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Neurodiversity - different ways of learning

You don’t understand anything until you learn it more than one way.” - Marvin Minsky

Much of what I have written about is targeted at neurotypical people, those whose brains function within societal standards, but thankfully there has been much needed recognition of neurodiversity i.e. people who think, feel and therefore learn differently. Today’s blog is about how recognition of neurodiversity has helped teachers and learners tailor their style to suit their different way of thinking.

This is my first blog about neurodiversity. The natural variance in the human brain and the differences that crop up is an important subject in learning. I have found the language around neurodiversity quite new and nuanced, and therefore please point out where I have used incorrect language and can be brought up to date on any particulars.

Why you should get up to speed about neurodiversity

We should all learn about neurodiversity because it impacts 15-20% of the population. It is an important consideration for educators, the workplace and community builders. Today's leaders will factor in the needs of neurodiverse people. Below is a list of the common forms and incidence of neurodiversity (according to ADHD aware).

If you add up those that have the individual conditions you will get to a much higher percentage than 20%, but another important feature of neurodiversity is that there might be a significant overlap. For example, people with ADHD are more likely to have dyslexia and dyspraxia.

Why I am spending time researching neurodiversity

Neurodiversity until recently however was a difference that was poorly understood. Only recently neurodiverse children were subjected to insults from peers (and listening to many accounts) even teachers. Differences were seen as weaknesses and shortcomings whereas today we see the conditions as dialled up, dialled down or different in one or more dimensions of our brain sensitivities. There are also a few people I have met over recent years that have received a neurodiverse diagnosis recently as an adult. This was an 'ah ha' moment for them. Much of what they struggled with at school was not a result of a lack of effort or focus.

How we might tailor our teaching approach to neurodiverse learners

Neurodiversity itself, refers to the range of differences in individual brain functions and resulting behaviours. Whereas before (and the naming of the conditions suggest that) the forms have been seen as ‘disorders’, it is better thought of as natural variations of the human brain. Below we will go through for each of the common forms of neurodiversity, what challenges they may face in a generic classroom environment and strategies that might work best with their way thinking. Within each category, there is huge variation. I have therefore tried to as best as I can, distil it into the most common forms.

1. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD):

Difference in thinking: Deep focus on areas of specific interest, less sensitive to social cues.

Challenges: A loud and highly stimulating environment will be challenging. Abstract non-literal language will be more difficult for them to relate to.

Learn better with: Structured Study, Visual Aids, Repeat & Reinforce

2. Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD):

Difference in thinking: Deep focus on areas of specific interest, restless whilst on less engaging tasks.

Challenges: Long bouts of learning, abstract learning.

Learn better with: shorter lessons and study bursts, more interactive study, physical movement.

3. Dyslexia:

Difference in thinking: The dyslexic mind sees letters differently which creates reading challenges.

Challenges: Very wordy questions, having to reference long wordy sources.

Learn better with: Listening rather than reading, colour coding revision material, learn by speaking out aloud or discussion.

4. Dyscalculia:

Difference in thinking: like dyslexia but with mathematics.

Challenges: Difficulties grasping mathematical concepts or working with numbers

Learn better with: Visual representations, real-life applications, step-by-step breakdowns.

5. Dyspraxia:

Difference in thinking: Like dyslexia but with motor skills.

Challenges: Handwriting and other fine motor skills are challenging.

Learn better with: typing notes, voice recordings, visual imagery.

6. Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD):

Difference in thinking: Either more than or less than typical sensitivity to the senses

Challenges: can impact focus and comfort

Learn better with: - adapted study environment, regular breaks, multi-sensory Learning

7. Tourette's Syndrome:

Difference in thinking: Motor and vocal tics which might interfere with focus or feel embarrassing.

Challenges: Tics can interfere with concentration and information retention.

Learn better with: Flexible study environment where tics are accepted, take time to manage and regroup from tics, visual and engaging learning material.

There are some other forms of neurodiversity, but also worth highlighting 'undiagnosed' neurodiversity. These are people who feel they process information outside of the norm but do not have a formal diagnosis.

How this information is important to all learners

Researching neurodiversity has highlighted to me that each of us will have different ways of accessing and retaining information. It is important to experiment. As with physical training, people will enjoy or respond to different ways of training differently and therefore finding that ‘sweet spot’ is valuable. Looking at how teachers and students approach learning differently where neurodiversity is involved, there are some valuable general take-aways:

  • Structured learning to take advantage of mental maps

  • Some work needs to be done in low stimulation environments

  • Simple succinct language is more memorable

  • Step-by-step methodical breakdowns are easier to follow

  • Targeted use of technology can really help us (audio, video or computer note-taking)

  • Something as simple as speaking out loud and walking around can make a learning experience multi-sensory and more memorable.

So what:

  1. Neurodiversity is an umbrella term for the natural variations in the brain in the wider population and some of the specific differences that might cause someone to differ from the neurotypical majority.

  2. Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Dyscalculia, SPD and Tourette’s syndrome, are the most commonly discussed variations. People often have more than one form of neurodiversity.

  3. Neurodiverse teaching and learning has a large overlap with higher intensity learning methods. These include structured learning, low distraction environments, simple language, breaking down methods, use of technology, and use of multi-sensory learning.

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