What is Neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity encompasses a wide range of neurological differences. Although considered to be a relatively new term, it is thought to have been coined by autism activist Judy Singer back in the 1990s in a bid to move away from the ’medical’ view of autism and the idea it is something that should be “cured”.
The term “neurodiversity” is used to describe the 1 in 20 people who have any or more than one of the following:
- Tourette’s Syndrome
There is an emerging ‘neurodiverse paradigm’ – that argues that if 1 in 5 human beings are neurodiverse then this must be part of the natural diversity in human evolution. This new thinking about neurodiverse people argues that they are not errors of genetics but part of our growing understanding of the diversity of minds, intelligences, abilities and differences that are part of humanity.
Employers such as Tech companies Google, Microsoft and Apple, actively recruit neurodiverse individuals. Even major financial institutions are actively recruiting neurodiverse people – Goldman Sachs announced in April 2019 that they are also actively recruiting neurodiverse individuals.
The word ‘Diversity’ means ‘inclusion’. Diversity means a range of different things that encompasses acceptance, respect for individual differences that ensures we are all included – that we ‘belong’. It also means therefore that our difference should not be a barrier that excludes us from achieving our potential, contributing to society and afforded the same rights and protections under law as everyone else.
And what influence should it have over what is happening in the classroom and within our education system? Why are we seeing this change in attitudes and thinking about things we have traditionally thought of as ‘disorders’ or disabilities?
But is it helpful to refer to these challenges as disabilities? For many people, life can be especially challenging if you have some difficulty reading and writing, or difficulty remembering information or concentrating for long periods of time. We could encompass a lot of these difficulties under the umbrella of ‘communication’. We communicate in many ways – not just in the spoken word but also in writing, in gestures, actions, tone and pace of our voices and through various electronic devices and platforms from email and social media to video chat. Difficulty communicating can therefore affect our ability to study, learn, and succeed in our employment and indeed in our relationships.
There has been an explosion of research on the brain that has revolutionised our understanding of intelligence. There has also been an exponential growth in our understanding and use of technologies. All of this of course changes how we can communicate – so in some sense, some of the difficulties that were experienced by neurodiverse individuals, are lessened by our knowledge and skills in a 21st century learning paradigm.
Is being neurodiverse a ‘disability’? Are those labels stigmatising and perpetuating stereotypes and a deficit model of intelligence that ‘disables’ others who are seen as ‘less than’ because of what they ‘can’t do’? Does our education system – designed in the 19th century, not recognise the intelligence of the 1 in 5 neurodiverse human beings? Certainly the way we ‘measure’ intelligence in the form of school exams has not changed much in the past 100 years, the world we live in however, has changed beyond recognition in the past 100 years. So we have to ask ourselves, does our education system prepare young people to transition successfully from childhood into adult hood? Does it prepare them for the joys and challenges of adult relationships or the 21st century work place and rapidly changing economy? If not then why not and what do we need to do to ‘enable’ everyone – especially the ‘neurodiverse’ to achieve their potential?
There has been increased recognition that not all ‘disabilities’ or ‘’differences’ are visible. This has been reflected in increased public awareness of conditions such as autism, with shops providing “autism-friendly” times where the music may be switched off and lights dimmed and signs on public toilets stating that not all disabilities are visible. We are perhaps more aware that the neurodiverse can and do experience some very significant challenges – especially when an individual has more complex combinations of co-existing ADHD, Autism, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Dysgraphia and Dyscalculia and Tourette’s Syndrome.
Are neurodiverse differences only ‘disabilities’ if viewed through the lens of modern society or our education system? Harvey Blume, writing in 1998 for The Atlantic commented: “Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of wiring will prove best at any given moment?”. This certainly rings true for the rapidly changing 21st century.
Neurodiversity in the classroom
What should schools do to support young people with neurodiverse minds?
1. Celebrate Neurodiversity!
Make neurodiversity awareness a whole-school focus by teaching all young people about it. Celebrate successful individuals with a neurological difference.
2. Raise aspirations, confidence and self esteem
Embrace the special interests and successes of neurodiverse pupils within the school and outside the classroom. Active citizenship and hobbies are as important to the development of young people just as much as the national curriculum.
3. Recognise the vulnerabilities such as mental-health issues and ‘learned helplessness’
Work in partnership with parents and be aware of any signs of ‘learner anxiety, emotional and mental distress. Ensure any school mentors and counsellors are trained to understand the unique perspective and world view of neurodiverse pupils.
4. Support and reasonable accommodations and adjustments to ‘enable’ achievement
Allowing a student with an ‘invisible’ difficulty to struggle academically when all that is required for academic success are appropriate accommodations and explicit instruction, is no different from failing to provide a ramp for a wheelchair user.
Ensure you staff are trained to identify neurodiverse learners and understand that outstanding teaching involves not only making appropriate adjustments but also liaising with parents, school leaders and other services to ensure the child’s needs are understood – it takes a village!
Currently 2 out of every 5 neurodiverse children with dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, ADHD and Autism, in the UK leave secondary education at 16 never having had their learning difficulty identified – so what mistaken assumptions are we making about their lack of progress and what does the young person believe about their own ability and intelligence and employability if no one has helped them identify that they have a mind that processes information differently?
Those with neurodiverse minds may also experience difficulties with their ‘executive function skills’ and may require support with organisation, planning and time-management. Assigning a learning support assistant or mentor could be useful. Peer educators are also really helpful.
We must ‘enable’ learners – not ‘disable’ them. Teach students self-help strategies, utilising daily diary, electronic smart phones and tablet computers to help with remembering and planning homework, structuring assignments, reviewing work and learning strategies that involve structured movement. Not all learning has happen sitting down – the research tells us cognition is improved with movement so all lessons should include movement and strategies for getting into a ‘learning state of mind’ such as deep breathing and mindfulness. Think also about the brightness of lights, the levels of noise in the classroom – are wall displays creating information overload?
Devise a strategy for exam performance; access arrangements, extra time, a scribe etc. Also consider pre exam ‘de- stress’ workshops to manage performance anxiety to improve exam performance. Ensure that young people have access to the support they require in order to make ‘assessment’ a level playing field. For example, some students will be entitled to additional processing time, or a reader/scribe. Some may need rest breaks or a small room, away from distractions. Sensory considerations should be taken into account, not only during exams but also when young people are in the classroom.
Last but by no means least – get to know the young person, help them understand how they experience their world and how they learn and work with them so they are enables to become successful, persevering lifelong learners – confident in their ability and resilient to take risks with learning.