Different, not disabled: Neurodiversity in education

by Tracey Burns
Senior Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

Feeling out of place. Too big, too short, too wise, too ignorant – these are all situations Gulliver experiences in Jonathan Swift’s classic of English literature. Gulliver’s Travels give us an idea of how important our environment is when it comes to defining ourselves. It also gives us a 19th century look into the very modern concept of diversity.

Diversity in the classroom includes differences in the way students’ brains learn, or neurodiversity. Diagnoses of neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) have risen dramatically in the last two decades. This is not an issue that is isolated to a few countries: ADHD diagnoses have increased dramatically in Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Similar patterns are seen in the prevalence of ASD, which occurs along a spectrum of severity and includes Asperger syndrome, a condition some have argued Swift experienced himself. Children with ASD tend to have difficulty with social interaction, dealing with change, and flexible thinking. Cognitive abilities of children with ASD can range from gifted to severely challenged. Stigmas attached to the diagnosis in some countries can result in under identification; for example, two-thirds of ASD cases identified in a Korean sample when diagnostic assessments were administered were otherwise undiagnosed and untreated.

A new Trends Shaping Education Spotlight looks at how education systems work to meet the needs of these students and ensure that all types of learners thrive at school and beyond. There is a growing trend towards all children having the right to be included in typical classrooms if the families so choose (i.e. inclusive education). Inclusive education can help neurodiverse students develop social skills that can encourage social integration and friendships with their peers. It can also help dispel myths: for example, in a survey conducted in the United States, 43% of participants believed wrongly that learning disabilities are correlated with IQ.

In order to deliver on the promise of inclusive education, teachers need support. In many countries teachers now commonly have classes with a diverse range of learning preferences and abilities, including children with different cognitive abilities, hyperactivity, and emotional difficulties. Many teachers feel inadequately prepared for this: in the last two versions of the TALIS survey, teachers consistently identified teaching students with special needs as their first need for professional development (teachers were not asked specifically about neurodiverse students). Student behaviour and classroom management were identified as their third professional need. In addition to supporting teachers, one of the other big challenges is assessing neurodiverse students. Standardised tests are not designed for neurodiverse students, and comparing scores – even with modified questions – may not be appropriate.

On the other hand, assessments reinforce the fact that: 1) academic learning is not secondary for neurodiverse students; 2) it is appropriate to have academic goals for these children, as for all children; and 3) monitoring outcomes for neurodiverse students can help keep systems accountable for achieving learning gains for all.

Small changes, for example alterations of structure and time, can help ADHD students who may find it difficult to sit for long periods. For students with ASD, nonverbal intelligence assessment could be considered, along with other adaptive measures such as taking the test in a quiet room alone.

On a system level, one important concern to take into account is the impact of a competitive test culture on identifying which students are considered neurodiverse: when stakes are high in school assessment, teachers and schools may try to intentionally leave low-performing “neurotypical” students out of the test population by classifying them as “special needs”. This is the case, for example, in the United States: in states that have passed laws that tie funding to results on standardised testing, the rates of ADHD diagnosis have also been rapidly increasing. Despite the challenges, avoiding assessment is not a solution: if educational methods are to improve, there first needs to be more evaluation of programmes and evidence-informed practices to support neurodiverse students.

Being able to embrace diversity in all its forms is a key aspect of life in the 21st century. Thankfully, the voyages of Gulliver – in which the traveller who “isn’t like the others” is tied up or otherwise mistreated/misunderstood – are long gone. But more can still be done to help our education systems ensure that all types of learners thrive. In order to make that happen, we need to support our teachers and learners, and take a hard look at how the system as a whole operates.

Trends Shaping Education Spotlight No. 12: Neurodiversity in Education
Trends Shaping Education 2016
Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) 
New Insights from TALIS 2013

Personalising Education

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Photo credit: @Shutterstock

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