What is Neurodiversity? Definition and Resources for Teachers, Counselors and Schools

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A child sits at a table with artwork on the wall behind her playing a matching card game.Among children and adolescents, diagnoses such as autism, dyslexia and ADHD are fairly routine. For example, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that about one out of every 54 kids is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. This represents a significant portion of the adolescent population, and also the population of the average public school system.

These and similar conditions are frequently regarded as “abnormalities” of the brain. A new movement, called the neurodiversity movement, is seeking to change the negative view that often follows people who have these conditions. Instead, the movement redefines these “abnormalities” as variations of brain functionality. The goal is to eliminate the stigma that surrounds these diagnoses and foster self-esteem and resilience.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at neurodiversity and examine its implications for therapeutic practice and child development.

What Is Neurodiversity?

What is the best definition of neurodiversity?  What are the concept’s origins?

Neurodiversity Definition and Origin

In the 1990s, sociologist Judy Singer rejected the notion that people with autism are “disabled.” (Singer herself identifies on the autism spectrum.) She advocated for the proposition that the autistic brain simply works differently from non-autistic brains.

Neurodiversity is a scientific concept arising from brain imaging. A number of brain studies have shown that people with learning or thinking differences are “wired” differently than their peers. In other words, some children are born with brains that think, learn and process information differently than others. The term neurodiversity has since come to include not just autism, but other neurological conditions as well.

Neurological differences can pose challenges for children, particularly in classrooms. For example, children with dyslexia may have a harder time learning to read, take notes or sit for standardized testing. The neurodiversity movement sees dyslexia and other issues as normal variations in brain functionality. In this view, there is nothing “wrong” with children who have these differences.

Neurodivergent vs. Neurotypical

Several important terms are employed within the field of neurology, including the terms neurodivergent and neurotypical.

Someone who is neurotypical has a brain that works according to the “normal” standards of our society.

  • Anyone whose brain doesn’t work according to those standards can be termed

Additional Resources for Understanding Neurodiversity

To learn more about neurodiversity, consider the following resources.

The Benefits of Neurodiversity for Children

A core objective of neurodiversity is to de-stigmatize different kinds of brain functionality, offering a framework for celebrating variations in how children think, learn and process information. This positive perspective can benefit children in school.

  • By encouraging kids to identify their brain functionalities as differences to be celebrated, rather than disabilities to be feared, it empowers them to self-advocate within the classroom. By giving children a positive way to think about their own neurodivergence, the neurodiversity movement encourages them to speak up about accommodations they may need in the classroom.
  • Neurodiversity also helps children cultivate self-esteem, viewing their differences not as impediments but simply as expressions of their uniqueness. As these attitudes are cultivated in children, they become better prepared to handle their neurodivergence in college, in the workplace and throughout their adult lives.

The bottom line is that neurodiversity offers benefits to people not only in childhood but also as they transition into adulthood.

Teaching Strategies for Neurodiversity

When working with neurodivergent students, educators may need to adapt their classroom strategies. The neurodiversity movement has advanced the development of various pedagogical approaches, none more widely affirmed than the strategy of universal design.

What Is Universal Design?

Universal design is based on the notion that a classroom should be accessible to everyone, and that a teacher’s instructional style should accommodate everyone in the classroom without the need for special adaptation. In other words, universal design is about creating an education environment that works well for both the neurotypical and the neurodivergent, without the need for teachers to vary their approach from one student to the next.

Implementing Universal Design

Universal design encompasses a number of core concepts.

  • Equitable use: This concept calls for teachers to provide different ways for students to demonstrate knowledge. For example, if all tests are essays, that favors students who are naturally gifted in writing.
  • Flexible use: A related concept is flexible use, which usually means providing students with different options as to how they are academically assessed.
  • Simple and intuitive expectations: Another critical aspect of universal design is ensuring that all students are clearly informed about the teacher’s expectations, and about what is required for success in the class. A clear grading rubric can help.
  • Perceptible information: It is important for teachers to understand that different students process information differently. Teaching methods should accommodate a range of learning styles. For example, notes may be given both audibly and in writing.
  • Low physical effort: Another core aspect of universal design is dividing class time between different activities, such as lectures and group discussions. This lets students move around the classroom and ensure maximum focus on each topic.

Additional Resources for Teachers

In considering universal design and other pedagogical strategies for neurodiverse students, these resources may prove helpful.

Counseling Strategies for Neurodiversity

Counselors, as well as teachers, can take a neurodiversity-based approach to serving their students. In particular, neurodiversity-based strategies can empower students with different brain functionalities to prepare for different challenges, both at school and upon graduation.

Strategies for Counselors

Following are some specific aspects of neurodiversity-based counseling.

  • Counselors can prepare students to improve their lives as neurodivergent people, as opposed to looking for a cure or a solution. This can inspire resilience and adaptability.
  • Counselors can show students how to discuss their own learning needs candidly and without feeling any shame or stigma, which empowers them in self-advocacy.
  • In affirming neurodivergent identity, counselors can also connect students with organizations, advocacy groups or support services that might provide more specialized help.
  • Counselors can show students how to think about their health and well-being on a holistic level, instructing on how to care for themselves in terms of sleep, nutrition, physical activity and more.
  • Counselors can also provide information and guidance for neurodiverse students who are interested in applying for college.

Additional Resources for Counselors

To learn more about counseling neurodivergent students, consider the following resources.

Neurodiversity Benefits Students, Teachers and Counselors Alike

The neurodiversity movement is all about celebrating diversity and encouraging people whose brains work differently. Through a neurodiversity-based framework, teachers can more effectively address a wide range of learning needs, and counselors can prepare their students for life beyond high school.

Additional Resources:

Autism Society, Neurotypical Neurodivergent Dichotomy

Autism Speaks, Autism Statistics and Facts

Autistic Self Advocacy Network, Disability Rights and Neurodiversity

Educators 4 Social Change, Teaching About Neurodivergent Communities

International Dyslexia Association, Dyslexia Basics

National Institute of Mental Health, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Neurodiversity Celebration Week, Neurodiversity: It Takes All Kinds of Different Minds

Neurodiversity Hub, What is Neurodiversity?

NCBI, Neurodiversity and Artistic Performance Characteristic of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder