Frances Harris celebrates Neurodiversity Week by looking at the importance of using the correct labels.


22nd Mar 2024 | Blog


This week is Celebrate Neurodiversity Week: a now internationally recognised opportunity to celebrate all aspects of neurodiversity. An initiative started in 2018 by a London school girl named Sienna Castellon.

As is the case for so many, my growing understanding and insight into what autism is (and isn’t) started at home with the diagnosis of my daughter. If I am honest the diagnosis was unexpected: a sucker punch to the gut (as is very common we assessed for ADHD and autism and I think had assumed it was the former and definitely not the latter). With hindsight however, I can confidently say it was the single most transformative and pivotal moment. For all those who say ‘why do you need a label?’ (and this is a conversation I overheard only today at the school gates) my answer is always because the right label is so many many times better than a child giving themselves the wrong label (or having others do so for them).

The right label can be the gateway to self-understanding and with it self-compassion and acceptance and a journey of finding the right support and putting in place the necessary accommodations. The importance is aptly encapsulated by the oft quoted zebra analogy (which works for all neurodivergences not just autism):

“Why do you need a label?” Because there is comfort in knowing that you are a normal zebra, not a strange horse. Because you can’t find a community of other zebras, can’t learn what makes a zebra thrive, what brings a zebra joy, if you don’t know you are a zebra and you are learning solely from horses. It is near impossible to be happy and mentally healthy if you’re spending all your life thinking you’re a failed horse, having others tell you you are failed horse, when all along you could be thriving and understood if everyone, including you, just knew you were a zebra.

And although my personal interest in autism began at home, as a family law barrister it is plain to me how big and important a subject neurodivergence is in the work we do. While I welcome any opportunity to talk about the nexus of autism and family law at length I have tried to consider what the single most important key message I would wish to share this week with my fellow family lawyers might be and I think it is this: we need to be alive to the zebras in our community, we need to actively look out for them and, where necessary, have the conversation and ask them if they have ever considered they (or their child) might be a zebra, we need to stop assuming that what is right for horses is right for the zebras too and judging everything through the lens of the horse. The right label in family proceedings, be they public or private, can be a game changer.

So I would challenge everybody this week to get curious about the experience of the zebra, browse an Instagram account of an autistic individual (@neurodivergentlou), watch a documentary (Christine McGuinness: Unmasking my autism) or read a book (Katherine May’s The Electricity of Every Living Thing or Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist).


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