diagnosis in the DSM-V, SCD is characterized by challenges with both verbal and nonverbal communication used in social settings. Often co-occurring with ADHD, it does not include repetitive and/or disruptive behaviors or sensory challenges that characterize autism. A diagnosis of SCD cannot be made until ASD is ruled out.

Stimming: Short for the clinical term "self-stimulatory behaviors," it refers to the repetitive behaviors or motions a person engages in to meet a physical, emotional, or sensory need. Some stimming behaviors (or "stims") relieve stress, and others release excess physical or emotional energy. Sometimes they are used to satisfy sensory needs. Unless they are self-harming, stims are adaptive and should not be suppressed.

Strengths-Based Approach: A focus on a person or group's strengths rather than deficits or challenges. Because of the medical model of autism, autistic people often go through life with people focusing on their challenges or deficits, which leads them to feeling broken and "less than." Finding ways to spend more time leveraging their natural strengths is the cure.

bottom of page