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Autism and dentistry.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the term currently used by healthcare professionals: it acknowledges the diversity of the condition's severity. Autism and autistic are words currently in common parlance.

The use of appropriate language when referring to individuals with disabilities is necessary for promoting dignity, respect, and inclusivity. The language is constantly changing: healthcare professionals have a duty not to use words that may have been acceptable earlier in their careers but are now considered offensive.

it is widely accepted that people who have received an autism diagnosis prefer to be referred to as "autistic" rather than "has autism". This reflects that autism is a natural characteristic, like "he is tall".


Neurodivergent is term used to describe individuals who have neurological differences or conditions, such as learning disabilities, ADHD, or autism. This term is gaining popularity as it is seen as more positive and inclusive than terms like "disability" or "disorder."

Given the stigma acquired by all terms which have historically been used to describe people with such conditions, it is likely that "autistic" will also disappear from the acceptable lexicon, although "autism" will survive longer.

Learning disability

According to the UK National Health Service (NHS), learning disability is defined as "a reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities – for example household tasks, socialising or managing money – which affects someone for their whole life. People with a learning disability tend to take longer to learn and may need support to develop new skills, understand complex information and interact with other people."

This doesn’t include people with conditions such as dyslexia, in which they have a difficulty with one type of skill but not a wider intellectual impairment.

The term "learning disability" is used specifically in the UK, while other countries may use different terms such as "intellectual disability" or "developmental disability."

Learning difficulty

In the UK, there is a difference between learning disability and learning difficulty.

Learning disability is a long-term condition that affects a person's ability to learn new skills and to cope independently. It is usually diagnosed in childhood or early adulthood and is caused by an impairment in intellectual functioning. People with a learning disability often have difficulty with everyday activities such as self-care, communication, and socializing.

On the other hand, learning difficulty is a broader term that encompasses a wide range of conditions that can affect a person's ability to learn. It can refer to a specific learning difficulty such as

  • dyslexia,
  • dyspraxia more…
  • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD),
  • or it can refer to a more general difficulty in acquiring new knowledge and skills.

People with learning difficulties may struggle with specific areas such as reading, writing, or mathematics, but they may also have strengths in other areas.

The main difference between learning disability and learning difficulty is that learning disability is a specific condition caused by impaired intellectual functioning, while learning difficulty is a more general term that can refer to a range of conditions that affect learning.

ESN, SEN, SEND, and Special Needs

ESN (Educationally Subnormal), SEN (Special Educational Needs), and "special needs" have also been used historically to describe learning disabilities or differences.

  • ESN was a term used in the UK to refer to students with significant intellectual disabilities who required additional educational support, but the term is now considered outdated and offensive.
  • SEN is a more recent term used to describe students with a range of learning difficulties or disabilities, and it is still in use today.
  • SEND, Special Educational Needs and Disabilities, is replacing SEN in common parlance.
  • "Special needs" is a more general term that has been used to describe individuals with various disabilities or differences, including learning disabilities, but it is not a specific or diagnostic term.

Overall, there has been a shift towards using more person-centered and inclusive language in recent years.

Living with, or suffering from?

"Suffering from" implies that someone is defined solely by their condition. So does juxtaposing a condition, e.g. "a cancer patient" or using the disease as a personal description, e.g. "a diabetic". It is becoming more common now to say that people "live with" a condition.

New terminology should be developed in collaboration with affected individuals and their communities, in order to ensure that it is respectful, accurate, and empowering.

The future

Because of the historical tendency of all such terms to become perjorative or disrespectful, it is inevitable that the language will evolve further, and new terms like Diverse learners, Learning variability, Cognitive diversity, Learning differences, Diverse cognitive abilities, Cognitive variance will become commonplace.

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