Honouring Neurodiversity in the Early Years – Part 1

Alistair Bryce-CleggUncategorizedLeave a Comment

You have likely heard the increasing dialogue about neurodiversity throughout the past year. It is a term that is gaining momentum as we challenge some of our views and practices within special educational needs and inclusion.

Neurodiversity, however, does not sit alone and forms part of a much broader approach. So, to get started, let’s define neurodiversity and how it can be applied to our early years’ practice. 


Defining Neurodiversity

In its most basic terms, neurodiversity refers to the diversity of the human mind (Walker, 2014). Each of us has unique development, and our experiences are shaped by many different interacting factors such as our biology, environment, and relationships. Combined, these experiences can structure and define our neurology, or simply put, they influence the architecture of our brains.

While some children will take a typical pathway, referred to as neurotypical, other children’s development will differ and diverge from that pathway, which is neurodivergent. Neurodiversity isn’t just about creating replacement labels for neurotypes such as autism, ADHD or special educational needs.

It is designed to help us think about children’s development more holistically and acknowledge that differences do not always mean deficits and impairments. To understand why this approach is crucial for the ongoing inclusion of disabled and neurodivergent children, we must look at the dominant models that have come before and continue to exist within our sector. 


The Medicalised Model and Social Model of Disability 

Historically, much of our thinking about developmental differences and “disorders” are driven by the medicalised model of disability (Goodley, 2021). This model situates the problem of disability within the child and focuses on fixing or curing them of their disorder. For example, autistic children are often subject to interventions that aim to teach them to mimic neurotypical skills (or to behave more “normally”), leading to them masking their inherent traits.

You may see social skill goals such as increasing eye contact or engaging in whole body listening as evidence of their attention. This fails to acknowledge that social skills can look different depending on your diverse development and can lead to children camouflaging their natural dispositions, significantly impacting wellbeing and mental health (don’t worry, this series will think about what you can do instead). 

While the medical model has been important in advancing our understanding of the human body and mind, including treatments and cures when applied to neurodivergence, it does not always translate well because people with different neurotypes do not need to be cured; they need to be understood.

In the 1960s and ’70s, disabled people began to engage in activism against this medicalised model and the wider belief that disability was inherently bad. From this emerged the social model of disability. This community activism led to disabled and neurodivergent people challenging the idea that it is down to the individual to change to fit in, rather society needs to adapt to become more inclusive and accessible for diverse needs.

We sadly, however, still live in a society that favours able bodies and typical minds, so anyone who falls outside of the realms of “normal” still faces barriers, obstacles, and discrimination which is referred to as ableism. This tendency to think that it is the disabled or neurodivergent person’s responsibility to overcome or conquer these barriers continues to be harmful, and as disabled activist, Stella Young states, “No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp. Never” (Young, 2014).

The social model continues to address how society limits disabled and neurodivergent people and aims for equitable change…which is to recognise that people need different things to succeed. This important history of disability advocacy leads to the current momentum that disabled bodies and divergent minds are not development gone wrong, or Red Flags but part of natural human diversity. 


The Neurodiversity Approach


For us to move into a neurodiversity paradigm, we should consider the following:


  • All children have strengths, interests, differences, and needs. We should view children’s diverse and divergent development more holistically. We only hear one side of the story by focusing only on delays. 


  • Our core aim should not be to cure or fix neurodivergent or disabled children; rather, we need to affirm their identity and cultivate the different ways they might learn. 


  • Neurodivergent and disabled children “voices” need to be heard and understood. We should adopt a child-led and centred approach that teaches self-advocacy, consent, and positive self-identity from an early age. 


  • Our work in the early years should be informed by neurodiversity-affirming research and practice. 


This approach gives us the chance to truly transform our education systems, but it requires radical change and rejects some of the outdated processes to SEND and inclusion.


Across this series, we will delve into what we can do to become neurodiversity-affirming, including:

  • Ways to Develop Celebratory Approaches to Observation, Assessment and Planning


  • Supporting Play in Neurodiversity Affirming Ways


  • Working with Families to support their understanding of neurodiversity


Pre-Order my books here:

A Guide to SEND in the Early Years (Bloomsbury)

Little Minds Matter: Supporting the wellbeing of children with SEND (Routledge)

If you wish to find out more about Neurodiversity, I recommend the following:

Read Dr Nick Walker’s Key Terms and Definitions


Visit my website www.eyfs4me.com for key resources and strategies

Visit The Neurodiversity Therapy Collective https://therapistndc.org/education/

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