Neurodiversity – seeing the world through a different lens
Increasingly the phrase neurodiversity is becoming part of our collective consciousness. Autism (one of conditions the umbrella of neuro-diversity covers) is being widely addressed in the media and several famous faces have spoken openly about their diagnosis or experiences with this particular additional need. If you haven’t had the chance to watch them already, the Chris Packham documentary ‘Inside Our Autistic Minds’ on BBC is exceptional, as is Christine McGuiness’s ‘Unmasking My Autism’
This month we’re thinking about neurodiversity, how it impacts the individuals experiencing this condition and the blessings and challenges this can be on them and their wider family and friends. This topic is so wide and varied, so this will be a broad brush stroke overview, but if you want to find out more, there will be links at the end of this article which can point you in the right direction.
Throughout this whole process it’s important to remember one key piece of information: ‘Once you’ve met one neurodiverse person… you’ve met one neurodiverse person’. Just as no two neuro-typical people are the same, so it is true with those with neurodiversity. It impacts and is outworked differently for each individual and, as with all things east to west relationships are at the heart of finding out more about both the person and how you can best support, build relationships and interact with them.
Under The Neurodiverse Umbrella
It is largely agreed that neurodiversity generally covers 5 main neurological differences. Dyslexia (impacting reading, spelling and writing); Dyspraxia (performing coordinated movements); Dyscalculia (mental arithmetic); Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (inattention or hyperactivity) and Autistic Spectrum Disorder (communication and interaction).
The nature of the condition means that there is a high likelihood of co-occurrence (where the individual experiences several of these conditions and their symptoms and outworking overlap). A study by Kirby and Cleaton in 2019 shows how this co-occurrence overlaps. This study is based on US figures, which suggest a high level of neuro-diversity across the population (between 10 and 30%) compared to the UK, where it’s listed as 15%.
To put this figure into east to west’s context, this means around 1:7 have some form of neurodiversity or around 4 students per class.
Dyslexia (impacting reading, spelling and writing): This is a relatively common condition within the UK with roughly 1:10 having some degree of dyslexia. Unlike learning difficulties, dyslexia doesn’t impact intelligence, and there is lots of support available to help mitigate some of these challenges. Some of the common signs of dyslexia include reading and writing very slowly; confusing the order of words; understanding verbal instructions, but struggling to comprehend written and transposing similar letters e.g, ‘d’ and ‘b’.
Dyspraxia (performing coordinated movements): Similarly to dyslexia, dyspraxia doesn’t impact a persons intelligence, but rather affects their physical ability to undertake tasks and activities. However, whilst it doesn’t impact intellect, it can hamper an individuals ability to learn and those with this condition may require additional support to remain on an academic par with their peers. Alongside the physical, dyspraxia can impact how people cope with social situations, emotions and managing organisational skills.
Dyscalculia (mental arithmetic): Often referred to as dyslexia with numbers, around 6% of the UK population have this condition. Whilst research is a long way behind challenges such as dyslexia, it does suggest that this condition is related to the functions of the brain related to processing and reasoning.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (inattention or hyperactivity) ADHD: Those with an ADHD diagnosis can often seem restless, have difficulty concentrating and may act on impulse. Diagnosis can happen at any point during a persons lifetime, but more often than not, there are sufficient symptoms to diagnose by age 12. ADHD falls into two distinct areas – restlessness and inattentiveness. Those with ADHD may be prone to being more restless than inattentive, (or vice versa), however both aspects do occur concurrently in some people. ADHD can also have co-occurrences with anxiety; Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD); behaviour; depression; sleeping issues; dyslexia; epilepsy; Tourette’s; dyspraxia and ASD!
Autistic Spectrum Disorder (communication and interaction) ASD: Autism isn’t an illness or a disease. It means that the brain works and operates slightly differently and is something those with the condition are born with. Whilst support can be offered and is often helpful, it is a condition that individuals and their families can learn to manage. Those with the condition range in the levels of help and support they require from minimal (independent living) to intense (full-time care).
Supporting under the Umbrella
There are several things to consider when supporting those with neurodiversity.
Space: Think about the space you’re working in – what does it look like? How does it feel? Are there distractions or things that need to be considered such as activities you do? The space we’re in can have an impact – getting to know the individual will help them thrive.
Sights: Similar to space, but what is in the eyeline of those you’re talking to? Are there people walking past the window, or a fish tank in the corner? Are there bright, vivid colours that could be overwhelming… all things to consider!
Touch: What are the textures and surfaces like – are there materials or fabrics which are uncomfortable or itchy (sensory processing disorder can be part of the ASD diagnosis) which hinder an individuals ability to manage or cope with situations.
Smell: Are there strong aromas which may be unpleasant or overwhelming? Does the smell of Lynx Africa cause a mild panic attack, or does the scent of Lavender bring peace and calm?
Sound: Some with ASD can find noise overwhelming, especially during busy games and activities. Alternatively, they may spend time undertaking a practice called ‘stimming’, which is a repetitive movement or noise. This may be made as part of a coping/managing strategy and can be calming or expressing feelings. It can be quite frustrating for those listening in however they are often unaware of what they are doing.
It is also important to be aware that those with ASD can often find it difficult to make eye contact with those they are speaking to. The can also come across as being blunt, short-answered or aggressive. This isn’t rudeness or a lack of respect, but part of their coping with challenging situations and circumstances.
It should also be noted, that many people with neuro-diversity (in particular girls – deliberate distinction) are adept at ‘masking’. This ‘masking’ – the ability to act as though neuro-typical in social settings, but struggling to cope and maintain this in private – often leading to ‘meltdowns’ due to exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed or over stimulation, which can’t be processed effectively.
At the heart of supporting children and young people who have conditions under the umbrella are relationships. Knowing them, means we better understand how we can support them – they’ll also be able to give you tips and advice about how best to support them, if you ask!
Common myths under the Umbrella
Autism is caused by bad parenting – people with autism are born with it. They don’t develop it or ‘grow into it’. It’s part of the brains growth and development as a foetus and parenting isn’t responsible. It is worth noting, that ‘good’ parenting can play a crucial role in support those with the condition and improving situations.
Those with Autism don’t have feelings and are unable to show affection – given the wide range of ways ASD is outworked, there can be those with the condition who are better able to share or express their emotions or feelings. There are also those who are aware that they are feeling something, but don’t understand the emotional literacy needed to express or explain this. All those with ASD have the ability to feel and show affections, however limited this would appear to be.
All those with neuro-diversity have some form of ‘superpower!’ – whilst this is often portrayed on TV (read Sheldon on Big Bang Theory), the reality is that only 1/3 have some form of ‘savant’ skills. The majority don’t.
Neuro-diverse people avoid social contact – those who are neuro-typical also avoid social contact!! This myth is based on the social skills challenges people with ASD face (reading and understanding social cues and situations). The natural assumption is that these are difficult situations and therefore should be avoided. In reality, whilst the proposition of being in new situations and meeting different people can feel overwhelming, with the proper help and support those with neuro-diversity can be equally adept at managing social situations as neuro-typical people can be.
Aspergers and High Functioning Autism are active diagnoses – Aspergers is no longer an active diagnosis. People who’ve previously been diagnosed will retain that diagnosis, however because Autism is considered a spectrum – a line of travel related to additional needs and support which fits within this area – Aspergers is specific to how those with Autism (mainly males) interact and communicate with others which is a very narrow area of need. High Functioning Autism is simply a colloquial phrase used to describe those who need less additional support around reading, writing, speaking and generally managing their day-to-day lives. It doesn’t however reflect an individuals needs around emotional regulation, social communication or sensory requirements.
Taking the Umbrella down – our response
At the heart of everything that east to west does is relationship. This could be with those we work with, our church or project partners or our supporters – you. These relationships are outworked within our ethos values – Compassion; Integrity; Devoted; Selfless; Community and Fun – which in turn creates a desire and commitment to bring hope.
The same is true for supporting those under the umbrella of neuro-diversity. Relationships are key. There isn’t a one size fits all approach that we can roll out whenever needed. They are bespoke… tailored to fit the individuals we’re with – just like any relationship we have. These aren’t always easy, but if we act with patience, understanding, tolerance and grace, the rewards will be absolutely worth it.
The Final Word
Next month – June: Self-harm – the stigma and the upset
If you want to hear more or have topics/themes you’d like us to discuss, please don’t hesitate to get in contact at firstname.lastname@example.org