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It’s not uncommon for people who have conditions like autism or ADHD to try to mask their diagnoses or even the way they normally behave or process information. In a world that seems to have clear definitions and rules for what “normal” means, there has long been a stigma associated with many mental health conditions. However, today, the way many people approach some conditions that have historically been labeled impairment or disability is changing or, at least, fueling conversations about how we should approach certain conditions. To that end, even the language we use can impact how we think about conditions like autism and how those who have these conditions may think about themselves.
New Vocabulary Terms to Describe Mental Health Differences
The medical community as well as an increasing number of people in the public are using new terms to describe people with mental health conditions such as autism and ADHD. Terms such as “neuroatypical,” “neurodivergent,” and “neurodiverse” highlight the fact that many humans have brains that are “wired” a bit differently from others. In fact, in the United States alone, one out of every 44 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.
That statistic and the high prevalence of autism spectrum conditions implies that these conditions are not rare and occur with normal frequency, so much so that scientists have begun to regard them as normal brain variations. That has led the medical community to use terms like neurodivergent to highlight that these conditions are different and not necessarily worse than those with neurotypical brains.
Use of these new terms is spreading beyond the medical setting. Using neurodivergent, for example, to describe a person with ADHD has increased in many parts of the country, especially on social media. Why is the use of new terms to describe conditions that have historically been associated with negative connotations more healthful? For one, these new terms help people to recognize that they are different but not less.
Second, negative labels can be a barrier to treatment. Fearing a negative diagnosis, many people do not seek mental health treatment even though it can improve their quality of life in many ways. In fact, there has even been a push to change the name of conditions like schizophrenia to new terms that are not associated with stigma.
What Do These New Terms Mean?
Let’s explore what these new terms mean:
If a person without a mental health condition like autism is neurotypical, neuroatypical is the opposite. That is to say, a person with a neurotypical has a brain structure that is different from what the medical community views as normal or neurotypical.
Neurodivergent goes a step further. It, too, is often used to describe people with autism spectrum disorders but has a better connotation than neuroatypical. It suggests brain divergency–not abnormalcy.
Neurodiverse is a term that began to be used during the 1990s and continues to be popular among medical practitioners as well as others. It, too, describes people with mental health conditions on the autism spectrum or ADHD. It highlights that idea that the human brain is quite diverse in its formation and function, particularly in regard to processing and behaviors associated with the conditions mentioned.
Changes to the Social Lexicon Can Be Positive
The use of these new terms can be positive. Language can affect the way we think about many different topics. Language can affect what we see. It can affect our opinions. We’re used to terms like “abnormal” having a negative connotation. On the other hand, a word like diverse has a positive connotation. Moreover, considering the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders, diverse is actually a more apt descriptor as these conditions occur with surprising normalcy.
Stigma and discrimination are not unknown to many who have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Consequently, it’s perfectly understandable why many people would want to avoid the use of labels that could be harmful to their wellbeing. Using these new more positive terms is a helpful way to reduce stigma associated with mental health disorders—and differences.
The Risk of Identifying with Overly Positive Terms
There is some risk with using overly positive terms to describe mental health spectrum conditions that we can’t overlook. Being neurodivergent should not imply that a person doesn’t require mental health treatment. The problem with using positive terms to describe mental health conditions comes with a risk that people may not recognize the necessity of seeking and continuing treatment to manage their condition–and management is often a necessity.
For instance, most of us have heard people refer to their brains as “wired differently” from the brains of others. They’re often talking about their quirks or individual habits as being neuroatypical or neurodiverse when, in actuality, they fall into the neurotypical spectrum of behaviors or processing.
If the use of positive terms prevents a person from seeking treatment for what they perceive to be as perfectly normal differences, that perspective could be damaging. People with autism spectrum disorders or ADHD typically do require treatment to help them successfully manage and live with these conditions. Treatment can improve the way they function in the world and reduce their discomfort. That’s the goal of treatment, after all, to improve people’s quality of life.
While it’s ultimately a good thing to put a more positive spin on mental health disorders that have been associated with stigma, it’s also important to keep in mind that the use of new terms could “soften” the genuine need for treatment that these conditions require. Mental health terms are clinical in meaning for a reason, after all: They refer to medical conditions that generally require treatment. That said, with some conditions like autism spectrum disorder, these new terms can have a positive effect on people’s self-image and public awareness.
Regardless of perception and stigma, it’s important to seek treatment if you or a loved one needs it. Mental health issues can often be effectively treated with therapy, medication, and other treatments. If you or a loved one is experiencing any type of mental health problem, contact FHE Health to schedule an evaluation.