Understanding Neurodiversity

Understanding neurodiversity is important for considering how we can help our students who have a diagnosis of autism.

Neurodiversity is a concept that has become better understood in the last few years. It embraces the range of differences in learning which lead to several diagnoses including Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), ADHD, and Dyslexia.

What does Neurodiversity mean?

Historically, autism has been considered a disability. Those with an ASD diagnosis were considered to have a handicap becauses of their differences in communication, behavior and learning.

Advocates of neurodiversity encourage a different way of thinking. They describe the learning and thinking variations of these students as differences rather than labeling them as disabilities.

Barry Prizant has clarified it like this . . . “I believe it is more advantageous to view autism as a difference along the range of human diversity (as in neurodiversity) . . . but differences associated with autism can also result in disabilities that impact quality of life and everyday activities . . .”

Sometimes these students experience difficulty when parents and teachers expect them to understand and act just like everyone else. It then becomes a problem when their differences become obvious or cause troubles, struggles or inconvenience.

The confusions and difficulties can be the result of autistic characteristics. But an individual's overall ability level also creates misunderstanding.

Autism Intellectual Disability

This is another related topic that creates confusion. This quote came from a Google search on the internet:

People with severe autism usually have intellectual impairments and little spoken language. Those with high-functioning autism have average or above average IQ, but struggle with more subtle aspects of communication, such as body language.

Unfortunately, this statement does not accurately represent the reality of autism and intellectual challenges. It's important to understand that intellectual impairment is NOT a part of an autism diagnosis.

Understanding the relationship between intellectual ability and autism is something that is adjusting over time. In the 1980's, the two conditions were diagnosed together in 60% or more cases. Currently, the dual diagnosis is seen in the 30% range.

Why the difference? Perhaps this reflects, at least in part, the wider range of students who are referred for an autism assessment.

There are many examples of autistic individuals whose skills and challenges do not match that google definition. 

Autistic, nonverbal, Woody Brown recently graduated from UCLA. Elizabeth Bonker, another nonverbal, autistic individual made news when she graduated as valedictorian of her college class.

What does it mean to be high functioning or low functioning?

This frequently used terminology has caused a lot of confusion, and in fact, many people consider it misleading.

In recent years there have been changes in how autism is diagnosed. Now, those with an ASD diagnosis represent a broader range of skills and abilities than those who were identified previously.

Many autistic adults have become increasingly vocal about encouraging others to look at their learning profile as unique ways of processing the world rather than as signs of a defect that needs fixing.

Autistic adult, Tom Iland describes it like this, “Calling someone ‘high functioning’ discounts and dismisses their needs and struggles . . . and calling someone ‘low functioning’ discounts and dismisses their strengths and capabilities . . .”

So, to describe this differently, a student who talks and is good at math may have extreme sensitivity to sound or perhaps he has difficulty interpreting social situations. Does that make him high or low functioning?

The student who is considered "low skilled" may be an exceptionally good artist or very good at assembling construction toys. What label would you give him?

These examples show why the high functioning - low functioning terminology is not adequate and actually leads to misunderstanding an individual's capabilities.

One more consideration for neurodiversity and autism

It's quite common for these students to have "uneven learning profiles." That means they will have more ability in some skills and significant challenges in other skill areas. 

Many students, with or without special needs, can have learning challenges in specific areas. Perhaps those with ASD will demonstrate more extremes between their strengths and challenges.

How to approach neurodiversity

The goal of this neurodiversity mindset is to focus on teaching needed skills, building on strengths and providing accommodations for areas of challenge, rather than concentrating solely on identifying disabilities to be fixed or cured.

Communication needs to change

That’s why visual strategies become important. Visual supports help most students across the learning spectrum. No matter where an individual falls on that range of ability and the spectrum of learning differences, visual supports can become tools to help them gain success.

The struggle for parents and educators is identifying where each student resides on that wide spectrum of abilities and learning needs.

Visual strategies are more than a picture schedule for young children

Unfortunately, too many educators look for ways to eliminate the use of visuals as students get older. Instead, it's important to view visuals as long-term life supports. . . . especially considering what we understand about neurodiversity.

The form of visual supports will change from young child pictures to more mature looking calendars and include features that are found on most cell phones today. Timers, reminders, and many apps help autistic individuals achieve life success.

What does it mean to "teach autistic students?"

It’s important to presume these students can learn. Addressing neurodiversity reminds us that there's a good chance that they learn differently.

(I'm recalling a Facebook post from a teacher who has been trying for 4 years to teach her autistic student to read by using phonics. Student is becoming a behavior problem and teacher is getting frustrated. Maybe she needs to approach reading in a different way!) (And we now know that phonics instruction is not the most effective teaching strategy for many neurodiverse autistic students.)

Autism help

Our responsibility is to learn how to teach each student most effectively. As communication partners, we recognize that WE have a responsibility to change what WE do so our students can change what THEY do.

(More about communication partners HERE.)

Discovering more about how to use visual strategies to support this neurodiverse population will help us educate these students more effectively. Understanding neurodiversity is essential for moving forward in supporting these individuals.

We understand much more about autism now than we did even a few years ago. How up to date are YOUR autism facts? Have you taken the AUTISM QUIZ?


Take the Autism Quiz

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