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Your Child as a “Neurodiverse Learner”

your child as a neurodiverse learner

Takeaway: Neurodiversity is a science-based concept that thinks of people as being ‘typical’ or ‘different.’ So, some children might have challenges that others don’t, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything inherently wrong with them. They’re just different. Moreover, these differences come with a whole set of strengths, too! Neurodiversity helps us celebrate individual differences and transforms the way we think of education. Rather than targeting the average student, we start focussing on the unique needs of each child. And this individualisation of education plans can help your child be her best self.

‘Disorder’ is a loaded word with a narrow focus on problems. ‘Difference’ is a freeing word that embraces human diversity.

When we spend too much time labelling and solving a child’s ‘problems,’ we teach her to see herself as limited. But when we focus on the full breadth of her personality and her strengths, we empower her to be her best self. She can stop focussing on her weaknesses and focus instead on living life.

Neurodiversity is a concept that turns disorders into differences.

Brain imaging shows that children’s brains generally develop in similar ways, but there is still a great deal of variation. And we tend to view the really different brains as being abnormal or disordered. Neurodiversity changes the normal/abnormal worldview to a neurotypical/neurodiverse (or regular/different) one. And a ‘difference’ is not a ‘problem.’

The idea is that each child has strengths and weaknesses, just like everybody else. So there’s nothing inherently wrong with her.

For example, a child with ADHD might struggle to focus on some things, but be able to hyperfocus on others. Or, a child with autism might struggle with social interactions but have an exceptional memory or a highly developed skillset. And the same pattern repeats itself for all the other ‘disorders’ like developmental language disorder (DLD), dyscalculia, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and so on. The concept of neurodiversity would encourage us to celebrate strengths just as much as support weaknesses.

But neurodiversity hints at taking things even further. It “may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general.”

This is what US writer Harvey Blume said in an article he wrote in The Atlantic in 1998. He continued, “Who can say what form of (brain) wiring will prove best at any given moment? Cybernetics and computer culture, for example, may favour a somewhat autistic cast of mind.” This reference to autism is significant because the concept of neurodiversity was first used by Australian Sociologist Judy Singer, in her late-90s paper on autism. Ms Singer very powerfully pointed out that neurodiversity should be seen as a social or political category just like gender, sexual orientation, class, and race. There’s no such thing as a wrong gender, so why would there be a wrong brain?

So what does this mean for your child? It means looking for a much more individualised education.

Her teachers need to recognise the full spectrum of her strengths, skills, learning styles, motivations, and weaknesses. And they need to find ways of addressing these individual needs, So, that might mean creating a customised, written plan outlining their teaching approach. And they’d set specific goals. So, if your child finds it hard to make eye contact, for example, the goal could be: ‘By half-term, she will be making eye contact daily when given a specific cue.’ (The cue could be that the teacher points to the child’s eyes and then her own.)

With individualised education, educators use techniques that highlight the strengths of your child’s neurodiversity and minimise the weaknesses.

For example, they might:

  • Use more than just visual learning tools. Textbooks are great but purely visual. So they can add audio, video, and hands-on learning to match her learning style.
  • Offer different homework options. Rather than having just to write papers, children could be allowed to dictate answers to a voice recorder, give a lecture or video/slideshow presentation, or do a group project.
  • Experiment with timings. Classes can have frequent breaks and they can allow extra time for tests.
  • Flexible testing. Testing can be done in small groups or a private room, and tests can be split up over many sessions. They could also change the time of day for a test, or change the order of subtests.

But these tweaks come from a much more fundamental shift in thinking. A reworking of what ‘learning’ should look like.

Here are some of the basic principles for more flexible learning, as part of an evolving framework called Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

  1. What we teach is important. But so is how we teach it. Since there are many types of learners, we need a range of teaching methods (videos, online forums, games, etc.)
  2. Accommodations and tweaks are for everyone, not just neurodiverse learners. Say, for example, essential reading material is presented as text-to-speech, Braille, digital text, and large print. A child with dyslexia would certainly prefer the audio option, but so might a child who has no problem reading. And we wouldn’t know this until we provided her with the opportunity.
  3. Teachers and students set goals together. Students get to choose how to accomplish these personal goals, and so takes ownership of their education. And in the process, they learn which techniques work best for them.
  4. Grades are to reinforce goals, not to measure performance. They’re a chance for teachers to help each student reflect on (and if needed, change) their learning and study techniques.
  5. Classrooms are set up flexibly. Rather than having rows or pods of desks, with the teacher up front, there could be zones or areas for different activities. For example, some spaces for quiet, individual work and others for group instruction. And the teacher can move from space to space as needed. Also, we could experiment with different types of classroom lighting and acoustics. And we could add sensory supports like wiggle seats, fidget toys, or rocking chairs.

By reworking our ideas about learning, we’re helping our children be their best selves.

Neurodiversity’s strengths-based approach helps children realise they have great potential in them. And designing new education programmes will help them achieve this potential. They’ll learn to love school, trust their instincts and abilities, and use their unique perspectives as a valuable problem-solving tool.

Do you think your child might benefit from a neurodiverse approach to learning? Consider contacting a specialist.

The Ed Psych Practice offers consultation, advice, and problem solving for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges, in London. We have psychologists and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support.

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