Three Fundamental Principles in Neuro-Affirming ABA Practice

Jan 22, 2024

By Cindy Hsiang (ASBA Lead Trainer)

What is Neuro-affirming ABA practice?

The neurodivergent view of autism, embedded in the social model, emphasises the diverse, unique characteristics of autistic people. The neurodiversity movement regards autism as an expression of natural variation like other human diversity indicators (e.g., race, gender, or sexuality), and should not be pathologised. Walker (2014), an autistic professor of psychology, defined neurodiversity as:

The diversity of human brains and minds – the infinite variation in neurocognitive functioning within our species.

Grounded in the neurodivergent view, neuro-affirming ABA practice utilises evidence-based principles, engage with neurodivergent stakeholders, to co-develop behaviour change protocols. The essence of neuro-affirming practice is learning from the neurodivergent perspectives and valuing the input for behaviour change.

Three Fundamental Principles in ensuring neuro-affirming ABA practice

1. Reciprocating respectful Interactions and Language:

We make sense, take a particular stance, and form identifies through language. The medical model traditionally dichotomises people, and categorises autistic people into ‘autism spectrum disorder’, which many autistic people consider as disabling and offensive.

The words we use to describe autism and people with autism reflect and shape the way we think about autism, and words may therefore (unintentionally) contribute to stigmatisation. Neuro-affirming practice embraces neurodiversity, and reflect this ethos in respectful interactions and language use.

Given the wide variety of term preferences between as well as within neurodivergent groups depending on culture and language (e.g., English, Dutch, Spanish), we suggest to use a mix of person-first language (i.e., person with autism) and identity-first language (i.e., autistic person). Ultimately, if you are not sure, ask what the person prefers to be acknowledge.

2. Emphasising on strengths and Potential:

Autistic individuals possess a unique and diverse range of strengths and abilities, such as attention to details and sensory acuity. We learn about our clients’ strengths and capabilities in neuro-affirming practice.

Additionally, we recognise our clients’ preferences and incorporate these preferences into intervention. Together with clients and relevant stakeholders, we should not only analyse the short-term and long-term benefits of incorporating the neurodivergent preferred behaviour, but also when and how (including broadening understanding from the neurotypical community) to implement the behaviour change plan.

3. Continuous learning and growth:

The Core Principle 2 in Ethics Code for Behaviour Analysts (2020, p.4) stated, “Treat others with Compassion, Dignity, and Respect… by: Treating others equitably, regardless of factors such as age, disability, … or any other basis proscribed by law”. Continuous learning about ethics and reflect on our professional practice so we can be better neuro-affirming practitioners.

Neuro-affirming practice focuses on acceptance and celebration of neurodiversity. The 3 fundamental principles will transform your practice!


  • Behaviour Analyst Certification Board. (2020). Ethics code for behaviour analysts.
  • Buijsman, R., Begeer, S., & Scheeren, A. (2023). ‘Autistic person’ or ‘person with autism’? Person-first language preference in Dutch adults with autism and parents. Autism: the international journal of research and practice, 27 (3), 788-795.
  • Graber, A. & Graber, J. (2023). Applied Behaviour Analysis and the Abolitionist Neurodiversity Critique: An Ethical Analysis. Behaviour Analysis in Practice, 16, 921–937.