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How to identify and support neurodiversity

One in four children in Ireland has some form of physical, learning, emotional or behavioural need. Caomhán Keane speaks to the experts to find out how parents and teachers can work together


Neurodiversity is now widely embraced

Neurodiversity is now widely embraced

Neurodiversity is now widely embraced

An umbrella term that covers dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dysphagia - as well as the autistic spectrum - neurodiversity is a concept where neurological differences are recognised and respected as any other human variation, such as hair and eye colour, rather than as diseases that need to be cured.

 "It's suggested that these disorders are a result of normal variation within the human genome, for example, autism is a difference, not a disability," says Dr Moira Kennedy, Senior Psychologist and Co-Director of The Children's Clinic, Dublin.

Neurodiversity is now widely embraced and some companies such as Microsoft have inclusive hiring programmes, such as their Autism Hiring Programme, where they actively recruit people with autism as their difference is viewed upon as an asset. "Society needs to adapt to meet all thinking and learning styles," says Adam Harris, founder and CEO of AsIAm, a spectrum and autism advice service. "People who think differently have a unique set of talents, skills and perspectives to offer society because of their neurodiversity…not in spite of it."


"It is of paramount importance that we understand that these difficulties will present in children of any intelligence, from average right up to highly intelligent or even gifted," says Máirín Barry, a retired lecturer in Psychology and Special Education at the School of Education UCD. "This is the most difficult but essential aspect of these conditions that parents, teachers and the children themselves must understand."


"One common thing with dyslexia would be early speech and language difficulties," says Rossie Bisset, CEO of the Dyslexia Association of Ireland. "They mix up sounds in a word, pronouncing hospital as hosbital, spaghetti as bosgetti. It might take them longer to learn nursery rhymes, associate letters with sounds, or to follow simple daily routines like getting ready for bed."

A dyspraxic child might display very high levels of motor activity, including feet swinging and tapping when seated. They might show high levels of excitability, resulting in a shrill voice and can be extremely sensitive to noise and touch. "Their frustration results in a higher number of tantrums as it takes a lot more effort for them to retain information," says Deirdre Griffin, a Consultant Educational Psychologist and a member of the board of Dyspraxia Ireland. "They can also have weak fine motor skills so they might more regularly spill food or drinks upon themselves or their artwork will seem less developed than other children's."

Children with ADHD, meanwhile, might display one or all of three types of behaviour. "There's attention-deficit, where they cannot focus," says Ken Kilbride, CEO of ADHD Ireland. "There's impulsivity, where if they think it, they say it or do it. While finally there is hyperactivity, where their batteries are always on and they are bouncing off the walls."

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Parents of children born with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) report noticing their child's development delayed and disordered as young as 18 months. "A fierce amount wouldn't be into hugging," says Denis Sexton, Education spokesperson for the Irish Society of Autism. "They might be rigid or unyielding in your arms. They might not make eye contact or have a great desire to retain sameness. They might express repetitive behaviour - watch the same TV shows, play the same games, obsessively."


"While parents know their child better than anyone else, teachers are in an excellent position to see the child from a different perspective e.g. how they behave the yard during break time, how they cope in the classroom, and if they can make and keep friends," says Dr Moira Kennedy.

"If you have a concern about your child make an appointment with the teacher so they are not put on the spot and also so you don't feel flustered to tell them your concerns quickly. It might help to write down your concerns and ask the teacher-specific questions like "At home, we noticed that s/he does…have you noticed that?"


Don't be surprised if the answer you get doesn't gel with your own experience. "With ADHD, the biggest difficulty is not the condition itself," says Kilbride. "It's the social difficulties that it brings. The children internalise their behaviour, they do their best to fit in and hold it together in school, which just exhausts them. So all hell breaks loose when they get home."

This is particularly prevalent in girls, who, while equally susceptible to ADHD, are four times less likely to seek treatment due to how their neurodiversity presents. "While boys are more likely to be express their attention deficit by bouncing off the walls [hyperactivity], which can be disruptive to the other children," says Kilbride, "girls are more likely to internalise their difficulties". Similarly, teachers may be surprised to learn that the child is on the spectrum. "There is a lot of research emerging around "masking", that is the ability of some people on the autism spectrum, particularly girls, to observe and copy the behaviour of other children, even if they do not understand it themselves," says Harris.


Central to the experience of autism is a different way of communicating, thinking and experiencing the environment compared to other people. A student on the autism spectrum may find it difficult to communicate their needs or comprehend what the teacher is saying. The student may understand information very literally or not use body language or facial expression in the same way as other people.


Being neurally diverse in a world that is designed for the neurally alike can be exhausting. "They can become quiet and withdrawn," says Bissett. "They don't have the words to explain what is going in for them, so they start complaining about tummy aches. They are always looking to go to the bathroom so they can avoid being called on to read aloud or to come to the whiteboard.

"Children can perceive themselves as hopeless, stupid, worthless, disappointing to their parents," says Barry. "They may previously have perceived themselves as smart and capable but they then come to internalise a negative, inept view of who they are. They may become envious, resentful or even in awe of their peers. Very sadly, frustration can lead to bad behaviour and many of the children described above begin to act out - typically messing around, acting the clown, distracting others and disrupting classroom activity."


"Learning disorders rarely travel solo," says Kilbride. "Between 70-80pc of people with ADHD will also possess one other learning disability; 40pc will have two, while 10-15pc will have three."

This can also lead to a lack of clarity about a child's condition. "With so many crossovers of symptoms, a teacher might see inattention and assume that a child has some symptoms of ADHD, though perhaps they have an auditory processing disorder," says Griffin. "They might move about in their chair because their clothes irritate them [sensory processing disorder] or slump on the table due to poor core stability, rather than hyperactivity or disinterest."


Once a concern has been expressed and agreed upon, the appropriate supports or services can be put in place via the classroom or learning support teacher.

"There are workbooks that teachers can get so that the parent can work with the child at home, as well as some great phonic apps which will help them decode language," says Bissett.

"They are not going to want to read for pleasure if they struggle with it, so parents need to read to them as long as they will let you. Then try audiobooks, digital books, tailored to whatever interests they might have. Harry Potter, horses, Man United."

Get them to help writing a shopping list, finding things on the list in the supermarket. When you are driving or walking, ask them to read signs, but keep it light and fun. "Positive reinforcement is crucial. If they don't know the answer, don't be like "oh come on". Try, 'let's see if you can work it out," or 'You were so close, this is the word, you did brilliantly'.


"Patience, empathy, clear and consistent teaching using a variety of strategies to suit a range of learning styles is key to support," says Barry. "Contrary to assumptions, many children affected in this way have great application and drive, particularly when they begin to see a path through the impediments they experience daily. Even experiencing empathy and feeling understood may be sufficient to motivate them to persevere and accomplish goals they might have thought too demanding."

"Dyspraxic students are greatly helped by being seated in the front of the class, have homework emailed to parents and given a double set of books [so they don't have to bring them in and out of school]," says Griffin.

Ensure that the student's sensory needs are met by providing sensory breaks, allowing the person to self-regulate as required and reducing stimuli in the classroom.

"Try to use visual reminders to assist the student," says Harris, "and reduce the unknown and unexpected by providing a clear schedule of what to expect each day and in each class, in advance

Autistic children might not understand turn-taking or the command structure of a classroom at first, but Sexton believes that they can work on coaching strategies where they hold their peace until the end of the lesson and can then express themselves to the teacher.

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