Victoria Honeybourne describes what neurodiversity means for education and underlines the importance of embracing and celebrating learning differences.

Diversity is an accepted and expected part of life in 21st Century Britain; it’s one of the things that makes us special. We are all aware of issues pertaining to gender diversity and cultural diversity, with issues such as gender fluidity and cross-cultural lifestyles being readily embraced in many instances. However, fewer people are aware of neurodiversity and so, in my view, it fails to get the recognition is deserves and is not embraced and celebrated in the same way as other differences in society.

The concept of neurodiversity represents a paradigm shift in the fields of health and education. Instead of ‘pathologising’ and labelling individuals who have perceived ‘deficits’ in the way they learn, think and relate — such as individuals with dyslexia, autism, dyspraxia and other special educational needs and differences — the neurodiversity paradigm considers this diversity and range of needs to be a normal, and expected, part of human variation. This view opposes the idea that there is one ‘normal’ type of brain or one ‘right’ form of neurocognitive functioning. And, in this way, the concept is hugely refreshing!

I am excited to be speaking on the topic of neurodiversity at The Education Show 2017 in Birmingham later this week [see box]. It is an issue that is very close to my heart for a number of reasons. On a personal level, I myself have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. I don’t, however, consider myself to be in any way ‘abnormal’ or ‘wrong’; for me, the biggest difficulty is often society’s narrow view of what constitutes ‘normal’.

On a professional level, as an advisory teacher for special educational needs, I also believe in the importance of the education system adopting the neurodiversity paradigm. In my seminar at The Education Show, I will outline the immense benefits that this change in attitude will bring for students, parents and education professionals alike.


Overwhelmed

For the children and young people with SEN, the current system of teaching and learning can also have a negative impact.

There are more children than ever before who are being identified as having special educational needs, and the young people in our classrooms are becoming ever more complex, many arriving at school with multiple diagnoses, difficulties and needs. It is understandable, therefore, that many school staff are feeling overwhelmed by this; just how it is possible to meet so many different needs in one classroom, often with limited time and resources? With recent assessment and curriculum changes, more and more staff are feeling that they have the impossible task of ‘fitting square pegs into round holes’. And this wholly goes against the concept of neurodiversity, in which there is no one way of thinking, learning or processing information that is favoured over another or considered superior or ‘correct’.

For the children and young people with SEN, the current system of teaching and learning can also have a negative impact. The very act of labelling an individual with a condition, disorder or special need implies that there is something ‘wrong’ with the person, rather than accepting that environments, attitudes, policies and practices can all play a role in marginalising these individuals. With these diagnoses, and the subsequent differences in the way SEN students are often taught and treated — with many being marginalised from mainstream education or being set lower academic expectations than their peers — it is easy for SEN students to begin to see themselves as ‘other’ and to start to doubt or disbelieve in their own capabilities and capacity to learn and grow.

That is not to say that teaching all children in the same way is a good idea — far from it. What neurodiversity advocates is difference, but not inequality; children with special educational needs may need to be taught in a slightly different way, may behave and interact differently from their peers, and may face struggles that their teachers and classmates find difficult to understand and relate to. But the resounding message of the neurodiversity paradigm is: that is normal; that is okay. The idea that underpins this model of learning is that these differences exist as part of the complex and varied state of being human, and not as some anomaly or abnormality, or an exception to the rule which must be accommodated rather than embraced.


Differences

If teaching staff and the education system as a whole are able to accept and expect a neurodiverse student population, and to anticipate these variations in learning and thinking styles, schools will be far better equipped to educate and nurture all of our children, not just those who fit within the existent model of teaching and learning. As such, it is my belief that we need to work together to create ‘neurodiverse classrooms’ where the whole spectrum of human behaviour and cognition is acknowledged, respected and catered for.

The word ‘spectrum’ is important here as it highlight the fact that, while there are many variants of human behaviour and thought processes, they all exist on a proverbial straight line — none are positioned higher than any others, in the same way that no single way of thinking, learning, or processing the world should be considered superior to any other ways.

By developing an education system that treats all children as such, rather than placing ‘normal’ children at the top of the educational structure and children with needs such as autism, Asperger’s Syndrome and dyslexia at the bottom, we can enable all individuals to thrive and flourish in an environment that honours difference as a natural part of the variation that makes us human. This is the beauty of the neurodiversity paradigm and, in my belief, of the human condition itself — our differences.

The Education Show 2017

The Education Show 2017 takes place 16-18 March at Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre.

Victoria Honeybourne’s session, Teaching, supporting and managing the neurodiverse classroom, takes place 10.00-10.30 am on Saturday 18 March in the SEN and Early Years Theatre.

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About Contributors

Victoria Honeybourne is a writer, trainer and senior advisory teacher. Her publications include: Educating and supporting girls with Asperger’s and Autism (Speechmark, 2016), Your Autism Journey: A self-exploration workbook for young women on the autism spectrum (CreateSpace, 2016), The Sky’s The Limit: A mental wellbeing workbook for young people with SEN (Speechmark, 2015), and The Teachers’ Speech, Language and Communication Pocketbook (Teachers’ Pocketbooks, 2014).

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