Making education work for the next generation of neurodivergent pupils

An autistic science teacher considers what genuinely inclusive education might look like. This was originally a talk at Autscape in 2020, the conference for and by autistic people. The video of this talk is now online.

Many of us — autistic people, and those who are neurodivergent or just ‘weird’ in other ways — have difficult memories of our school days. We may have been excluded, bullied or just confused at different times; children can be merciless when they get the idea that someone deserves to be picked on, and frankly, adults in positions of power can be even worse.

Schools have never worked well for everyone. Keeping dozens of kids in a room and keeping them occupied with things they’re supposed to learn from was always a challenging task, and there are many reasons why many kids just don’t learn all the things they’re supposed to be learning, or have a miserable time in that environment.

In some ways things have improved since my schooling in the 80s and 90s, and increased recognition and understanding of learning differences like dyslexia, ADHD and autism has brought some accommodations and support. A series of Acts of Parliament and UN conventions have promoted the idea of inclusive schooling, meaning neurodivergent and disabled kids should have equal education, alongside their peers.

However, many of the behaviours associated with developmental differences are still stigmatised and punished, both formally by school sanctions and informally through peer disapproval. For all the talk of a right to inclusive education, and all the hard work that has been done to bring it about, the fact is that too many neurodivergent school pupils still feel isolated, devalued and misunderstood. Sometimes it might be more appropriate talk about ‘mainstreaming’ rather than the aspirational phrase ‘inclusive education’.

My school experience

My own time at school was a mixed bag. I was never exactly excluded, apart from that one time after I blew up at my head of year and stormed out of an assembly. I did okay academically, and I usually had at least a few friends. Even so, looking back, it is clear that my schooling could have gone much more smoothly if I and my teachers had known I was autistic — and understood and accepted what that meant.

I had what I now understand as a characteristically autistic attitude to rules and authority: I had no patience for rules that seemed arbitrary, but I’d get very angry when sensible rules were flouted, especially by teachers. I respected teachers and other authorities as long as they were fair and accurate, but I had a habit of pointing out when they made mistakes, or decisions I considered unfair and wrong.

I was bullied by other pupils for being different: for how I looked, sounded and acted. I grew my hair long in primary school, which turns out to be a great way of making some people take against you on sight, especially if you dress unconventionally too. I must have talked a bit oddly: I got me bullied for being ‘posh’, but also regularly had people asking where I was from (yeah… North London, like them). I had absolutely no interest in team sports, and the rituals of masculinity around them, and some kids will really hold that against you, too.

I was a weird kid, and I’d come to terms with that by the age of nine or ten. I’d noticed that all the most interesting people are weird; why shouldn’t I be weird too? It’s not like I had any choice in the matter anyway. Weird Pride!

School was intensely stressful for me much of the time, but I don’t think it was unusually bad for an autistic kid, and I doubt it’s much better for the average kid with ADHD or dyslexia, either — whether or not they have a label for what makes them different. Many pupils are bullied worse than I ever was, and many find school work far less accessible than I did.

I left school in 1996, and there really wasn’t much understanding of the autism spectrum at that time. I don’t think it would have helped for me to have an autism diagnosis then, but If I was at school now, as a pupil rather than a teacher, I would probably welcome a formal diagnosis of autism, in the hopes of receiving better understanding and perhaps some accommodations. That said, being assessed as autistic is not all good; after I entered teaching seven years ago, it took me a long time before I decided to start telling my colleagues I was on the spectrum, for fear of the misconceptions they might have.

Labels

A label like autism, ADHD, dyslexia or dyspraxia should bring better understanding, and reasonable adjustments in the classroom and in exams. Unfortunately, a lack of insight into what these cognitive differences mean for school, combined with a lack of resources for things like learning support and quiet rooms, means that many pupils just can’t access the adjustments they need.

Even when they can, we need to recognise the downsides of labels: teachers will often have lower expectations of pupils with labelled differences, and without a culture of embracing differences, a label can be a weapon in the hands of bullies. Pupils and teachers alike will often have harmful preconceptions, thanks to myths and over-generalisations about what these labels mean.

So how do we minimise the harm that can come with people knowing that a pupil is neurodivergent, while maximising the benefits?

The Neurodiversity Perspective

I think a good place to start is with promoting understanding of neurodiversity: both the general concept, and what it means for some to be neurodivergent in different ways.

In every sphere of life, people who think and experience the world differently from the majority are held back by people seeing their differences in terms of deficits, implying that when things go wrong, it’s probably the fault of them and all things wrong with them. Strengths are ignored, differences are assumed to be problems, and all too often, people with labels are treated as being somehow inferior.

For example, many ‘autism interventions’ have notoriously focused on changing behaviour that is not inherently harmful but may be seen as ‘odd’; if ‘restricted and repetitive behaviours’ are understood as symptoms rather than coping strategies, people are likely to focus on preventing them rather than working with them or changing environments to reduce stress and uncertainty. If autistic people are thought to have inherent social deficits rather than being understood as communicating differently from other people, any misunderstandings are likely to be pinned on the autistic side rather than looking at communication as a two-way thing. If a teacher thinks of someone diagnosed with ADHD as just having deficient attention, they are less likely to look for ways of harnessing their potential for hyperfocus, and more likely to be impatient with their need for stimulation.

This is why autistic people and our ‘cousins’ with related cognitive differences started talking about ‘neurodiversity’. It is such a valuable concept because valuing difference allows people to start genuinely accepting different ways of being, and brings out the importance of working with diversity rather than trying to suppress deviations.

I was taught at schools that explicitly valued cultural diversity, and while they had by no means succeeded in stamping out racism, we did learn that prejudice is bad, and respecting other cultures is good. Overt racism was generally seen as totally unacceptable, and I credit that — at least partly — to my schools’ enthusiasm for multiculturalism.

We never had anything similar at all for neurodiversity. To be fair the term wasn’t even coined until after I’d left school — but it has been around for a while a while now, and we still have a long way to go with embracing neurodiversity in education. The idea is just starting to penetrate, with relatively new initiatives like Neurodiversity Celebration Week, which already boasts of 750 schools taking part; and I know that a guide to neurodiversity is on its way to the General Teaching Council of Scotland now. Then there’s the LEANS project that I’m part of, which I’ll get back to later.

First, let me talk a bit more concretely about how I think that a better understanding of neurodiversity could help neurodivergent pupils at school, and a bit about what else might be needed.

Let’s look at some of the biggest barriers to inclusion, and what can we do to address them.

  1. Bullying
  2. Inaccessible work
  3. School environments
  4. Rigidity

Bullying

Bullying is a difficult problem, both for schools and for society in general. People fear and reject what they don’t understand, and have a nasty habit of being cruel to people seen as having lower status. In some ways, our culture encourages and validates that: stereotypes about boys and girls pit the two against each other, for example, with girls usually in a subordinate position.

Girls are expected to empathise with everyone: They learn about female perspectives from personal experience and likely most of their friends, and they learn about male perspectives because they’re everywhere in media, both fiction and non-fiction. This pattern holds for other less-dominant groups, too: white people’s views on the world are taken as the default, so that people of other races will always be exposed to white people’s opinions and narratives in our society, while the converse is simply not true. And no gay kid is going to grow up without hearing extensively about heterosexual relationships, but it’s only in recent years that many straight kids have started being exposed to any queer narratives at all.

I think this wider perspective on power and privilege helps explain the dynamics we see at school (and elsewhere) between neurodivergent and more-typical people. Neurotypical is taken as the default, so that the stories we hear are rarely about people who are identifiably neurodivergent. Even when characters are in fact clearly not neurotypical, this is rarely made explicit, so that people don’t necessarily make the connection between someone like Doctor Who or Princess Entrapta, and the weird kid they share a class with.

Because these kinds of differences are still rarely discussed at school in any depth, kids understand them through whatever lenses they have available, and these are usually seen in negative terms: weirdo; lazy; slow; trouble-maker. It’s difficult to push back against these labels without another way to understand how some people are just different.

Perhaps exposing kids to the idea of neurodiversity will help. Even if it doesn’t change the minds of the bullies, or make ableism of this sort socially unacceptable, it could help teachers and classmates to understand what is going on, and help neurodivergent pupils to see themselves in a more positive light. As autistic psychologist Emily Lovegrove describes in her very helpful ‘Autism, Bullying and Me’, projecting a positive self-image helps make someone less of a target. Having a positive self-image, of course, makes bullying easier to live with.

Inaccessible work

Another big problem for neurodivergent pupils is accessing schoolwork. Autism and ADHD can both make it extremely difficult to focus on work that doesn’t concretely relate to areas of particular interest, and teachers and learning assistants often struggle to know what to do about that; they may resort to tiresome prompting and complain about how distracted their pupils are. Where time and resources allow, tailoring work to connect it with what pupils are passionate about can be hugely helpful — something that teachers may not even think of, if they think of ‘special interests’ in negative terms, or just don’t know much about autism or ADHD.

Another common barrier to accessing work is difficulty in following or remembering instructions, especially when they are only presented verbally. This one is relatively easy to fix at the teacher’s end: instructions should always be clear and unambiguous, and all but the most trivial instructions should be written down as well as spoken. Again, if teachers understand how differently some learners experience the world, this is an obvious step to take.

This is a good example of something that benefits a large number of pupils with very little disadvantage! One of my tutors when I was doing teacher training was fond of saying ‘good special needs education is good education’: in other words, things that benefit neurodivergent pupils tend to benefit others, too. The idea of ‘universal design’ is relevant here, and I think it’s something we should talk about more often in the context of neurodiversity: designing things to be accessible to all from the beginning often improves the experience of people who aren’t disabled, too. Crucially, it also allows disabled people to access things without having to ask specially and be singled out. Being singled out is a major stress for many kids!

Universal provision should be the default for many of the things neurodivergent pupils require to thrive, I think; if pupils benefit from quiet fidget toys and quiet spaces, for example, they shouldn’t need a label to access them unless those things are in short supply. And in general, they shouldn’t be in short supply.

School environment

That brings us on to the school environment as a barrier to learning and thriving. Many schools are sensory hell for many pupils. There is no excuse for schools not to be built with sensory needs in mind, but far too many still have strip lighting in echoey spaces, packed with unruly children and no soft furnishings to absorb the noise. Far too few have enough quiet spaces to escape to for pupils who need it — although this is changing, and we’ve always had libraries.

The sensory environment is another example of something where some things are really unacceptably bad for autistic pupils, but also really quite bad for pupils in general; all sorts of pupils would benefit from less noise and less clutter, as well as an end to uncomfortable uniforms and chairs, but it might take an understanding of how bad it is for a minority to put in the effort to make it better for everyone.

This relates back to one of the big problems with inaccessible classroom instructions, too: many pupils benefit from reduced cognitive load, from having fewer things they need to think about at any time, and designing schools and schoolwork with that in mind could do a great deal to make schools more inclusive.

Rigidity

Another barrier to inclusion is the sheer rigidity of most schools. Unfortunately, this is tied up with the whole ‘factory model’ of education, where schools are seen like a sort of conveyor belt taking in pupils at a certain age, stuffing them with knowledge and then pushing them out again a decade or so later, stamped with a set of life-defining exam results… all ready for the world, presumably.

When exams have such high stakes, and schools as well as pupils are punished if they don’t perform, and education is just assumed to happen in a window between the ages of seven and eighteen, it is extremely difficult for schools to have much flexibility. Michael Gove’s education reforms made it even harder, with even greater emphasis on facts, uniforms and discipline.

Still, schools do have some freedom to be flexible about things like timetables and behavioural policies, and they need it in order to provide the reasonable adjustments that the law says disabled people are entitled to. Some pupils just really need to get up and walk around sometimes, or retreat to a quiet space; some will do much better on a reduced timetable, or with permission to skip certain subjects. Neurodiversity demands flexibility; it is impossible to think schools can be as inflexible as most are and still be inclusive, if we understand how much people’s minds vary. Once again though, this is something that could also benefit a much larger group of learners: inflexibility is often bad for pupils from poorer backgrounds, young carers, those with English as an additional language, and many from ethnic or religious minorities.

Before schools can even know what they ought to be flexible about, they have to learn how to listen to pupils about what they need — preferably in a way that means they don’t have to keep on re-explaining it. I don’t like the term ‘special needs’, but it is vital to realise that some pupils just do need different things from others, because their heads work differently.

So, many of the barriers to school inclusion could be eased by teachers and pupils having a better understanding of neurodiversity, and different neurodivergences. Lack of resources and the overall philosophy of the educational system will still be a problem, but let’s see how far we can get by helping more people to understand this.

There’s a lot that we can do as individuals to spread understanding of neurodiversity — in a sense, that’s what everyone here at Autscape is doing! We’ve all learned a lot about what it means to be autistic, and many of us have some insight into other kinds of neurological difference too — all of which is insight that previous generations of kids just didn’t have access to, and which many still don’t get to hear about. We can give kids that we know the vocabulary to talk about this stuff, and arm them with the ability to self-advocate. We can also take every opportunity to encourage professionals to listen to the voices of neurodivergent people — almost all of them want to do their jobs better, and not all of them have realised how much better they could do them if they took the time to learn from our life experiences.

LEANS

That brings me back to LEANS, the Learning About Neurodiversity at School project I mentioned earlier. I’m doing this with the University of Edinburgh, creating and piloting materials to help teach kids of around 8–11 years old about neurodiversity, which will eventually be shared for free with educators around the world.

The project was initiated by the academic psychologist Sue Fletcher-Watson, with input from myself and a clinical psychologist named Will Mandy. We also have Siena Castellon of Neurodiversity Celebration Week on board, along with Dinah Aitken of the Salvesen Mindroom Centre and Sarah McGeown from the university’s School of Education.

We have put together a neurodiverse participatory design team of education professionals from around the UK and Ireland, who are meeting online over the Summer and into the Autumn, led by the researcher Alyssa Alcorn. They are producing a set of draft resources, which will then be tested with a dozen schoolkids — and put online for feedback from the community, which hopefully includes some of you!

Finally a designer will be hired to put together a professional-looking resource pack based on this, and we’ll pilot it in four primary schools, evaluating what kind of difference it makes to people’s positive and inclusive actions, as well as their knowledge of and attitudes towards neurodiversity.

I’m cautiously optimistic about seeing improvements on all of those fronts. While the materials are aimed at kids, their teachers will be the ones delivering them, and perhaps they will also learn a few things that encourage them to give neurodivergent learners a chance, and get better at noticing barriers to inclusion, both academic and social.

There’s so much about schools that could work better for so many people, and bad school experiences cause so much damage — and so much wasted talent. We have all learned some of the lessons that younger generations (and their teachers!) need to learn, to make school okay. Let’s talk about how we can help make that happen.

Resources

My most relevant writing:

  1. Neurodiversity is for Everyone
  2. Starting Points for Understanding Autism
  3. Autistic Skill Sets and spiky profiles (also relevant to other types of neurodivergence)
  4. We’re here. We’re weird. Get used to it.
  5. More on autism

Educator, etc. | http://oolong.co.uk | @MxOolong