Neurodiversity and learning differences

I have great respect for language - as a linguist and a teacher. The intention behind which words we choose has been a vital component in my own education. We no longer ‘manned’ the stall we ‘ran’ it. The ‘chairman’ became the ‘chair’. Actor, waiter, steward: gender based suffixes were questioned as part of a larger social movement which aimed to challenge limiting social constructs. It is hard to imagine that language now commonplace was once seen as revolutionary.

Which brings me to Neurodiversity.

The concept of neurodiversity appeals to me and it should appeal to you too. In this age where we aim to experience ourselves as beyond binary constructs, why does education – and indeed educational research – still promote a construct of ‘typical’ and ‘atypical’?

Neurodiversity is the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioural traits regarded as part of the normal variation in the human population. It is a biological fact. The neurodiversity paradigm aims to challenge thinking about what is normal so that we can be considered in how we approach human differences.

Autism advocacy groups began to challenge perceptions around 'atypical' cognition in the 1990s. The National Autistic People's Organisation UK Values statements neatly summarises the issue I'd like to debate within the broader learning differences population: the concept that neurodiversity involves difference rather than deficit.

When we see variations in cognition as normal, it invites an inclusivity which supports people with learning differences. I believe that the effect of having considered neurodivergent learners as impaired, defined by having a difficulty, has placed them outside the realm of normal classroom pedagogy. It de-skills teachers, stigmatises children and creates one set of teaching practices that are normal and one which is specialised. 

We make a significant cultural contribution to the lives of neurodivergent learners, and to the field of cognitive neurodiversity, when we begin to change the way we discuss children who learn differently. Change begins with education; educating ourselves that we may educate our children.