Glossary of Neurodiversity

The following A-Z guide is a simplified version of the Neurodiversity Glossary of Terms prepared by the College of Policing Neurodiversity Working Group. We have pitched this at busy line managers and HR professionals, hence definitions have been kept brief and relevant to the workplace. Links to external articles are provided for more in-depth reading.

DISCLAIMER: formal advice on medical matters should always be sought from a suitably qualified healthcare professional

This guide is intended to be a ‘living document’ – if you have any suggestions for additions or improvements, please contact us using the Media/Comms option – thanks 🙂


Acquired brain injury (ABI)
An acquired brain injury is damage to the brain caused by events during a person’s lifetime. Causes may be traumatic (e.g. physical head injury) or non-traumatic (e.g. stroke). ABI may cause changed behaviour, such as decreased attention span or impaired executive function, which mimics the traits of certain neurodevelopmental conditions.

ADOS stands for Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule. ADOS is a standardised diagnostic test for ASD, and the most commonly used diagnostic test in the UK. It is typically administered by a clinical psychologist over several hours.

Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be debilitating in its most severe form. (See also: depression)

The AQ-10 and AQ-50 (AQ stands for Autism Spectrum Quotient) are screening tests designed to indicate whether a person is likely to be on the autism spectrum. They are not meant to replace a formal diagnosis. The 10-question AQ test is typically administered by a healthcare professional, such as a GP; the AQ-50 is a self-assessment test (link to a test recommended by the National Autistic Society). (See also: ADOS)

Asperger syndrome
Asperger syndrome is a form of autism characterised by an absence of learning disability, and normal or advanced development of speech in childhood. Individuals with Asperger’s can be found in all walks of life including the police service.

Asperger syndrome was removed from DSM-5 in 2013 and is now considered to be part of the autism spectrum – however many people were historically given this diagnosis, and so it is still in common use as a self-referential label.

Attention deficit (hyperactivity) disorder (AD(H)D)
AD(H)D is characterized by a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity, with onset typically in early to mid-childhood. The degree of inattention and hyperactivity-impulsivity significantly interferes with academic, occupational, or social functioning.

  • Inattention refers to significant difficulty in sustaining attention to tasks that do not provide a high level of stimulation or frequent rewards, distractibility and problems with organisation
  • Hyperactivity refers to excessive motor activity and difficulties with remaining still, most evident in structured situations that require behavioural self-control
  • Impulsivity is a tendency to act in response to immediate stimuli, without deliberation or consideration of the risks and consequences.

Unlike most neurodivergent conditions, AD(H)D can be directly treated with medication.

Autism spectrum disorder/condition (ASD/ASC)
Autism (including Asperger syndrome) is a neurodevelopmental condition, characterised by a ‘dyad of impairments’ affecting:

  • Social development, communication and intuition
  • Repetitive behaviour, including intensity of focus on certain interests

Autism is referred to as a spectrum condition – no two people are affected in the same way, and people who function normally (or with above-average ability) in some areas may struggle in others. A 360 degree model has been proposed as an alternative to a linear spectrum as a way of better expressing the unique range of abilities in each individual that is part of autism. (See also: high-functioning)

Autism is far more widespread than previously thought: at least 1 in 100, and possibly as many as 1 in 70 of the general population are estimated to be on the autism spectrum – about 1.1% of the UK population according to a 2012 study. (Source: National Autistic Society)

Many autistic people see their autism as part of their identity rather than a medical disorder – the neurodiversity movement advocates that autistic traits can be advantageous in the right environment and with the right support. (See also: social model of disability, identity-first language)

(Note that the term ‘disorder’ is disliked by some neurodivergent people due to its negative connotations – the NPAA uses the term ‘condition’ wherever possible.)

Bipolar disorder
Bipolar disorder is a condition characterised by extreme mood swings between depression and mania, and (in some people) psychotic symptoms. It was formerly known as manic depression. (See also: depression)

Comorbidity refers to the presence of more than one disorder in the same person. For example, if a person is diagnosed with autism and dyslexia, they are said to be comorbid.

Depression is a form of mental illness characterised by low mood, which can be transient (in response to life events such as bereavement), recurrent, or permanent. Its effects range from mild to debilitating – it can make working and living a normal life difficult or impossible, and in extreme cases can be life-threatening. It often occurs alongside anxiety. Drug treatments and therapies can help, but are not effective for everyone. (See also: anxiety)

Depressive disorders can affect anyone at any time, regardless of social status – it is estimated that nearly 20% of the UK adult population suffers from depression or anxiety. (Source: Office of National Statistics)

Depression and anxiety are experienced by many autistic and neurodivergent people – autistic people in particular are at an increased risk of suffering from depressive illness. The exact cause is unknown, although many believe that lack of acceptance by society plays a part. (See also: social model of disability)

One of the nine protected characteristics, as laid down by the Equality Act 2010. Disability is defined in the Act as:

A physical or mental condition which has a substantial and long-term impact on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities

Autism and other neurodivergent conditions may fit the definition of a disability, but this must be considered on a case-by-case basis as they affect everyone differently. Employers are obliged to provide certain accommodations for disabled employees, such as providing workplace adjustments. (See also: Equality Act, social model of disability)

Double empathy problem
The theory of ‘double empathy’ suggests that when people with very different experiences of the world interact, they will struggle to empathise with each other. Applied to neurodiversity, this means that an autistic person may find it difficult to communicate with a neurotypical person due to a ‘mismatch of brains’ and different communication styles, rather than a deficiency on either side. The theory also suggests that people on the autism spectrum may find it easier to communicate with other autistic people than those from the neurotypical majority.

Dyscalculia refers to difficulty with performing simple mathematical calculations that is inconsistent with general level of intellectual functioning.

Dysgraphia is a developmental learning disorder with impairment in written expression. It is characterised by significant and persistent difficulties in learning academic skills related to writing, such as: grammar, accuracy of spelling and and punctuation, and organisation and coherence of ideas in writing.

Dyslexia is a developmental learning disorder with impairment in reading, and is characterised by significant and persistent difficulties in learning academic skills related to reading, such as word reading accuracy, reading fluency, and comprehension. It occurs over a range of intellectual abilities and is not linked to intelligence. Dyslexia affects the brain’s ability to process information: dyslexic people may have difficulty processing and remembering information they see and hear, which can affect learning and the acquisition of literacy skills. Dyslexia can also impact on other areas such as organisational skills. (See also: specific learning disorder/difference)

As with other neurodivergent conditions, dyslexic people can demonstrate above-average ability in certain areas, such as problem-solving, creativity and oral skills.

About 10% of the UK population are dyslexic. (Source: British Dyslexia Association)

Dyspraxia is a developmental motor coordination disorder that is characterized by a significant delay in the acquisition of gross and fine motor skills and impairment in the execution of coordinated motor skills that manifest in clumsiness, slowness, or inaccuracy of motor performance.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, version 5. One of two internationally-recognised manuals defining neurological conditions, along with ICD-11. DSM-5 is published by the American Psychiatric Association.

Equality Act
The Equality Act of 2010 legally protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society. It created nine ‘protected characteristics’, including disability, race and gender, for which a person must not be treated less favourably than others (for example, declining to offer a person employment solely on the grounds that they are disabled.)

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has created a short video (3+ mins) explaining the Equality Act.

Executive function
Executive functioning is a set of cognitive skills that are necessary for control of behaviour and completion of tasks. Executive functions help with planning and organising, flexible thinking, problem solving, multi-tasking, predicting future scenarios and controlling impulses.

Executive functioning is affected in some neurodivergent people, who may be quite rigid in their thinking – this often impacts on their way of problem-solving, but can cause difficulty in dealing with situations that are changing quickly or involve lots of variables, such as social encounters. Impairment of executive function can also make it difficult to prioritise and switch tasks in the middle of trying to get something completed.

‘High-functioning’ is an informal way of describing some autistic people who can speak, read, write, and handle basic life skills like eating and getting dressed at least superficially as well as neurotypical people. It is not an official medical term or diagnosis.

The terms ‘high-functioning’ and ‘low-functioning’ are disliked by some people as they do not reflect those who have advanced abilities in some areas but may struggle with others, such as living independently. (See also: autism spectrum disorder/condition)

The International Classification of Diseases, version 11. One of two internationally-recognised manuals defining neurological conditions, along with DSM-5. ICD-11 is published by the World Health Organization.

Identity-first language
Many people on the autism spectrum prefer to be referred to as an autistic person rather than a person with autism. This is because they consider their condition to be part of their identity and not a separate medical disorder.

Intersectionality is a theoretical framework for understanding how aspects of a person’s social and political identities (e.g. gender, sex, race, class, sexuality, religion, disability, physical appearance, height, etc.) combines to create unique modes of discrimination and privilege. It is similar to, but distinct from, comorbidity.

Irlen syndrome
Irlen syndrome (also known as scotopic sensitivity syndrome or Meares-Irlen syndrome) is a postulated perceptual processing disorder affecting the brain’s ability to process visual information. Symptoms include difficulty reading, sensitivity to light, strain/fatigue and problems with depth perception. Tinted glasses and overlays have been found to help in some cases. (See also: dyslexia)

Learning disability
A learning disability is generally taken to indicate a degree of intellectual impairment. Learning disabilities occur in conditions such as Down’s syndrome and may be comorbid with autism. (See also/not to be confused with: specific learning difficulty/difference)

Mind-blindness describes difficulty or inability to attribute mental states to others. (See also: theory of mind)