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Living and working with neurodiversity

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For UK Disability History Month, a Cafcass Family Court Adviser describes her lived experience of neurodiversity and shares research and new thinking which recognises neurodivergent conditions as “distinct and valuable forms of human difference". 

The term Neurodiversity was first used by Judy Singer, a sociologist who has autism.
Neurodiversity refers to the different ways human beings understand and process information. Autism, Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia are considered to represent forms of neurodivergence, distinct from neurotypical people (the majority of the population).

Neurodiversity considers Autism, ADHD and other neurodivergent conditions not as deviations from normal, but distinct and valuable forms of human difference. This is the social model of disability: because the difficulties faced by people with these conditions are seen as mostly coming from structures and expectations that are not inclusive.

For too long, the strengths offered by people who are neurodivergent have been left out of discussions, but things are changing.

In 2021, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) published a news release discussing how they believe the enhanced abilities to recognise patterns, associated with dyslexia, to be highly valuable in work involving cybercrime detection. Autism is often associated with the ability to hyperfocus and develop specialist knowledge. To me, ADHD is about creativity, hyperfocus and innovation. The ability to think spontaneously and take risks is probably why so many comedians like Rory Bremner are ADHD people.

The day I took my child (who has dyslexia) to visit an educational psychologist was when I first became aware of the strengths associated with dyslexia. I watched as he quickly identified connections between ideas and words and also excelled in tasks involving visual spatial abilities (a vital skill in architecture).

Yet for this same child, ’learning’ and ‘school’ had started to become associated with feeling frustrated, sad and ’not being smart’ (child’s own words). This was down to being in a system that focused on phonics and age expected progress. Last month I noticed Jamie Oliver (who has ADHD and dyslexia) took to Instagram and posted about going through very similar experiences - feelings of frustration as a child.

If this feeling of being misunderstood, different and not good enough also intersects with other forms of disadvantage, it’s not hard to see how children can be placed at huge disadvantage.

For example, in 2018-2019 children with SEN accounted for 82% of permanent exclusions from primary school (Office of the Children’s Commissioner, 2021). Earlier this year, Keele University published research based on interviews with neurodivergent young people who had ended up in the criminal justice system. Many spoke of feeling stigmatised and labelled as ‘disruptive’ as young children.

Research conducted by The ADHD Foundation in 2022 found neurodivergent young people and adults to be overrepresented in every area of the criminal justice system - with poor school experiences coming up as a repeating theme.

For children with neurodivergent conditions, school can sound like the banging of doors, bells that ring out and irritating background noise that throws your focus. I am neurodivergent and as a child remember an internal sense of stress whenever my sibling turned up the volume on cartoons, which I know now to be a sensory reaction. There will be adults who expect you to sit in chairs (ADHD brains often have a greater need for movement). Children with ADHD and Autism can sometimes have a greater need for a topic to provide interesting stimuli, to maintain their engagement.

In secondary school, not doing homework can result in detention. But ADHD, can mean a child’s executive age (ability to self-regulate and self-organise) is likely to be much younger than their actual age. The potentials for social exclusion are huge if there aren’t the right accommodations and understanding.

I think in our work it is important to not only know about neurodiversity, but to try and understand how it is experienced for the child or adult we are working with.