Neurodiversity in School-Based Special Education and Related Services

by | Sep 18, 2021 | Uncategorized | 1 comment

Can providers incorporate neurodiversity in the educational setting--a setting that revolves around acknowledging a disorder that has negative educational impact? Absolutely!

Nuerodiversity is an emerging topic for many of us that is starting to shake the therapy industry in, I believe, a really powerful way. Neurodiversity is a viewpoint that neurological differences, such as ADHD, Autism, Tourrette's, etc, are differences as opposed to disorders. Being a neurodiverse embracing provider really requires flexibility in thought and a genuine embracement and celebration of individuals that are neurodivergent and their unique neurological capabilities.

With that said, the educational environment is very much still structured in a neurotypical manner. Although there is some change happening around this, standardized testing, norm-referenced grading, and transition planning that all revolve around neurotypical standards remain in tact. So, as a provider, we can find ourselves in a bit of a bind trying to embrace neurodiverse practices while also respecting neurotypical educational standards.

Here's my tips for neurodiverse practices you can incorporate into your therapy session while also targeting goals for educational success:

Remove the Idea of Whole-Body Listening (including eye contact)

I'm starting out my tips with some controversy, but I said what I said. I entered the world of speech therapy with the belief that eye contact in conversation was a must and I was going to remediate that as much as I could. Now, I have a neurodivergent child that listens better when fidgeting. In the past, we tried to work with him on eye contact and it was so uncomfortable for him that he would focus solely on eye contact and completely miss everything we said. Instead of utilizing blanket "whole-body listening" instruction for all students, we must embrace how our students listen best. Some students do learn best after intervention on focusing on a target while listening, for example, but many students communicate best looking at the floor or with some movement added in. By applying eye contact goals, we may actually hinder our students' listening skills.

Instead of blanket whole-body listening goals, you can do two things that embrace your student's brain but also recognize the educational environment: 1.) educate caregivers and instructional staff on how your student best listens (also teach your student to advocate but more on that later) and 2.) offer an equal behavior that is less distracting. I have had some students that have a listening behavior that distracts classmates such as raised arm hand flapping. In this circumstance, we would target moving hand flapping down under the desk, for example, as opposed to targeting no movement during listening.

Keep Your Redirects Goal Focused

It can become easy to find yourself in a continuous state of redirection and prompting when working with those who are neurodivergent in the academic setting, particularly with those with ADHD. I have found that therapy is much more enjoyable for both parties if I simply focus on the goals that I have outlined with the educational team.

An example of this, I have a student right now that loves to meow. Our goals are specific to "wh" questioning, he's not hurting anyone by meowing, and so I'm not going to prompt or redirect that behavior. That "meow" is his way of communicating in our sessions. Honestly, sometimes I meow with him which always makes him smile.

So many of the times our sessions are a break from a loud environment or an overly structured environment, and we best serve our students by giving them a place where neurodiversity is accepted. Our role as service providers is to target the specific things we have outlined that we determined were necessary for academic success with the multidisciplinary educational team.

Use Neurodiverse Therapy Materials and Grouping

We are advocates for our students and clients. It is crucial to incorporate neurodiverse materials in our instruction even when working with clients that are neurotypical. Books such as "All Are Welcome Here", "Nadia: The Girl Who Couldn't Sit Still", "Rosa Loves Cars", and so many more are a great way to incorporate both literacy and advocacy into all of your sessions, even articulation intervention.

Also, challenge your grouping practices as a school-based provider. I currently have a student working on the /r/ grouped with a student working on communicating wants and needs. As long as you can continue to provide specialized instruction to all involved in the group, it doesn't hurt anyone to group neurotypical and neurodivergent students.

Teach Self-Advocacy

One of the great things we can do for our students is teach them to advocate. With advocacy comes confidence. I want to be clear that advocacy does not equal an apology. Simply teach your student to communicate his or her communication needs. Teaching your student to say "I listen better by looking away" is a simple way to address success in the educational environment without trying to redirect a trait that helps your student best learn.

I stress the unapologetically part. We don't want our students to feel like they have to continuously apologize for how their brain works. Instead, we are empowering them to educate others on their preferred communication needs. Advocacy can start at a very young age and can be your student's greatest tool as he or she navigates primary and secondary education.

I do believe that we are able to embrace neurodiverse practices in education. With that said, I don't believe the word disorder is going away any time soon for the educational environment. and we still have to qualify students with educational disorders due to our norm-referenced structure. However, that doesn't mean that we can't break the mold of what educational intervention looks like and celebrate our students neurological differences while also giving them the tools needed to succeed academically.