The great labelling debate by Professor Amanda Kirby

Neurodiversity is about how we all think, process, communicate and move differently. 

Not everyone gains a diagnosis of traits or conditions associated with being neurodivergent. There is also a lot of discussion and controversy regarding ‘labels’ or diagnosis in neurodiversity (and beyond – this debate also occurs regarding ethnicity/race, gender and sexuality).  

Some people are adamantly against diagnosing people with conditions such as Autism or ADHD because they perceive this as narrow boxes that create stereotypes and can change others’ perceptions. Other people vigorously defend their use of these labels and the need for a diagnosis to help define who they or their child is, or for accessing resources. 

Why do we like a label? 

Categorising seems to be part of the human condition. Humans love to categorise things. For example: 

  • Plants and animals (categorised by shape, size, colour, geographic location, ability to interbreed and (more recently) genetics). 
  • Countries (categorised by location, climate, economic output, etc.). 
  • Food (categorised by ingredients (e.g., vegetarian or not), spiciness or even appropriateness for certain holidays). 

It seems inevitable that we also categorise people. 

It’s important to note that we use labels for a reason. Labels give us a ‘short-hand’ to understanding something. This is important as it’s literally impossible to consider all information about everything all the time. However, labels become problematic when they start interfering with our ability to understand things.  

Labels have advantages and disadvantages. Whether they are worthwhile will depend on which of these advantages and disadvantages are relevant for the person in question and at a specific time. 

In any case, it’s important to remember that labels/diagnoses only tell you broadly about a group, not specifically about a person 

If we are to deliver support using a person-centred approach, labels or diagnoses can only ever be a starting point to understanding how to help a person. If we are to use these labels in education then we need to ensure they have consistent meaning and also all learners have equitable access to gaining them. This is not always the case. Socio-economic status, gender and ethnicity all remain barriers to gaining a diagnosis for many learners and their families at the present time. 


You can hear from Professor Amanda Kirby at NAHT’s SEND Conference 2021 – New Perspectives on Neurodiversity on 20 October. Join us in-person in Manchester or virtually.

Book your tickets here.