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Education Crisis - Neurodiversity Affirming Teacher Training Needed

Updated: Jan 14



Young black child in relaxed clothes doing a practical STEM activity with a young white woman (teacher). They are both focused on the practical activity of joining up straws and making a technical model. The back ground is white.



Before I begin a note on terminology: -


Neurodiversity - This relates to the biological fact that human brains and minds differ from each other. Neurodiversity aligns with the idea that all children are unique and ‘develop and learn at different rates’ (DfE 2021).

Neurodivergent - Having a mind that functions in ways that diverge from what society typically defines as ‘normal’ or typical. For example, being Autistic or dyslexic. When children’s development deviates from what is considered normal, they are often viewed through a deficit lens of problems, impairments, and delays.


Definitions adapted from Dr Nick Walker, 'Neuroqueer' (2014) & cited in Kerry Murphy's article All about Ableism? (2022)


For the purposes of this article I am focusing mainly on Autism and Autistic children and their families. Please see my articles on Language Matters & Relationships are Essential for further information and clarity on neurodiversity affirming language.


Thrive, not survive in education

One of the biggest impacts on children's achievement and attendance for Autistic children is teacher's understanding of neurodivergency and the impact this can have on mental health for the whole family. Sian Griffiths (Education and Families Editor, The Sunday Times, Twitter, 11.12.2022) wrote; 'Children are being put on part-time timetables as teachers struggle to control bad behaviour after the pandemic'.


Describing children as having 'bad behaviour' reflects unmet needs, describing teachers as 'struggling' is another sign of unmet needs. Teachers need neurodiversity affirming training so they can effectively support children and their families. We need to develop teacher knowledge and understanding of working with and supporting neurodivergent families if we want our Autistic and neurodivergent children to THRIVE and not just SURVIVE in our education system.





We need the following to support children, parents, and teachers:-

  • neurodiversity affirming principles and approach embedded into all aspects of school culture and across the curriculum

  • neurodiversity affirming understanding and approach embedded into all teacher training programmes

  • embrace the potential of the Autistic monotropic mind & adapt teaching strategies and the curriculum to meet needs (Dinah Murray et al.)

  • embrace and adopt a flexible approach to meet the differences in communication, sensory, social, physical and mental health (weave in support to meet these needs, not provide add-ons)

  • we need to move towards a more effective collaborative wholistic family approach where the needs of everyone are met

  • understanding the implications of the double empathy concept in school culture to enable positive relationships (Damian Milton)

  • we need a deeper understanding of the needs of neurodivergent parents / carers to allow more effective collaborative work between professionals and parents and their children

If parents / carers are feeling understood and supported then communication will be more effective; it is only then that children will be able to access the educational provision they deserve, not just to meet their needs but to allow them to thrive.




Neurodiversity Affirming Education


Being supportive of a neurodiversity affirming culture and curriculum is not about adding more onto teacher's workload, it is about a gaining a deeper understanding, allowing space for a change of perspective and working in a more inclusive way. It is not seeing special needs as something separate or certain children having additional needs, it is seeing that all children are unique, and some children have specific needs and a different way of learning. For example, a neurodivergent pupil may be Autistic and dyslexic with specific sensory or fine motor needs, they may need more support or resources or a different approach to another Autistic child who is also dyslexic. They may need possibly similar support and resources to a child who is struggling with sensory issues, reading and writing and has no diagnosis. It is about meeting children's needs, not categorising according to labels.


Definitions of a neurodiversity affirming education


Julie Skelling summarises what a neurodiversity affirming framework means in her article Neurodiversity: A strengths-based approach to teaching diverse learners. She states, ' The concept of neurodiversity embodies a strengths-based model that shifts the focus away from the challenges of students with neurological differences in favour of finding ways to work with the strengths of the student to enable them to participate and experience educational success. In this model, the strengths and interests of the student are the starting point for curriculum design, teacher pedagogy, and the design of the learning envirn their article Neurodiversity-Affirmative Education (2022), Sue Fletcher-Watson and Dinah Aitken state; 'neurodiversity, just like other dimensions of diversity such as ethnicity, gender or sexuality, is something that needs to be understood in the context of social and interpersonal dynamics'. This means we need to look at all children and all families holistically. It is also crucial to point out that being supportive of neurodiversity is not downplaying the real barriers and difficulties many neurodivergent disabled people have, as Aitken and Fletcher-Watson articulate, 'the word difference should point us to acceptance of needs without judgement, rather than denial of needs without support'.


My own background is working with children who have profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD), some children were also Autistic and had a very long list of specific learning needs, health and medical needs which impacted on their education. I believe there absolutely is a need for specialist provision; this article is focusing on changing the culture of mainstream settings and special needs settings that are not neurodiversity affirming, I am not implying there is no need for specialised provision.


We need a change of focus and perspective

pale pink back ground showing a small square with an arrow pointing to a box with a round hole in the middle. The caption reads 'education needs to fit the child's needs rather than trying to make the child fit into an education system'

As teachers, we need to work with families and children so that education fits the child's needs, rather than trying to make the child fit into a certain education system. We need a change of perspective and to reconsider what education means and the purpose of education for each child, we need more flexibility.


It is generally agreed that the purpose of children being in school is to learn, for learning to take place we need to ensure the environment, resources and people supporting them understand and meet their needs. It sounds simple and obvious, but it is not happening for many children. Naomi Fisher has a wonderful refreshing take on the need for a change of lens in education in her recent book 'Changing our Minds' (2021). We are a very long way off changing the actual structure of the whole education system, but we need to start to make changes in schools and a neurodiversity affirming approach to education is an essential step in the right direction. For the sake of our children's mental health, we need to take that step now and move forwards with urgency.

Neurodivergent Families & Mental Health

There is not yet a compulsory module in any teacher training programme (that I am aware of) that focuses on how to meet the needs and teach neurodivergent children, and not a module that covers this in a neuroaffirmative way. In a report by Clifford Chance for the School report 2021 (autism.org.uk) it was reported;

  • There are over 160,000 autistic pupils in schools across England. (This figure is just for those children already diagnosed; the real number is significantly higher).

  • "Over 70% are in mainstream school, with the rest in specialist education, home educated or out of education altogether." (“School report 2021 - National Autistic Society”)

  • 74% of parents reported that their child's school did not fully meet their needs.'

These statistics speak for themselves and is further evidence of what we all know; we are in a national education crisis, which has spiralled due to the mental health implications on families and children post Covid-19 lockdowns. This survey also considered Autistic children's own views and the statistics are heart-breaking;

  • 70% of Autistic children said that school would be better if teachers understood more about Autism.

  • 92% also felt their friends did not understand enough about Autism.



Parents need understanding, not blame

I feel we are now at crisis point, since the end of Covid-19 Lockdown, 1 in 6 parents have either had to withdraw their children from school or their children are now at risk of being excluded (School report 2021 (autism.org.uk). Many of these children are Autistic and are likely to be going through Autistic Burnout due to unmet needs in school and the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. We need to work on supporting children through this, we need a better understanding of Autism and neurodiversity affirming practise woven into our teacher training programmes and school culture, not as an add on. The National Autism Society report (2021) agrees that specific Autism training needs to be REINSTATED into the Initial Teacher Training core content framework. It was referenced in 2016 but removed in 2019, a step backwards at a time when we need to be moving forwards. (School report 2021 (autism.org.uk)


Can't learn - not won't learn

It is not that Autistic pupils don't want to learn, or are refusing school, or that parents are not 'parenting right', it is that needs are not being met. Many Autistic children feel misunderstood, isolated and are severely struggling which is also adding to mental health difficulties. As a study by Ford et al. (2021) showed there are higher rates of mental ill-health experienced by neurodivergent young people at school than in the rest of the population. For Autistic children this can lead to Autistic burnout as I discussed in my article Supporting Children through Autistic Burnout.


Working together

'Children do well when they can' (Ross Greene, 2005), for this to happen the environment and support has to meet need as Luke Beardon (2017) advocates in his wonderful equation that summarises this idea; ‘Autism + Environment = Outcome’. This summary was recently updated (2022) ;

'Autism + environment = outcome; environment could include: autistic self (e.g. understanding of self); others in that environment; the sensory environment; society (broken down into: values, attitudes, knowledge); policies; & the law'


I believe teachers and schools do want to do their best, I have never met a teacher that does not want their children to do well, it is why we all go into the profession. I do not believe it is the fault of an individual school or teacher if children are struggling. It is the pressure put on them by the government for higher attendance scores and a lack of teacher training in this area, it is a result of a lack of funding and a lack of resources to support children with additional needs and their families. In their article Neurodiversity affirmative Education Dinah Aitken and Sue Fletcher Watson state, 'Children are not just following their own paths, they are headed to different destinations too. A child who is struggling with handwriting may not need more time to get it right – give them the option to get good at typing instead'. We need to be flexible; we need to meet the child where they are at and give them the foundations to move forwards in their own way.


Aims of Education

We need to re-evaluate the purpose of education, the aim of education should be for every child to meet their potential.

As Naomi Fisher points out in her book 'Changing our Minds'(2021) , there is a difference between education and schools. Education 'starts with empowerment, not compliance'. We need to inspire our children and follow their lead.






Value the magic, the spirit and curiosity of learning


I strongly believe we need to inspire curiosity and a love of learning. Children also need to learn the value of understanding themselves. When possible, they need to be able to meet their own physical, sensory, and mental health needs so they have the foundations to move forward in life as an adult and succeed. For those that need further support, they need to have adults around them that can advocate for them and understand their needs and can communicate with them. In many ways the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) curriculum is an excellent foundation stone, but the problem is, it is a foundation stone. I feel the true magic, natural curiosity and innate spirit of intrinsic learning comes to a grinding halt through primary school just when it is taking off, just when the sparks are ignited, it needs to continue. This is not due to the lack of expertise or enthusiasm of teachers, rather it is the restraints of the curriculum and the pressure for attendance data and progress scores.

pale pink bacl ground with an image of a dripping tap and an over flowing bucket of water. caption reads 'think about how you can support your child to manage their emotional bucket'

Children move from the wonderful world of Early Years, where the value of child led play is understood and honoured, where practitioners foster independent thought, active learning and develop creative and critical thinking skills then they reach Year One in a traditional setting. Suddenly children are immersed in the national curriculum, they are expected to primarily sit at desks and learn what is in the pre-set curriculum and then revise and memorise information at regular intervals, until finally at the age of 16 they sit their GSCE's and their education is deemed a success or failure. Through out primary school, I feel the natural momentum, magic and flow of learning is taken away. Children can no longer self regulate naturally and move between indoor and outdoor environments, they can no longer meet their own sensory needs by climbing and swinging, or squidging playdough, or even sitting quietly in the book den when they need some quiet time. They are taught to suppress these sensory feelings for the benefit of the teacher who is trying to teach 30+ children one single learning objective. I am a teacher myself, I understand the need for classroom management strategies and careful differentiation and planning, we can't have children running in and out and climbing everywhere, it would be chaos! However what we have now isn't working either.


We need a different approach, a deeper understanding and meeting of needs for neurodivergent pupils in a truly inclusive affirmative way is a great starting point. Most Education Health Care Plans ( EHCPs) are about adapting provision, if this "adapted provision" was intrinsically woven into school culture, the environment and the curriculum it would benefit everyone.


Autistic Girls Network have produced an amazing document, Reasonable Adjustments Possible at School. This document is 6 pages long and I believe all of these reasonable adjustments should be integrated into the neurodiversity affirming culture of school, it should not necessarily be needed as an extra provision in an EHCP. Most of this is common sense to meet the needs of all pupils, it is not something that neurodivergent families should have to fight for to be provided. Some children will require additional specific provision to meet needs on top of this list but this would be a fantastic starting point to ensure we have a more accepting culture of differences.


It is often around key transition points of starting primary school and moving onto secondary school that many parents find their children struggling and support plans, adapted provision and "interventions" are put in place. Children's personal needs begin to outweigh the social, academic and sensory needs of being in school and they reach burnout. It is at this point attendance is often affected and the spiral into mental health difficulties gains force without enough support in place. See my article on Supporting children through Autistic Burnout. We need more of a balance in our education system, more flexibility and a deeper understanding of meeting the needs of neurodivergent pupils and the consequences to mental health when these needs aren't met.


The EYFS principle states, 'that children are unique and ‘constantly learning...capable, confident and self-assured’ and that they ‘develop and learn at different rates’ (DfE 2021). This is not restricted to Early Years, we need these main principles rolling out further across primary and into secondary settings. We need a change of structure and a new vision for how education looks and what is deemed a successful education. The Statutory framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage (2021) states four guiding principles that should shape practice in early years setting, I would argue these principles are also the underlying principles for a neurodiversity affirming practise across ALL schools, ALL settings, and ALL for all pupils.

The principles of the EYFS are:

1. every child is a unique child, who is constantly learning and can be resilient, capable, confident, and self-assured (“A Unique Child - Early Years Matters”)

2. children learn to be strong and independent through positive relationships (“Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage - GOV.UK”)

3. children learn and develop well in enabling environments with teaching and support from adults, who respond to their individual interests and needs and help them to build their learning over time. Children benefit from a strong partnership between practitioners and parents and/or carers. (“Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage - GOV.UK”)

4. importance of learning and development, children develop and learn at different rates.


A neurodiversity affirming culture and education is not about creating a separate route for Autistic children, adding in a resource base or a specialised classroom, this is about meeting the needs of all children, all the time, in all settings. Children do not all learn the same things in the same order at the same time, it is merely a convenient teaching strategy to control the class, supported to some degree with some differentiation to meet differing cognitive abilities but not sensory or communication needs. Children do not all learn in the same way, there have been thousands of studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of different learning styles yet Autistic children's needs are still mostly being unmet, especially in mainstream settings.


A neurodiversity affirmative teacher training programme


I anticipate that neurodiversity affirmative teacher training will help to:

  • be preventative and reduce the trauma and further mental health difficulties, especially for neurodivergent children

  • support positive peer relationships; destigmatize differences, disabilities and mental health so there is less bullying and more understanding and compassion

  • support positive student - teacher and teacher -student relationships

  • create a more open, less hierarchical structure in school where everyone is respected as an equal

  • enable all children to feel empowered, more confident, better understood and more accepted so they are able to thrive

  • improve family relationships - if children are happier and more regulated and their needs better met in school (all needs includes cognitive, physical, sensory, social, communication and mental health needs) then I would anticipate this would result in fewer afterschool meltdowns/ shutdowns / burnouts and general improved family well being.

In addition, if neurodivergent parents feel they have better support and are understood, I envisage that this will improve parent - teacher relationships and communication; this will enable a successful collaborative approach to meet children’s needs more effectively all round.


Once a neurodiversity affirming culture and curriculum is in place, it can only be positive for teachers, children, their families, and also future generations in wider society. For this to be possible my ideas for a teacher training programme are stated below.







Proposal for a Neurodiversity Affirming Training Programme could cover the following areas:-

1. Understanding of the key issues between various pathological / medical models of disability and other models of disability e.g., social model and how this impacts mental health

2. How working with monotropism can support and enhance children's learning process - see the work of Fergus Murray Autism Tips for Teachers by an Autistic Teacher (TES, 2019) & Me and Monotropism a Unified Theory of Autism (BPS, 2018)

Go with the flow not against it - see my article on 'Supporting a monotropic mind in education' (coming soon)

3. Understanding of the double empathy concept vs theory of mind (Damian Milton)

4. Understanding and meeting neurodivergent communication needs

5. Understanding and meeting neurodivergent social needs

6. Understanding and meeting neurodivergent sensory needs

7. Benefits of adopting a low-arousal and more flexible approach in school

8. Implications of co-occurring mental health needs for neurodivergent (children and parents)

9. Importance of a collaborative approach to planning and next steps (involving multi- agency professionals, family, and the child where appropriate)

10. Support and signposting for neurodivergent teachers (which will be addressed in a future article)


Neurodiversity affirming education is beginning - hurrah!


Fortunately, there are already some amazing Autistic advocates and some fantastic neurodiversity affirming projects being undertaken. If you are a teacher (or parent) I would highly recommend you have a look at LEANS (Learning about Neurodiversity at School). This is a free programme for mainstream primary schools to introduce pupils aged 8-11 years to the concept of neurodiversity, and how it impacts our experiences at school. It includes teacher training, a neuroaffirmative curriculum and parent and carer resources. (https://salvesen-research.ed.ac.uk/leans) I would also recommend Neurobears (Pandas (pandasonline.org), Neurobears provide an online neurodiversity affirming short course to support children and families learning about neurodivergence to enable them to have a better understanding of themselves. Understanding is the key, it is a starting point for families and teachers.


Kerry Murphy (Neurodiversity-Affirming | EYFS for Me (eyfs4me.com)), has produced an amazing Neurodiversity Toolkit for Early Years practitioners that would also support the implementation of a more inclusive neurodiversity affirming approach that is definitely worth looking at.


I have recently discovered a few

other neurodiversity affirming tutoring programmes and alternative provision providers, amazing small charities, small local businesses, and individuals all working towards a better future for our children which gives me hope for a more inclusive and positive future.


If you are reading this and would like to contact me about your own projects or know of future research in this area, please reach out to me. Together we can make the future more positive for our neurodivergent children and families.


Upcoming article: How a neurodiversity affirming education goes beyond the classroom - it can also support and improve parent mental health and family well being.

*Article written from my lived experience as a parent and teacher. Knowledge gained through various personal research and neurodivergent communities. Autistic Realms is a space for parent support and teacher guidance. Autistic Realms is not a business or a charity. I am not a medical professional or therapist*

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