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It’s Neurodiversity Celebration Week

The team delivering the National Autism Trainer Programme (NATP) share some things we can all do to challenge stereotypes and improve mental wellbeing.

Author: Dr Georgia Pavlopoulou, NATP Strategic Co-Lead and Programme Director, Anna Freud and Associate Professor, University College London.

This week is Neurodiversity Celebration Week - an awareness week that’s been running since 2018 to transform how neurodivergent people are perceived and celebrate the talents and advantages of being neurodivergent.

We know through our work that neurodivergent people are more likely to experience higher levels of mental health problems than their neurotypical peers. This is partly due to social expectations but it’s also because of a lack of understanding on how to support people, which means their differences are not fully understood and respected.

We’re going to use this blog to highlight some of the things we’re doing to tackle this issue, in particular through the National Autism Trainer Programme (NATP), commissioned by NHS England and delivered in partnership with AT-Autism. We’ll also share some helpful tips you can follow so you can be an ally to the neurodivergent community, too.

Check out our NATP webpage to see if you’re eligible for training and learn more about an exciting new NATP conference webinar happening on 30 April. Anna Freud also supports teachers and school leaders and the team has created this toolkit to help you make the most of Neurodiversity Celebration Week in your school or college.

What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is like biodiversity. But instead of being about trees and plants it's about human brains. Where biodiversity means that there are lots of different types of plants and animals, neurodiversity means there are lots of different types of human brains.

For example, your brain might work very similarly to some humans, but also very differently - and in very specific ways. When this happens, your group is identified as neurodivergent and might have a label like autism or ADHD. Neurotypical, on the other hand, means your brain works similarly to the majority.

If you are neurodivergent it usually means that you need to learn differently. You might also concentrate differently, behave or act a little differently, and even communicate or think differently.

Needing more support around this is okay because the world we live in is not yet set up to meet your needs. It’s not a problem with neurodivergent people – it’s a problem that society needs to learn about and find solutions to in partnership with neurodivergent people.

Learn more in this animation

Learn about Neurodiversity in this animation from the National Autism Trainer Programme (NATP) training course.

How we help at NATP

NATP was commissioned by NHS England to help staff improve the support provided to autistic people in care and mental health services. The training runs in partnership with our colleagues at AT-Autism. Following the successful pilot in 2022, we started rolling out the training in 2023.

NATP will be delivered to 4,800 staff over three years who currently work or who may work with diagnosed or undiagnosed autistic people. Visit our webpage to see who’s eligible for training.

We’re seeking to inform practice through changing perceptions of autism. Our training is neurodiversity-affirmative, experience-sensitive and trauma-informed. It acknowledges the challenges faced by diagnosed and undiagnosed autistic people and staff working across different settings. And we work with more than 100 autistic content providers, trainers and ten family members of autistic people to co-produce and co-deliver training.

NATP is a train the trainer course, whereby professionals then co-deliver training back to their colleagues with an autistic Expert by Experience. We offer ongoing support including a community of practice, one-to-one meetings with NATP Directors, and specialist refresher days on niche mental health topics.

We’re really proud of what we’ve created in partnership to date and the feedback we get from people we train makes such a difference. As one person said: “I thought I understood autism before I did this training...I didn't! I'm so grateful for this opportunity to understand this area more deeply, and to strengthen my clinical practice to better support children, young people and families.”

Things we can all do

Everyone can do their bit to support friends, colleagues and people in your community who are neurodivergent. Here are a few tips to help this Neurodiversity Celebration Week:

1. Attune don’t assume

Be curious about the needs and preferences of neurodivergent people and listen to their preferences. Many autistic people will have sensory processing differences.

2. Consider reasonable adjustments

Many autistic people need extra time to process information; they may experience anxiety in social situations, or experience stress with unexpected changes. They may find noise, smells and bright lights painful and distressing; or they may become overwhelmed and experience a 'meltdown' or 'shutdown'. Be aware of the environment and make adjustments if the person needs this.

3. Be aware of masking

Masking is a tool used by neurodivergent people to help them feel safe, but it uses enormous energy reserves. It also carries lifelong negative implications for their emotional and physical wellbeing. Masking also carries negative psychological impacts - research indicates that autistic masking is a lead-in to the high rates of suicide and poor mental health experienced by autistic people.

Masking involves many complex behaviours, where autistic people project a version of themselves to others that they believe others will deem acceptable. Masking is unique to each person and mostly occurs unconsciously. This may be in response to trauma, correction, non-acceptance (perceived or direct), invalidation and stigma.

Counter this by validating and promoting autistic ways of being and communicating. Help autistic people understand their own needs and collaborate to find ways to express them.

What’s coming next for NATP?

We hope you’ve learned something about neurodiversity and how the National Autism Trainer Programme is aiming to change the narrative about autism and neurodiversity. We hope you can use our tips, too, in your everyday life.

Keep reading about NATP on the Anna Freud website. You can also sign up to our newsletter or check out our Conference webinar coming soon.

Anna Freud has also created this toolkit to help schools and colleges mark Neurodiversity Celebration Week. We hope you find these resources useful.