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5 neurodiversity myths that every teacher needs to know

5 neurodiversity myths that every teacher needs to know

5 min read
  • The science of learning

This is the third and final part of our neurodiversity blog series. You can catch up on the first two here:

In the final part of this series, we’ll be covering 5 common myths that people often believe about neurodiversity, to ensure that you can make informed decisions on how best to help your students in their education.

Myth 1: The neurodiversity movement doesn’t recognise disability

One common misconception that people have about neurodiversity is that members of the movement are completely against being identified as disabled. This is because the social model of disability states that an individual is only disabled if the environment doesn’t accommodate their ability to successfully function within society. For example, according to this model, people in wheelchairs should only be considered disabled if there are no ramps or elevators and they can’t assess everyday necessities.

The benefit of the social model is that it highlights that neurodiverse individuals people find certain things challenging but don’t necessarily need to be “cured”. That’s not to say that people should ignore the difficulties neurodiverse individuals face, nor does this mean that any difficulties a neurodivergent student may have automatically equates to disability. However, some neurodiverse individuals do have disabilities that can be extremely debilitating that may require medical intervention to prevent these people from suffering.

The important thing to recognise that many of the challenges and difficulties a neurodiverse individual faces are caused by the inaccessibility of their environment, not necessarily because of their neurological condition. The neurodiversity movement recognises that neurodivergent people may have disabilities, but they shouldn’t be defined by them or considered “broken” as a result – an important nuance.

Myth 2: Neurodivergent students are not good at communication

It’s true that some neurodivergent students struggle with the typical social skills that are important for successful participation in lessons, but that’s not to say that neurodivergent students aren’t good at communicating. The truth is that many neurodiverse individuals just have a preferred way of communicating that most people aren’t used to or struggle to understand. Some struggle to understand social cues, whilst others can be quite blunt with what they say.

For example, research shows that autistic students are better at and more comfortable with non-verbal communication and picking up non-verbal cues compared to verbal communication. This is because some autistic students prefer to have more time to process and unpick information rather than answering on the spot, whilst others may feel anxious about participating, especially if the whole class’s attention is on them.

Teachers should keep this in mind and adjust their lesson plans or teaching strategies accordingly to accommodate the needs of these neurodiverse students. Just because one neurodiverse student struggles to speak, doesn’t mean they’re not listening and paying close attention to the environment around them. One potential strategy could be to set more written work or allow students until the end of the lesson to provide an answer to your question. These small accommodations will go a long way to not only ensuring these students feel safe in the classroom, but also towards improving their social skills.

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Myth 3: Neurodiversity just means autism

Although the term “neurodiversity” was proposed by Australian sociologist, Judy Singer and was originally taken up by the autistic community, the movement is not solely just about autism. It is also embraced by individuals with other neurological conditions such as ADHD, Tourette’s syndrome, OCD and dyslexia.

However, it’s important when learning about this subject to note that the neurodiversity movement is primarily led by and its strongest advocates are autistic individuals and a lot of research into neurodiversity is autism-focused.

Myth 4: “High functioning” students aren’t technically neurodiverse

One common term neurodiverse people often hear is “high functioning” – usually, to describe someone with a neurological condition who, for the most part, appears “normal” and not greatly impaired by their condition. These students may be able to make friends, be charismatic, communicate well verbally or be doing well academically.

However, the issue with this label is that it overlooks the struggles these neurodivergent students face and can result in them receiving little help or flexibility from their teachers.

Many psychologists are against the term because it tries to redefine these students as “normal enough”. Just because a student may perform well academically or communicate well doesn’t mean they need more time to process information or can’t feel extremely anxious at the thought of talking to others. Teachers should prioritise understanding the specific needs and challenges each of their neurodivergent students, however high functioning they appear to be.

Myth 5: The term “neurodiverse” is just used to make people feel better

Those who are unfamiliar with the term “neurodiversity” or struggle to understand it often view the neurodiverse movement as either a way of thinking or a way for those with neurological conditions to express their opinions.

However, it’s neither.

Rather, it emphasises the diversity of the human mind and is about supporting the values and rights of neurodivergent individuals as human beings. In fact, the term “neurodiversity” is actually a subset of “biodiversity“, which can be defined as the diversity and variability of life on Earth.

The neurodiversity movement is also about advocating for the strengths and mitigating the weaknesses of those with neurological conditions so they can be an active member of society. Schools must recognise that inclusive environments are needed so their neurodiverse students can thrive rather than constantly having to overcome challenges.

Final thoughts

As the movement has been around for over 20 years now and more and more students are falling under the bracket of neurodiversity, it’s important that educators are aware of these myths that still pervade the education community.

At the end of the day, this is about providing students with equal opportunity to thrive by creating inclusive environments. It’s not about dismissing neurotypical students’ needs or providing neurodivergent students with a competitive advantage.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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