Understanding Autism as a Difference, Not a Disorder

If you’re the parent or loved one of an autistic person, it’s important to understand that autism is a difference in development, not a disorder. Every person with autism is an individual, with their own strengths and challenges. And each autistic person will need different levels of support.

In this article, we explore some of the differences in autistic people and how to support and affirm those differences.

When you’re the parent of an autistic child, it can seem like you’ve entered a new and unfamiliar world. This can feel scary and exhausting. But don’t give up. Just as it is impossible to predict the course of any child’s adult life, it’s equally impossible to predict the course of your child’s autism. They have a lifetime to grow and develop!

What is autism?

Autism is a naturally occurring difference in processing, learning, and communicating. Sometimes called autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it refers to a broad range of developmental conditions and behaviors. Autistic people often have differences and challenges in speech and nonverbal communication, interpersonal relationships, and social interactions. 

Autism, like ADHD, dyslexia, and dyspraxia, is a form of neurodivergence. Neurodivergence refers to people whose brains work differently than what society considers “normal.” Neurodivergent people may have differences in communication, learning, social preferences, and behavior. 

Neurodivergence refers to people whose brains work differently than what society considers “normal.”

There is no known cause of autism. However, it is common for multiple members of the same family to be autistic. This has to do with the complexity of autism, as well as the fact that the characteristics of autism can vary dramatically. There is no evidence that there is anything parents do or do not do that “causes” autism. 

While every individual is unique, autism typically affects a person’s communication abilities and social interactions. To learn more about the signs of autism, check out our informational guide

Autism shouldn’t be feared

Neurodivergence is not positive or negative, desirable or undesirable. It’s simply another way of relating to the world. There is nothing “wrong” with the brains of autistic people. There are many strengths associated with autism, including 

  • Focus and attention to detail

  • Strong long-term memory

  • Creative problem-solving abilities

  • Enhanced visual/auditory skills

Understanding how autistic children develop

Autistic children develop differently from neurotypical or allistic people. (These are people whose brains work in the way that society considers usual or typical.) This is not wrong, just different.

Autistic children often do not meet developmental milestones in the order that is expected based on standardized milestone charts. This is because these charts are based on allistic, neurotypical development.

Autistic children and adults may also communicate differently, such as by using gestalts or echolalia. These are simply other ways of communicating. 

“Forward is forward no matter the speed…and no matter the path.”

Try not to compare your autistic child to their neurotypical peers. Instead, accept them by enjoying their individuality, celebrating their success, and loving them unconditionally for who they are.

As one neurodiverse-affirming therapist and mother to an autistic child has said, “Forward is forward no matter the speed…and no matter the path.” This is a wonderful reminder that children develop at their own pace. 

Understanding other differences among autistic people 

Autistic people often experience social communication differences. Again, these social skills are different, not wrong.

Neurotypical people often misinterpret the social skills of autistic people. For example, an autistic person may speak in a direct way, which some people may perceive as rude. Some autistic people have more successful conversations when not sustaining eye contact. As a result, people may think that they’re disinterested.

Neurotypical people often misinterpret the social skills of autistic people.

It can be helpful to try and understand a child’s point of view by changing the language we use to describe their differences. So, instead of saying a child is “rigid” or “inflexible,” we can say a child prefers consistency. Consistency feels safe, and when the child feels safe, they remain regulated. This slight change in wording makes a huge difference in understanding the child’s needs. It also reduces any internalized shame they may feel. 

Understanding stimming

Autistic people also may stim. Stimming refers to the repetitive use of an object or repetitive activities involving the senses. Stimming can be calming, enjoyable, and used to manage stress and anxiety.

Here are some examples of stimming:

  • Repeating phrases 

  • Rocking/swinging 

  • Fidgeting 

  • Hand flapping 

  • Twisting hair

  • Humming, tapping

Stimming should not be stopped unless it is harmful or dangerous. 

Finding a speech therapist for autism

Autistic people can benefit from a variety of support services, including speech therapy. Speech therapy can help autistic people become more effective at communicating with neurotypical people. Speech therapy supports the person's communication development, whether they use speech to communicate, are non-speaking, use AAC, or are anywhere in between!

When we support an autistic person’s authentic communication, it helps them feel comfortable in their relationships with others. They’re also more likely to participate in activities that are important to them.

When choosing a therapy provider, look for someone who: 

  • Acknowledges developmental differences 

  • Focuses on relationship-building and strategies for regulation, connection, and communication

  • Uses a child-led approach 

  • Honors all forms of communication–not just speech

The responsibility of neurotypical people

It’s important to understand the differences in how people’s brains work and perceive information. There are no inferior ways of relating to the world, just different ways. 

Neurotypical individuals should seek to understand and accept these differences. Awareness and understanding can go a long way in creating successful and rewarding interactions with neurodivergent individuals. 

Resources from the autistic community

Here are some of our favorite representatives of the autistic community. 

Neurodivergent and/or neurodiversity-affirming speech therapists 

Autistic people/voices/representation 

Books to educate children on neurodiversity 

There are many resources available to support you and your family. You can look for local support groups in your area, check out events happening in your community, and, of course, there’s a world of information online. Look for social media content using the hashtag #ActuallyAutistic. You can also use the Autism Self-Advocacy Network at

An important note: We believe that when speaking about any community as a whole, the best approach is to prioritize that community’s voices, needs, and preferences. Within the larger autism community, the current language preference is identity-first (e.g., "autistic child" rather than "child with autism"), which is why we use that language. Expressable is committed to listening to and learning from the populations we serve. If and when their preferences change, we’ll adjust our approach accordingly.

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