Embracing neurodiversity

Diana Hudson has taught science in secondary schools for more than 35 years and is a qualified teacher of learners with specific learning difficulties. She now focuses her attention on giving talks to education students, teachers and parents to help them understand how ‘outside the box’ thinkers can best be supported and encouraged. Diana has recently published ‘Exploring science with dyslexic children and teens.’

People of all ages have strengths and weaknesses. We have natural talents and abilities and we struggle to complete some tasks. This is clearly seen in art, music or sport where there is an accepted range of natural ability. Equally, there are ranges such as being: an extrovert or introvert; talker or listener; spontaneous or measured. We also know that everyone can improve greatly in any area with the right teaching and plenty of practice.

The same is true for the way we think and learn. Just as we are somewhere along a spectrum between athlete and couch potato, the way we think also varies widely and we have a place along the ‘neurodiversity’ scale. This is not related to overall intelligence, but does affect the way we perceive things, take in information and like to learn. 

Different thinking types

At one end of the ‘thinking scale’ are the creative thinkers. They think rapidly in pictures, make lateral jumps and rely on visualisation. They tend to be innovative, intuitive and come up with unusual ‘outside the box’ ideas. At the other end are the systematic, analytical, linear thinkers who base decisions on facts and logic and think more slowly, carefully and methodically. Both types of thinkers make huge and valuable contributions to society. 

Whilst creative thinkers are holistic and see the ‘big picture’, the detail can be blurry. The analysers are precise and accurate but may miss lateral connections and possibly innovation. Importantly, we all have a role to play. Most of us are neither one extreme or the other but have leanings one way or the other. In reflection, what is your preference? 

When building the flat pack do you:   

  • Read the instructions and work methodically through, making sure you have the right screws and fittings lined up? or
  • See roughly what it should look like from the picture on the front and have a go, sometimes finding you have a few spare bits at the end?

Do you prefer

  • written instructions; or
  • A series of diagrams. 

It is important to recognise learning differences in children and teach them in ways playing to their strengths and key it has to be enjoyable. They will learn most effectively and retain information better if material is presented in an easily accessible manner. At the same time, children may need extra guidance and support to develop techniques which will help them to master tasks and feel more confident in the areas that they find challenging. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to learning and a more tailored approach is required.

Thankfully, by recognising your child’s thinking style you can see why some tasks might be more difficult and you can tailor your support accordingly.

Children who have specific learning differences such as dyslexia, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder) or ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder) tend to be more at the extremes of the neurodiversity scale and so there can be a wide disparity between their perceived ability in different areas of learning. They may benefit from individual, focused help in order to learn how to use their strengths to support areas of difficulty. The needs of every child will differ depending on the severity and the mix of their learning differences. Fundamentally, if your child has one or more of these thinking differences that does not impact their intelligence. Their intelligence is within the normal range and they can be extremely talented. They can be very successful in school and after it, with the right encouragement and support.

Creative learners

Helpful strategies 

Use pictures, colour, sound, model building and movement to aid their learning. Practical methods also help revising and retaining facts considered using rhythm or rhyme. Many children, including those coping with ADHD, have a short concentration span and will need regular changes in activity. Keep work and learning sessions fun, short and varied. 

Verbal Reasoning tests

Creative thinkers, including many children who have dyslexia, may find verbal reasoning very challenging. These questions concentrate on the detail within or between words and the instructions for the different types of questions can seem daunting and confusing. They will need to develop coping strategies to help tackle these types of questions successfully and with confidence.

  1. Divide words into groups and look for letter patterns, maybe using colour. 
  2. Look for repeating tasks in the word or symbol questions.
  3. Read instructions slowly and carefully with them initially highlighting key words. Do they know exactly what to do?
  4. Practise regularly so that the different types of questions become familiar and less foreboding.

Analytical learners

Helpful strategies

Give clear instructions, preferably in list form so that they can be ticked off and worked through methodically. Learning from tables or lists will work better than spider diagrams and words are usually more useful than pictures. These logical thinkers will excel in some areas, but may need help with interpreting questions, seeing visual clues and tackling open ended tasks. 

Non-verbal Reasoning tests

Analytical thinkers, including children who have a diagnosis of ASD, may find these tests more challenging as they are based on interpretation of diagrams and shapes.

Helpful strategies for visualisation skill development:

  • ‘Spot the difference’ picture activities. 
  • Playing card games such as snap, or pairs to improve observation skills.
  • Manipulating shapes and 3D puzzles.

For all children familiarisation and practise can make a huge difference just as it does with music or sport.  Practising the various types of exercises treating them as a ‘detective game’ can make them familiar and more fun to tackle. 

Finally, as parents:

  1. Remain supportive, upbeat and relaxed 
  2. Keep your sense of humour and perspective. 
  3. Just knowing that you understand their difficulties but value their abilities will make a huge difference to children’s inner confidence and their aspirations for the future. 

Diagrams are taken from Exploring science with dyslexic children and teens by Diana Hudson. Publisher Jessica Kingsley, June 2021. To purchase a copy: click here.