March 16, 2022
By Dr Kathy Weston
Neurodiversity refers to the diversity of human minds, the infinite variation in neurocognitive functioning within our species (Van Herwegen, 2021). Autism and ADHD are common examples of neurodivergence. Neurodiversity Celebration Week is here, so I have gone on a voyage of discovery and embarked on a series of enriching webinars and interviews with different experts.
Over the past few days, I’ve interviewed paediatrician and author, Dr Sophia Mooncey and her co-writer, SEN educator Adele Devine, cognitive psychologist Dr Rebecca Gordon, developmental scientist, Dr Kathryn Bates, and teacher trainer, Fintan O’ Regan. I wanted to use this week’s edition of my newsletter to reflect on some of the amazing things that I have learned and bits and pieces that I am still mulling over.
It was inspiring to listen to my interviewees talk about the fact we are all different and to hear them underline the importance of distancing ourselves from the language of ‘deficits’ or ‘disabilities’; instead emphasising ‘diffability’ and the importance of celebrating difference.
Immediately, there are actions to take in family life for us all; weeding out and challenging harmful, prejudicial or unkind language that children may use without regard for its impact on individuals or on societal perceptions of others. Ensuring that our children have access to books or media that broadens their understanding and develops empathy can help too.
Important progressive milestones in the media sphere have helped aid understanding of neurodiverse conditions. We have witnessed the arrival of Julia on Sesame Street (performed by puppeteer Stacey Gordon, who has a son with autism) and a Netflix series called Atypical, which features a teen with autism and employs an array of autistic actors. Olympic champions now openly share ADHD diagnoses and modes of treatment on Twitter and a range of celebrities have openly talked about getting diagnoses of neurodivergence in adulthood as ‘welcome relief’.
For some (not all), a ‘label’ indicates membership to a wider ‘neuro-tribe’ and this can feel reassuring. Author Claire Sainsbury, who scribed Martian in the Playground, reflected that “getting a diagnosis was the best thing that ever happened to me”. Understanding one’s own condition, having insight into how one’s brains work and why one might respond slightly differently to those around us, can aid self-acceptance and boost self-esteem. Early diagnosis can also facilitate parents getting the support that they need too.
It might be tempting to read about champions of neurodiversity (like Chris Packham, Susan Boyle or Alan Turing) and assume there’s a creative genius hidden behind every neurodiverse person. Actually, this is a prevailing myth.
Dr Mooncey talks about how heterogeneous neurodiversity is. Yes, some children are gifted, but many will really struggle. Struggles might pertain to learning, processing difficulties, sensory sensitivities or involve battles with anxiety. The latter can particularly affect children’s ability to cope and thrive in school and in life generally. Over the last year, I have lost count of the parents who have struggled to help children transition from lockdown into school or back to school following a period away. For some children, the anxiety and stress contained within the school environment is too much and the comfort of being at home, a welcome reprieve.
For school staff and parents, finding a pathway through anxiety can be extremely difficult. As our neurodiversity experts expound, there is no magic wand. However I was able to extract some tips that parents and educators might use. For the severely anxious, Adele Devine recommended a complete restart (asking oneself: how can we optimise the experience of coming into class for this particular child? What is this child trying to tell us? Where are the anxiety triggers across the school day and how can we minimise those?). In one case, Adele describes clearing a room of other children, filling it with objects of joy for that pupil and helping them relearn that school could be a happy place.
Small changes can lead to big gains. Can that child transition to class earlier than others? Is there a quiet spot within the school where they can rest and wait? Are there any outdoor learning opportunities? Innovation is key, as is consistency. It can undermine a child’s confidence if one staff member goes to enormous lengths to reduce their stress, but a colleague asks something else of them, without having the full picture. Leaning into a child’s strengths, offering them choices, really listening to what they are communicating and offering hope, matters.
Setting small achievable goals for them and reminding them (and yourself) that ‘tomorrow is another day’ can help.
One last tip is to look after yourself as the supporting adult in these scenarios. Have you had a good night’s sleep? Do you have someone there for you? Someone who can listen to how you are doing, thinking and feeling?
Sleep is essential for everyone’s mental health and wellbeing. Sleep deprivation can exacerbate mental health problems in all children and young people. For neurodiverse children, sleep can be much harder. A good sleeping routine will be regenerative so it is definitely something for parents to work on with a sleep expert or with a family doctor.
The pandemic has undoubtedly exacerbated anxiety and sleep problems. For families with children who have special educational needs of any kind, the withdrawal of key support networks, the disruption of trusted routines and missed social support may have been especially tricky. Recent research by Dr Karri Gillespie-Smith has highlighted how the pandemic has impacted on children with intellectual disabilities. Read the key findings here.
The fact that 59% of parents interviewed had symptoms of clinical depression during the pandemic is a stark reminder that parents and carers need understanding and support too. What can we do to help all children gain acceptance in the world? What can we do to celebrate their individuality and bolster their self-esteem? What can we do to help parents and teachers in their efforts to support young people in their care? How can we raise children who will be kind and understanding of others? The needs of children who are different should matter to all of us and each of us can play a small part in making the world as safe and welcoming to them as possible.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
Tooled Up schools can look forward to webinar recordings on neurodiversity landing in the Tooled Up library later this week and early next week. You’ll be able to find them all in our new Neurodiversity Celebration Week category (look in the advanced search to find it). Highlights include a podcast with Dr Kathryn Bates, a webinar on dyslexia with UCL brain scientist, Dr Rebecca Gordon and the talk we hosted with Dr Mooncey and her co-author, Adele Devine.
School staff are welcome to a webinar with another UCL scientist, Dr Jo Van Herwegen tomorrow lunchtime (GMT), where we’ll be debunking common myths about ADHD and autism and hearing Jo’s ‘classroom tips’ for teachers. A summary of Jo’s research on the Tooled Upn site, where she talks about the prevalence of neuromyths and the damage these can cause to pupils’ outcomes, has already been viewed over 1000 times.
We mentioned the importance of sleep above. Happily, we can announce that psychologist, Dr Faith Orchard is hosting a webinar on Adolescent Sleep on the 27th April evening. We have asked her to include research on sleep problems in neurodiverse children. Book your free place here.
We are trying to do our part in supporting fundraising efforts for those fleeing war and are hosting a free webinar with the adolescent psychiatrist, Dr Anna Conway Morris, next Tuesday 6-7pm (live Q&A) where parents can ‘ask Anna anything’. For each attendee who comes along, we will be donating £5 to the DEC Emergency Appeal, so please register to come!
To support school staff in the aftermath of the pandemic, we are planning a webinar on ‘Handling Grief in the Sad Event of a Colleague’s Death’, for staff in Tooled Up schools. I will be joined by Vicky Gutteridge from The OLLIE Foundation and grief counsellor, Danielle Copeland. This event is open to staff across our schools but attendance is limited to 20 attendees. If you are interested in coming along, please email us directly to reserve your place.