Neurodiversity-Affirming Practices
You Need To Know


If you’re involved in Special Education, you might have encountered the term “neurodiversity.” What exactly does it mean and how do you create a classroom that embraces it?

Let me explain what neurodiversity is and what neurodiversity-affirming practices you can do in your classroom.

What is Neurodiversity?

In simpler terms, neurodiversity is the belief that having diverse brains is acceptable and something to celebrate. Diverse brains mean there are differences in brain functions and behavioral traits. And in neurodiversity, these differences are embraced. The belief that some brains are “typical” while others are “atypical” is crossed off the list.

As someone who identifies as neurodivergent and works in special education, I am deeply passionate about this concept.

What does Neurodivergent Mean?

Neurodivergent is a broad term used to describe individuals whose mental or neurological functions differ from the majority.

This includes people with any condition affecting the mind or brain, such as:

  • PTSD
  • ADHD
  • Autism
  • Epilepsy
  • Brain injuries
  • Learning Disabilities
  • Intellectual Disabilities
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder


The list goes on! And if you don’t identify as neurodivergent, you’re referred to as “neurotypical.”

Many of us who are neurodivergent have learned to blend in to be “neurotypical passing” by concealing our neurodivergent traits.

For instance, we might suppress repetitive body movements or sounds (known as stims) in public to avoid drawing attention to ourselves.

While this ability to mask can sometimes keep us safe, it also leads to undiagnosed conditions and a constant state of hypervigilance.

What It Means To Be

In Special Education, there is what we call a neurodiversity-affirming approach or therapy. It is when the teacher or therapist accepts and values neurodivergence and does not look at it as a flaw or illness that needs to be fixed.

Basically, you are teaching that it’s okay to be neurodivergent and that unmasked behaviors of a neurodivergent student are acceptable. This is why raising awareness about neurodiversity is important. The student can embrace their true selves and have the proper accommodations they need.

Neurodiversity-Affirming Practices

As a special education teacher, it’s crucial to implement practices that promote neurodiversity to create a safe and inclusive classroom environment.

1: Use Respectful Terminology

Words are powerful. As a teacher, you should be careful with the disability terms you use, especially when referring to your students.

Always ask them about their language preferences, whether they prefer person-first or identity-first language. While many were taught to use person-first language (e.g., “person with autism”) in college, many individuals actually prefer terms like “autistic” or “deaf” as they see their disability as a part of their identity.

Moreover, it’s important to be careful with how you refer to the disability community in general. Some disabled adults find the terms “special needs” or “differently abled” erasing their identity as disabled individuals. Avoiding the word “disability” is like saying that being disabled is negative.

2: Be Aware of Sensory Differences

Neurodivergent individuals perceive the world differently through their senses. This is because of sensory dysregulation. We may either feel our senses too much or not enough, which can lead to a need to seek or avoid certain sensory experiences.

Sensory dysregulation can be highly distracting and can hinder the learning process of your students. If a student experiences sensory overload, learning may be impossible.

As a teacher, it’s important to consider your student’s mood, environment, and level of regulation before assuming why they are behaving in a certain way.

3: Observe Body Language

Stimming, or repetitive movements and sounds used for self-regulation, can be a valuable tool for communicating your student’s emotional state. For example, humming may indicate an attempt to lessen anxiety, while hand flapping might express extreme happiness.

Observing these stims can help you understand how a neurodivergent individual is feeling internally.

Unless a stim is causing harm, it should never be discouraged. Stopping stims only teaches your students to mask their dysregulation, not how to re-regulate.

It’s important to understand that neurodivergent people communicate differently than neurotypical peers. There’s a difference between giving students what they need to succeed in a world not built for them and telling students their way of communicating is wrong.

As Alexander Den Heijer says, “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”

4: Adapt Teaching Methods

We teachers understand that every student has a unique learning style, and not all methods work for everyone. For example, speaking slowly may benefit some students but upset others.

Show respect for your student’s differences by adjusting your teaching approach.

What neurodiversity-affirming strategies can you consider?

    • Modeling
    • Scaffolding
    • Task analysis
    • Planned breaks
    • Visual schedules
    • Positive reinforcement
    • Frequent repetition and fading of prompts

If you’re in the ABA field (Applied Behavior Analysis), ensure that you’re learning neurodiversity-affirming approaches from autistic individuals, not just non-autistic educators and peers. There is more to behavior than four functions.

We must adapt our teaching methods to ensure the safety and success of all students.

5: Shift Learning Objectives

Some IEP (Individualized Education Program) goals aim to change a student’s behavior to make them appear more neurotypical, which is the opposite of the principles of neurodiversity.

Instead, we should shift our focus from “the student will blend in with others” to “the students will acquire the tools necessary to thrive in a world with environments and behavioral expectations that were not created for them.”

Instead of concentrating on changing a student’s behavior to mask their disability, we should help students achieve goals that actually matter:

  • Safety
  • Consent
  • Boundaries
  • Self-advocacy
  • Communication
  • Self-determination
  • Perspective-taking
  • Social problem solving

Teach your students that their thoughts and feelings are valid, but so are the thoughts and feelings of others. Everyone needs to learn how to advocate for their own needs instead of merely masking their feelings.

Be A Neurodiversity-Affirming Teacher

There are countless dedicated educators who genuinely want what’s best for their students. However, the world evolves quickly, and the “best practices” you’ve known before may not be best now.

Terminology, teaching practices, and therapy methods continue to evolve. It’s essential to stay up to date by listening to the disability community and adjusting our teaching methods accordingly.

When we know better,  we do better!

Exploring what to teach your transition students, and overwhelmed by the endless ideas?

Remember that your units of focus will depend on your students’ needs; you can build your own curriculum map for the year by using this guide in conjunction with your students’ IEP goals. 

You can get the Transition Roadmap Scope & Sequence here!