What Is Neurodiversity And What Does It Mean For Teaching?

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Neurodiversity is a term thrown around with very little explanation. Plainly stated, neurodiversity can be defined as differences in the way a student's brain learns and synthesizes information. While at first this seems a very simple concept to internalize; in reality there are so many intricacies and nuances to how neurodiversity plays out it is hard to define the term so succinctly. Not only do Neurodevelopmental Disorders (NDD) effect how a student learns, they also have effects on a student's emotion and memory. Two of the most widely talked about examples of NDD are Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

ASD expresses itself across a spectrum. The major difficulties found among those living with ASD are in the realms of social interaction and flexibility with schedules, routines, and thinking. These factors can be an issue in classroom social dynamics, such as friendships and group work. When school day plans are altered at the last minute a student living with ASD may also have significant difficulty adjusting to the new plan. Once again, the difficulties are on a spectrum. Where one student living with ASD may just need a quiet explanation as to why things are changing, another student may completely melt down and be unable to recover in time to participate.

As discussed before in a previous blog post ("The Reason Behind The Behavior: Why ADHD Brings Behavior Difficulties") ADHD is more than just hyperactivity. It is being overwhelmed by constant stimuli. The inability to filter out and stay focused on only one is diminished. This constant barrage of stimuli can impact a student's learning ability--not due to a lack of intelligence, but rather a lack of the ability to focus long enough to glean the information being disseminated.

Now that we have semi-defined what neurodiversity is it is time to discuss how to best provide accessible education to the diverse population found in classroom; both NDD students and neurotypical students.

The two major schools of thought on how to provide the free public education outlined by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): inclusion and self-contained classrooms. Inclusion is just what it sounds like. Students of varying abilities and varying strengths and weaknesses are grouped together. There is a teacher who specializes in learning differences to support the general education teacher. The two work as a team to provide the most accessible education for all students. This configuration allows for the neurotypical students to provide a "model" for more NDD students regarding social interaction, i.e., picking up on social cues, and flexibility in thinking and behavior. On the flip side, NDD students are able to provide a "model" for the neurotypical students on how to think-outside-the-box. In such a setting all students learn about their similarities and difference in a organic way. Stereotypes may be dispelled and myths demystified. In a self-contained classroom the grouping is homogeneous. Every student in the class is on the NDD spectrum. While there are still varying degrees to how defined the syndromes and their symptoms are, each student in the self-contained classroom would need more support than their neurotypical peers.

The final piece to the intricate puzzle that is neurodiversity is teacher training and professional development. It is well known that teachers, regardless of their education, are pulled in many directions, with very little time to delve deep into a methodology. How then can teachers be expected to provide a thorough education in the least restrictive environment for every student? It is necessary to find the resources, both in terms of finances and in terms of time, to provide such important trainings to all teachers.

And with that conundrum this blog post comes to an end. Please drop a comment below if you feel as though your school system does a good job of providing professional development regarding neurodiversity and NDD. Please also feel free to drop a comment if you are unsatisfied with the job your school system is doing. And if you are a parent or guardian of a NDD child please definitely drop a comment with your personal experiences dealing with the school system.