The concept of neurodiversity has become more widely known over the last 20 years, with one in seven people thought to be diagnosed with a neurological condition linked to it.
But what exactly does it mean to be “neurodivergent”? Let’s take a closer look…
What is neurodiversity?
The term “neurodiversity” was first proposed in 1998 by Australian sociologist Judy Singer, who identified herself as being “somewhere along the autistic spectrum”. Neurodiversity is the concept that brains and neurocognitive abilities (i.e learning, attention, sociability and mood) differ from person to person. In essence, individuals with neurological disorders (the neurological minority) like autism shouldn’t be viewed as “abnormal” whilst those with neurotypical brains (neurological majority) as “normal”. Instead, these neurological differences should simply be viewed as natural variations of the human brain.
This idea of being “neurodivergent” was initially taken up by the autism community to shift the publics belief away from the idea that autism was something that needed to be cured and more towards accepting and accommodating these people within society. However, as the neurodiversity movement gained more momentum, it was later embraced by individuals with other neurological conditions such as ADHD, dyslexia, OCD, and Tourette’s syndrome.
The medical model vs the social model
The medical model states that individuals with neurological differences such as autism and dyslexia have some sort of neurological deficit that can be prevented if treated and cured. The goal of this approach is to make these individuals as “normal” as possible. Research shows that most people who advocate for the medical model do it so individuals who are extremely impaired by their autism or ADHD can live without such difficulties.
On the other hand, the social model approach to neurological disorders is that a person is only disabled when the environment they’re in does not recognise and accommodate their needs accordingly. Just like for physical disabilities, where elevators and ramps allow wheelchair users to do everyday things without help or tactile pavements for those with hearing impairments to help guide them, equal opportunity must also be given to those with neurological impairments. This means providing them with the support they need to lead normal lives.
Advocating for accessibility
This idea that neurotypical and neurodivergent people all lie along a single continuum has huge benefits for students with learning and thinking "difficulties" in particular. This helps emphasise the positive sides of neurodivergent people, which are typically associated with negative labels. Not only can this benefit their self-esteem and confidence, it can also boost their motivation to learn.
By raising awareness of the neurodiversity movement, students are less likely to be stigmatised by others and feel like something is “wrong” with them that needs to be fixed. Removing learning barriers and utilising different strategies is the best way to give all students, whether they’re neurotypical or neurodivergent, the opportunity to succeed and achieve their potential.
It’s important to note that there is a difference between overemphasising disability and recognising disability. Although recognising differences is important, recognising disability can also have its benefits as it enables these students to get the help they need. Here in the UK, these students can be protected under disability rights recognised in The Equality Act 2010.
These rights not only protect neurodiverse students from things such as discrimination and harassment, but also enables them to effectively participate in educational activities. Recognising that neurodiverse students may need more help or time for certain tasks also allows schools to ensure that these student’s needs and challenges aren’t overlooked or dismissed as “normal”.
The neurodiversity movement, at its core, is about re-evaluating what is means to define something as “normal”. Instead of categorising people into normal and abnormal categories based on their neurological differences, we should accept that there is no “right” way of perceiving the world around us.
However, although recognising neurological differences is important, more is needed to ensure that these students are getting the support they do need at school. In part two of this three-part series, we’ll be exploring how schools can support their neurodivergent students - so, stay tuned.