Using positive language to support Autistic children

Written by: Emily Lees | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The language we use when working with Autistic students is important and is one of the most common areas of practice with which speech and language therapist Emily Lees supports teaching staff...

The advice I give most often to educators is about language – namely the power of language to effect change. I like the simplicity of this message.

Changing our language is one of the easiest things we can do to reduce stigma about Autistic* people – and it’s free!

We all have it in our power to change the language we use on a daily basis, and this can make a significant difference to the Autistic children in our care. We also have a duty not to perpetuate the oppressive narratives that can exist in wider society.

It is easy to dismiss the language we use and regard this as less important than our actual practice, but language shapes our beliefs and attitudes and is one, simple, practical way we can start to dismantle the ableism and stigma we see in society which views Autistic people as being “failed neurotypicals”.

As an Autistic speech and language therapist committed to advocating and campaigning for a radical change in therapy practices that honour Autistic styles of communication and interaction, I can see that the language educators use to describe, assess, and support Autistic children and young people impacts them directly.

The historical context

For the past 200 years, the medical model of disability has dominated society’s thinking on Autistic people. It focuses on reducing deficits and Autism “symptoms” and fixing and treating impairments, with the aim of “curing” the Autistic person.

This pathology model might be appropriate for treating medical conditions however, Autism is not a medical condition or disorder. Using this model with Autistic children is deeply pathologising and perpetuates stigmatising narratives.
At its heart, the medical model suggests that Autism is an impairment and disorder which, in turn, implies there is a single right way for existing in the world – for instance, describing Autistic pupils as “aloof” or “having rigid inflexible thinking” or teaching Autistic children how to make eye contact or speak at an “appropriate volume”.

There have been positive shifts away from this model which we saw with the Social Model of Disability (see further information), which recognises that it is societal barriers within the environment that discriminate against disabled people.

However, these still describe people as having ability or inability, implicitly suggesting that people have deficits and places emphasis on achieving independence, which is an ableist concept – what’s wrong in needing supports? Fading these necessary supports discriminates against disabled people and sets them up to fail.

More recently still, the Neurodiversity Paradigm (model) focuses on empowering neurodivergent children by accepting and celebrating their differences in thinking, feeling and communicating, and does not attempt to change or shape them into meeting neuro-normative milestones of development.

The language of the Neurodiversity Paradigm avoids terminology like deficits, symptoms, impairments and challenging behaviour, and this is what underpins my advice to educators – and it can make a real difference.

Changing our language: Getting started

Using the right language consistently is a process which takes time. Here are the things I recommend you consider looking out for and changing in your language.

Special needs: Although this term is widely used in education it suggests that neurodivergent children somehow have different needs to their non-disabled, neurotypical peers such as eating, going to the toilet, communicating and expressing themselves, having fulfilling friendships, accessing their education to learn and thrive – these are just the same. Instead, talk about a child’s needs without highlighting them as “special” or additional. A better way to describe their needs is as “high” or “low” support needs.

Challenging behaviour: This is a commonplace term for educators, but it inadvertently places the blame on the child without considering that the cause of the child’s distress may well be due to the school environment and provision. This contributes to a child’s ability to thrive in an environment that’s not set up to meet their needs. Instead of talking about challenging behaviour, replace this with “distress”. For example: “Because the child has hypersensitive hearing and is not given supports to help regulate them (ear defenders, staff not lowering their volume of speech), the noisy classroom is causing them acute distress.”

Autistic person: From the research and views of thousands of Autistic people, the Autistic community generally prefer to be described as “Autistic” rather than “person/child with Autism”. The reasons for this are related to empowerment – Autism isn’t something that is separate from the person but part of the person’s inherent identity which is nothing to be ashamed of. Just as you would say an “English person”.

High/low functioning: Terms like these are misleading and stigmatising because Autistic children’s needs fluctuate hourly, daily and weekly. Their needs are significantly impacted by the multiple environmental and societal barriers that they face every day. In many cases, Autistic children are bombarded with constant demands that are placed on them in school, and the wrong types of support provided by the adults around them.

Sometimes children will have high support needs and at other times they won’t. “High/low” descriptors are value judgements and don’t consider that children need different levels of support at different times. Instead of these terms, using phrases like “this child has high support needs, e.g. they need a supporting adult to help them go to the toilet and with dressing”.

Speech is the goal: The development of a child’s communication skills is a central aspect of education, but it is important to consider the many varieties of methods of communication and not become solely focused on the child attaining speech. Language trajectory is not always linear; speech can be inaccessible to Autistic children who have difficulties using reliable, consistent speech. It invalidates other methods of communication such as alternative and augmentative communication, for example speech output devices, letter boards, sign language, gesture, texting. Focusing on speech is doing a disservice, especially to verbal Autistic children who may not be able to access speech when they need it.

Encouraging change in your school

Changing the language used in your school community when talking about Autistic children involves deep reflection, unlearning ableism, constructive challenge, and an environment where staff feel supported and encouraged. School leaders have an important role in setting the culture and tone and it is worthwhile considering a number of approaches.

  • Include your Autistic pupils: We need to be involving Autistic children in improving schools so that their voices and needs are central, this is empowering for the children and insightful for everyone. This co-production which will amplify the voices of the Autistic community.
  • Awareness and training: Set aside time, either in an INSET or staff meetings, to talk about the importance of language for supporting Autistic children. You may have a member of staff who can lead this, or you could bring in an external trainer. When seeking external training it is essential to ensure the person/people delivering the training are neurodivergent because for so long non-disabled, non-Autistic “experts” have led training which has inadvertently sent the wrong messages. The perpetual cry of the Autistic community is “nothing about us without us”.
  • Modelling the right language: Ensure that you, and the wider leadership team, are using the right language and actively correcting yourselves. Educate staff about their language and responsibility in communicating with an Autistic child.
  • Making it a priority for the year: Change doesn’t happen overnight. Changing our language needs regular discussion and thought. Don’t beat yourself up for making mistakes – we all go through the process of unlearning. The important thing is you are setting an intention which honours the Autistic community.
  • Communicate to parents: Tell parents about the school’s policy on language and why it is important. Educate them about ableism in order to reduce stigma and correct false narratives.

Changing our language does not require costly new resources, IT or other equipment. It does take time and focused attention, but it can help ensure that all your children can flourish in an inclusive school which meets the needs of all children.

  • Emily Less is a proudly Autistic speech and language therapist who supports Autistic children, young people, and adults and recently authored the Beginner’s Guide to Ableism, which was produced in collaboration with Tapestry and can be downloaded for free (see below). You can find Emily via and or on Twitter @EmilioLees

Further information & resources

* Headteacher Update’s house style avoids capital letters where possible, but at the request of the author this article’s use of the capitalised Autism and Autistic is a “deliberate decision because it is the community's way of reclaiming the word due to the stigmatising narratives the community has faced.

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