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How can we ensure inclusive practice for Neurodivergent children?

A new year often brings time to reflect and set goals. While within education this event falls part way into our ‘year’, personally it can be a good time to look at what we would like to achieve for ourselves. We all have our areas of passion and enthusiasm within our roles, areas we love to learn about and knowledge that makes us want to shape and change the way we, and our colleagues, work.

In an ever changing and developing world we need to be working to better inform ourselves to continue to be inclusive. While we strive to incorporate learning for ourselves, our colleagues and the children and families we serve in a range of areas, at the heart of my focus, my area of passion and enthusiasm, is the Neurodiversity paradigm.

I feel this topic is best explored through a wh- question framework, which appeals to the speech and language therapist in me!

-          What is Neurodiversity?

-          Why is it important?

-          How do we start to practice in a more neurodiversity accepting way?


What is Neurodiversity?

Neurodiversitimage.pngy is simply the diversity of brains that exist in the population. The variety of people with our different wirings, which create our wonderful world. Within this term we can think of neurotypical (NT) brains, and Neurodivergent (ND) brains. The term Neurodivergent refers to many different neurological profiles, some I have listed here.  These are brains that typically diverge from the typical developmental profile.

Historically Neurodivergent individuals have been seen through the eyes of the medical model, where they are seen as disordered, different, and needing treatment and changing to ‘fit in’ and succeed.

With growing awareness and spaces for Autistic and other Neurodivergent people to share their experiences we are becoming better informed about the significant short comings of the medical model’s lens.

Ableism refers to a process where disabled people are discriminated against. This discrimination may be unconscious, but it is often steeped in historical social narratives around disabilities. In the context of a physical disability for example, this might be a building design that is not accessible to a wheelchair user. In the context of a Neurodivergent person, this might be a child being taken for another activity during story time, because they cannot sit still with their peers. It isn’t necessarily a conscious process, or people commenting ‘we’re all a bit autistic’.

When bringing together an understanding of ableism, and the historical practice of viewing ND individuals as disordered we can come to understand why so often goals and expectations for these children become about being like their peers or being more neurotypical. Which I believe to be wrong for a few different reasons.


Why is this important?

Firstly, what we know is that there is a significant correlation between Neurodivergent profiles and poor mental health and quality of life. This is linked to a lack of understanding, the lack of correct support and a world that promotes them to ‘mask’ who they are to ‘fit in’.

Secondly, when an individual is not ND, but just viewed as a bit different, they are not given an unrealistic set of expectations. For example, a child who is a bit ‘bouncy’, who may find sitting still tricky and is a bit fidgety might get a jovial approach from staff and jollied along, even allowed to move a bit when they seem to need too. If that child is diagnosed with ADHD, we might then find they have targets for sitting still, referrals for sensory assessments, consultations on how to support their ‘behaviour’. The narrative changes because our lens can still be stuck in the medical model, but both these children present similarly in setting.

I wholeheartedly believe that we should accept all individuals for who they are and meet them where their strengths lie. In particular in the early years, this a key time for fostering resilience, confidence, and self-esteem. If the lens is wrong at this stage, the negative impacts can last for a very long time. What I believe we need to move to do, is flip the narrative. Taking what we once did, and shifting to a more accepting space, which creates a narrative that celebrates each ND individual.


Flipping this narrative, particularly so early on in a child’s life can help them, and their families, build confidence. It starts the foundations for a life of nourishing relationships, meaningful activities, and happiness. With a team around a ND child who has brought their awareness to their practice and is making changes, the child can thrive.


So, how do we go about it?

First and foremost, get to grips with the language and concepts. Do some further reading around ableism, the neurodiversity paradigm and I’d recommend double empathy theory too. Once you know more, you will automatically become more aware of how you think and practice. There are some brilliant accounts on social media, free or low-cost webinars and a whole host of awesome books you can read. Finding disabled people who have written these things and share their experiences is key; we cannot know their life, we must seek to understand it.

Once there is a level of awareness of neurodiversity and how you perceive it, you can start to make changes. Being aware of your own presumptions and attitudes towards ND students is a good place to start. Following that, beginning to shift the language you use, incorporating the preferred terminology into your spoken and written language, reducing ‘person first’ language (e.g., child with Autism, and saying Autistic child instead), looking at wording within your documentation, policies and enrolment forms.

You can take a deeper look into the practices you use when working with ND children in your setting. Challenge yourself to consider why the goal is the goal, if they have an education, health, and care plan, what are the targets? Are they accepting of the individual, or trying to change them to be more neurotypical?

Consider your interventions and how you deliver them, the things that you use if you have a ND child in the setting, there are a lot of ‘go-to’ strategies like visual schedules, timers, sensory diets, the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), social skills and bucket time to name a few. How are these being used, are they in line with being accepting of the ND child or are they being used to try to change them to fit our narrative of who they should be?

It can seem overwhelming, stressful and if we are honest quite uncomfortable. What do you mean we shouldn’t be moving the hands of these children to make them communicate with their symbols? We shouldn’t be getting them to sit still to watch a parade of exciting toys? Sensory diets aren’t just for sensory diet time on the timetable? There are a lot of things that we just do, because that has been the way, and no one likes to feel they’ve been getting it wrong. There is a lot of passion out there about changing practice to be more neurodiversity accepting, and we need to be open to feeling vulnerable and uncomfortable.

A piece of advice is to find people you feel safe to talk to about this. Where you can be vulnerable and feel supported, listened too and understood, not belittled or made to feel guilty. We are all learning, it is part of what makes us good at what we do. My favourite thing on this journey to remind myself is a Maya Angelou quote: Do the best you can, until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.’ So be kind to yourselves, this reflection and development is not easy.

Ultimately, if we can sit with our own sense of vulnerability while we learn, adapt and grow, the outcomes could be marvellous for the population of Neurodivergent children currently in early years settings, and those who will pass through the doors in the future.

When we start to bring our awareness to our own ableism, our use of out-dated and discriminating practices, we can begin to make changes. In turn, we will better serve the population of Neurodivergent children that we see in early years settings. This will enable a better foundation, sense of self and resilience that can only be the best start for growing up.


You can read more about Ruth's work on her website: https://www.ruthjonesslt.com/

And you can listen to Ruth chatting with Stephen about how we can start addressing ableism in our schools and the importance of connection over compliance in this podcast episode. 

Ruth Jones
Ruth qualified as a speech and language therapist in 2010. She has worked in schools and colleges for Autistic young people with complex additional learning support needs and co-occurring diagnosis. Ruth has been enjoying early years speech and language development since the birth of her first child. She believes in a neurodiversity informed approach, and constantly seeks to better her own practice and understanding in order to best serve and support the individuals she works with.

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