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Neurodiversity – celebrating being different

SEN   Educational researchLearning processes

Being seen

The city of Cambridge is full of interesting characters. There’s a man with a white beard who dresses from head to toe all in red or blue, there’s another who strides purposefully around the city with a cane wearing a top hat and platform boots, and there’s another who busks in the summer months from inside a street bin with just the neck of the guitar and his left hand showing.

Behind closed doors there are plenty more interesting characters. I have had the privilege to visit a number of university departments over the years and got to know several professors. I am frequently amazed by how messy some of their offices are, and how focused these individuals are on what really matters to them instead. Somewhere inside the unkempt appearance is a beautiful mind.

People have always admired eccentrics or those with special quirks but others have chosen to laugh, ignore, or only to take them at face value. At school those who are different are sometimes bullied, and this can extend to the workplace. It is worth reflecting to what extent first impressions affect our judgement and how hard it is to change perceptions. In a society where appearances matter, we are generally expected to conform – and there may be good reasons for this – but society can also be a bully, forcing individuals to pretend to be someone they’re not.

Being different

People on the autism spectrum often find themselves marginalised or misunderstood. It is only in the last two or three decades that society has begun to understand the condition and that it refers to wide spectrum rather than a small group of people. Not so long ago, parents were blamed or it was thought that the condition could literally be beaten out of those displaying even the mildest traits. Films like Rain Man brought autism to the wider public’s attention, and lobby groups and individuals who have written about what it is like to be autistic have since made a substantial difference to what we know.

In his excellent book, Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How To Think Smarter About People Who Think Differently, Steve Silberman writes eloquently about the history of the condition. He provides multiple anecdotes about those who probably lived with autism but were never diagnosed (such as Henry Cavendish, the celebrated 18th century chemist) and those who have it today, and who make either very loud or very unsung contributions to a world that is a foreign place to them.

Towards the end of Silberman’s book, in the chapter entitled ”In Autistic Space”, I learnt something important. Having mentioned earlier in the book how amateur radio has helped people with autism to communicate or reinvent themselves to cope with the world, Silberman goes on to describe the positive effect the digital world has had on people who are on the autism spectrum. Suddenly they are able to make connections, form groups, generate and exchange ideas, be creative and innovative.

C.f. my colleague’s blog about the advantages of online learning.

Being heard

It’s not just people on the autism spectrum who struggle with the way the world is set up. Think of the introvert who finds working in groups or speaking out difficult. Think of the person who has difficulty hearing or seeing, or the person who has suffered too many knock-backs or has to deal with dominating colleagues. What value do we place on such people? How quick are we to dismiss the fact that they have ideas? In what ways do we allow and encourage their voices to be heard?

As teachers we need to think of the implications in our classrooms. It is our goal to unlock and nurture students’ potential. We should be helping those with the greatest barriers to learning to participate, and we should be giving them the tools and offering them the means to join in. This is true regardless of whether they are on the autism spectrum, shy or suffering in some other way. If we don’t include them or give them opportunities, we are not fulfilling our duty and nor are we considering the potential cost to society. The Economist magazine ran a cover story in April 2016 about ‘Beautiful minds, wasted’, and put a sizeable sum on the monetary value of failing to recognise just how much people who seem a little different can contribute to society.

It’s easy to place more value on people who look or think the same way as we do. But how about taking the time and creating the conditions to find out what the quiet student or colleague in the room has to say? How about trying to understand how hard it can be for them to be heard in a world that feels like another planet? How about getting their views on what would work better for them?

Many of us would be surprised at the talents that lie hidden behind the barriers we may have created for both our colleagues and our students.

Starting from September 2017, our next three Cambridge Schools Conferences will be exploring inclusive education and celebrating neurodiversity. We would value your opinions about this as we seek to find pointers in this new and exciting field of research and its implications for teaching and learning.


Neurotribes: The legacy of autism and how to think smarter about people who think differently – Steve Silberman, Allen & Unwin, 2015

Spectrum shift – Unattributed, The Economist, 16 April 2016

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