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What is neurodiversity and what should schools be doing?

Neurodiversity has become a buzzword in the world of SEND, but what does it mean and how should schools react?

What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity has become a buzzword in the world of SEND, but what does it mean and how should schools react?

The term "neurodiversity" is used with increased regularity in academic circles, but what does it mean? And what influence should it have over what is happening in the classroom?

What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity encompasses a wide range of neurological differences, such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia and specific language impairment.

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".

But is it helpful to refer to these challenges as disabilities?

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On one hand: yes. There has been increased recognition that not all disabilities 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.

A diagnosis is also often the key to accessing support. 

Is being neurodivergent a disability?

But are neurological differences only disabilities if viewed through the lens of modern society? 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?”.

John Robison, a passionate advocate for autism acceptance, feels that both views can be held: “In simple terms, proponents of the neurodiversity concept posit that autism has been part of the human genome forever, and therefore it must serve an evolutionary purpose. While I agree with that view I am also quick to point out that does not mean autism is not terribly disabling for many of us.”

He continues by saying that, while a "cure" may not be applicable for some people with neurological differences, relief from their disability may be. Robison points out that the rates of depression and suicide are higher for people with autism compared with the general population.

Neurodiversity in the classroom

Bearing this in mind, what should schools do to support young people with neurological differences?

1.       Celebrate neurological differences

Make neurodiversity awareness a whole-school focus by teaching all young people about it. Celebrate successful individuals with a neurological difference (while also being mindful not to give the impression that all people with a neurological difference will automatically be geniuses or super successful in the world of business).

2.       Boost self-esteem

Embrace the special interests and successes of young people with neurological differences, both within and outside the classroom. This could act to boost their feelings of self-worth and hopefully avoid feelings of not "fitting in" with the conventions of school.

3.       Recognise mental-health issues

Work closely with parents and be vigilant of any signs of emotional or mental distress. It may be that the young person requires specialist mental health intervention accessed via CAMHS or their GP. Or it could be that they just need a friendly face or safe space at school.

4.       Support

Those with neurological differences may experience difficulties with their executive function skills and may require support with organisation and time-management. Assigning a mentor could be useful.

Many of our teaching assistants work as mentors, checking in with students to make sure they’re well and on top of their work. This can be a "light-touch" (ie just checking in weekly), or it could be more intensive, such as daily support.

Teach students self-help strategies (utilising a homework planner/computer programme, or something more old-fashioned – such as using post-it notes). Consider reducing the amount of stress on an individual by reducing the amount of homework they’re expected to do.

Considering examination access arrangements can have a significant impact. Ensure that young people with neurological differences 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.

Is the buzz of the computers/speakers distracting? How loud is that ticking clock? How easy is it for the young person with dyspraxia to sit on a stool, rather than a chair? All of these things can lead to young people failing to focus in class and therefore not reach their full potential.

Further Reading

Blume, H, "Neurodiversity"The Atlantic, 30 September 1998

Robison, J, "The Controversy Around Autism and Neurodiversity"Psychology Today, 5 April 2017

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