Neurodivergent Learning

Building Inclusive Spaces in Education and Skill Development

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Neurodivergent Learning

Building Inclusive Spaces in Education and Skill Development

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In today’s rapidly evolving world, the concept of neurodiversity has emerged as a powerful paradigm shift, challenging traditional notions that have simply been accepted as the “norm”. To break free from these viewpoints that often trap and segregate, it’s imperative to understand and embrace the diverse ways in which individuals experience, process, and react to information. In the goal to incorporate and promote inclusivity, the realms of education and skill development play a pivotal role, serving as natural catalysts for empowerment and growth.

A part of this discussion lies within the distinction between neurodiversity and neurodivergence, and it’s important we comprehend the difference. Embracing the concept of neurodiversity as a group and neurodivergence as an individual entails actively creating and supporting environments where every person feels valued. This includes placing importance upon communicating appropriately, understanding the benefit of utilizing a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework, and promoting self-advocacy/empowerment for all participants.

It’s vital to uncover and discuss these strategies and approaches that promote inclusivity, paving the way for a more equitable and enriching learning experience for all.

Using Appropriate Communication

A crucial starting point is to specifically address the distinction between neurodiversity and neurodivergence, emphasizing the subtle nuances inherent in each term. Clarifying this difference is paramount as it lays the foundation for understanding how these concepts intersect with education and skill development, and why it is so important to promote usage of the proper terminology.

“The term “neurodivergent” came from the related term “neurodiversity.” Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist, coined the word “neurodiversity” in 1998 to recognize that everyone’s brain develops in a unique way.”

Cleveland Clinic, 2024

The term neurodiversity celebrates the natural variation in human cognition and behavior, recognizing that everyone possesses unique strengths and perspectives as individuals who are part of a larger group. On the other hand, the term neurodivergence acknowledges differences from the societal norms of neurotypicality, encompassing conditions such as autism, ADHD, and dyslexia and draws a focus on the individual and their abilities, rather than as a comparison to the larger group.

Perhaps most importantly, we must recognize the positive and negative consequences of utilizing terms like this when we ourselves don’t necessarily understand or experience them firsthand.

Through a bit of research, you’ll find that many individuals are divided on the “label” issue: some appreciate and require the usage of specific terminology, while others feel that these terms are restrictive. In the context of education and skill development, we must appreciate both and take care in our references.

“…phrases that make light of neurodivergence or mental health conditions can be reductive.” (Stokes, 2023).

Person-first language (PFL) is a way to communicate that puts the individual before any specific identifier – for example, “My son with autism” instead of “My autistic son”. Many individuals prefer this terminology as they do not want their condition to be their entire identity.

Autistic Self-Advocacy Network intern Lydia Brown (2024) stated, “The theory behind person-first language is that it puts the person before the disability or the condition and emphasizes the value and worth of the individual by recognizing them as a person instead of a condition.”

On the other side, many individuals feel this doesn’t fully encompass their identity and that PFL is detrimental; that it is essentially stating that the person would be “better off” without their condition and creates assumptions that they are living a lesser existence because of it.

Many of those who oppose PFL prefer using Identity First language (IFL), which refers to someone as an “autistic person” rather than a “person with autism”.

“We recognize the value and worth of that individual as an Autistic person — that being Autistic is not a condition absolutely irreconcilable with regarding people as inherently valuable and worth something. We affirm the individual’s potential to grow and mature, to overcome challenges and disability, and to live a meaningful life”, said Lydia Brown (2024).

Because it is impossible to suddenly determine what language an individual prefers, it is vital to approach all communication carefully and intentionally. Here are some tips from Cross River Therapy (2023) to engage respectfully:

  • Address the individual you’re speaking with and find out what they prefer: person first language or identity first language.
  • Be Clear and Direct. Avoid nuanced language or slang.
  • Be Patient and Compassionate. Not everyone processes information/communication at the same rate or the same way. It’s important to give ample time to respond.
  • Respect Boundaries. While you may feel comfortable referring to someone as “sweetie” or “dude”, not everyone you encounter will find this appropriate or acceptable. Pay attention to whom you’re engaging with and respect their individual cues/body language.

These are just a few recommendations that can make all communication easier and more comfortable, whether you’re engaging with someone who is neurodivergent or neurotypical.

By implementing these suggestions provided by Cross River Therapy (2023), we can create environments where individuals feel valued and understood. However, effective communication is just one facet of fostering inclusivity in education and skill development. Beyond communication, the concept of universal instruction plays an important role in ensuring that diverse learners are supported and empowered to succeed.

Universal Instruction

On average, neurodivergent individuals make up approximately 15-20% of the population today, according to Carissa Domrase of Edutopia (2023). While this number may seem high, consider that many are still going undiagnosed and are not part of this overall group.

To oversimplify, it is easy to say that each individual absorbs, retains, and utilizes information differently. In the realm of education/skill development, this can cause confusion when designing curriculum/setting goals.

The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), an education research and development organization, recognized this challenge and created the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework which was officially released in 2008 to provide more inclusive learning experiences (CAST, 2024).

Utilizing a UDL framework in the education and skill development space is optimal to not only accommodate all participants but to encourage them to flourish. A UDL provides “guidelines that can be applied to any discipline or domain to ensure that all learners can access and participate in meaningful, challenging learning opportunities.” (The UDL Guidelines, 2024).

CAST has worked tirelessly since their inception in 1984 to provide guidelines in education and has based their research on both neuroscience and cognitive psychology.

“The three basic principles (within the UDL framework) are built upon the knowledge that our learning brains are composed of three different networks: recognition, strategic, and affective. The Guidelines align these three networks with the three principles (recognition to representation, strategic to action and expression, and affective to engagement). This empirical base in neuroscience provides a solid foundation for understanding how the learning brain intersects with effective instruction.”

CAST, 2024

Incorporating the UDL Guidelines in your classroom or skill development environment can necessitate some work, and it’s important to remember that while these guidelines are meant to create a more inclusive environment, not all participants will find success under one category. Some might require a combination of accommodation and assistance while others might require less.

Here are some tips to bring the UDL Framework into your learning environment:

  • Provide Flexibility. Some participants might feel more comfortable taking additional time to absorb a concept. Do not rush them.
  • Offer Options. The learning process differs for everyone. Offer various methods of perception (presenting/accessing information), expression (demonstrating their knowledge/skills), and comprehension (motivators to remain engaged) (Cornell University, 2024).
  • Adjust and Evaluate. While these guidelines are an effective foundation for any learning/skill development environment, it’s important to remain vigilant and adjust/evaluate your curriculum as needed.

While implementing the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Guidelines undoubtedly enhances inclusivity by providing a foundation for accommodating diverse learning styles and abilities, it’s essential to recognize that true inclusivity extends beyond the structure of the learning/skill development environment.

Because we understand that it is vital to create spaces where every individual can thrive, it becomes increasingly important to foster self-advocacy and empowerment among learners. By equipping individuals with the tools and confidence to advocate for their needs and strengths, we can truly unlock their full potential in education and skill development settings.

Promoting Self-Advocacy/Empowerment

“When we feel empowered in being able to advocate for ourselves, the feelings of fear and anxiety are reduced, allowing us to freely speak about our concerns, which in turn, builds on our self-confidence and value.”

Barb Cook, Developmental Educator, Integrative Nutritionist & Adult ADHD Coach (2024)

Self-advocacy holds immense power, yet the journey toward mastering the ability to clearly articulate wants and needs can be filled with challenges.

Developing the skill of self-advocacy often begins early in life. While many parents advocate for their neurodivergent children, navigating understanding and acceptance from individuals outside the family circle, such as teachers and health professionals, can present hurdles.

As individuals mature, the capacity to advocate for oneself becomes increasingly crucial, especially when entering the workforce and forming relationships. Encouraging and building this skill serves to diminish feelings of powerlessness and dependency, fostering greater self-confidence and self-esteem. Additionally, it alleviates fears and anxieties, particularly the fear of judgment, as individuals feel empowered to voice their needs and desires openly. As Barb Cook (2024) aptly expresses, “When we comprehend our specific needs, often realized through self-awareness, we can articulate and convey to others what support we require.”

Even though learning how to become our own strongest advocate can be challenging and full of different recommendations, the foundation still lies within communication. It is imperative that each individual understands what works for them personally and utilizes those strengths to build their own self-advocacy toolkit. Milestones Autism Resources (2024) has a fantastic website filled with different suggestions that are separated by age group:

Top 10 Tips for Becoming Your Own Best Advocate

Empowering individuals with the skills and confidence to advocate for themselves is paramount in fostering inclusivity and promoting success in education and skill development. Nurturing the ability to self-advocate is not merely a means to navigate challenges, but a catalyst for personal growth and empowerment. By embracing self-advocacy as a fundamental aspect of inclusive practices, we pave the way for all individuals to assert their needs and fulfill their potential.

Building inclusive spaces in education and skill development is a focus that should be prioritized: it’s clear that creating environments where every individual feels valued, supported, and empowered is not only achievable but essential. By incorporating effective communication, adaptive instruction, and self-advocacy into our educational and training practices, we can unlock the full potential of all learners and cultivate a more equitable and enriching learning experience for everyone involved.

References

Brown, L. (2024). The Significance of Semantics: Person First Language and Why it Matters. ASAN. Retrieved from https://autisticadvocacy.org/about-asan/identity-first-language/

Cleveland Clinic. (2024). Neurodivergent. Retrieved from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/23154-neurodivergent

Cook, B. (2024). An Introduction to Self-Advocacy and Self-Determination Skills. Neurodiversity Hub. Retrieved from https://neurodiversityhub.com/self-advocacy-self-determination-skills-barb-cook/

Cornell University. (2024). Universal Design for Learning. Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation. Retrieved from https://teaching.cornell.edu/teaching-resources/designing-your-course/universal-design-learning

Domrase, C. (2023). Creating an Inclusive Classroom for Neurodivergent Learners. Edutopia. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/article/supporting-neurodivergent-students-school/

Stokes, V. (2023). Are We Facing a Labeling Epidemic? Reader’s Digest. Retrieved from https://www.readersdigest.co.uk/health/wellbeing/are-we-facing-a-labelling-epidemic

The UDL Guidelines. (2024). CAST. Retrieved from https://udlguidelines.cast.org/

Zauderer, S. (2023). How to Talk to Someone with High Functioning Autism. Cross River Therapy. Retrieved from https://www.crossrivertherapy.com/autism/communicating

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