A loose guide for Neurodivergent learners and students

A loose guide for Neurodivergent learners and students

Posted on: 10/05/2022

A loose guide for neurodivergent learners and students

"Respect is not fear and awe; it...[is]the ability to see a person as he is, to be aware of his unique individuality. Respect, thus, implies the absence of exploitation. I want the loved person to grow and unfold for his own sake, and in his own ways, and not for the purpose of serving me." Erich Fromm
“The Art of Loving: The Centennial Edition”, p.26. 

We need to be 'free to learn'. 

  • As a Neurodivergent learner you are most definitely not alone! 1 in 7 people (15%+ likely more as understanding improves) of the general population are neurodivergent. We exist in a neurodiverse population that unfortunately leans towards catering to the neuromajority. 
  • Invisible disabilities are real and dynamic and subject to change over time. One day you could be flying and the next not be able to engage. 'Forcing it' in to neuromajority ways can (and has) caused physiological and psychological harm (I am currently researching 'Allostatic loads' and will place details here. But please look up details in the meantime). We all have ‘spiky’ educational profiles. There is no such thing as a ‘perfect learner’. No being is linear. Neurodivergent people don't just have neurodivergent minds we have neurodivergent bodies. Brain and body are crucially interlinked and I cannot wait till we finally move away (we are, we have, we will) from Descartes pronouncement 'I think therefore I am'. I and others ( Antonio Damasio for one. Worth also reading/ cross referencing with Lisa Feldman Barrett's work 'How Emotions are Made' ) cite ' I feel, Therefore I am!' Dualism perpetuates separation and 'other'. 

'Many tomes have been written on human cognition, many theories proposed and studies conducted.... These efforts have produced countless illuminating insights, but they are limited by their assumption that thinking only happens inside the brain. Much less attention has been paid to the ways people use the world to think: gestures of the hands, the space of a sketchbook, the act of listening, or the task of teaching someone else. These "extra-neural" inputs change the way we think; it could be said that they consitute part of the thinking process itself.' "The extended mind". Prologue xiii

  • It is your human right to access an education. Accommodations are your right.
  • Look for educators, tutors and lecturers who are openly neurodivergent and/or disabled. Some educators still (have to) hide the fact they are neurodivergent unfortunately.  Representation matters. For further information please see research : 'Autistics working in academia:  What are the barriers and facilitators?' Sandra C Jones *Not Open Access unfortunately- will update if made available or please contact author of study directly. 
  • Look for tutors who have made the effort to understand our culture(s) and have had necessary training by and for neurodivergent/and or disabled tutors. They may have read X and been on X marches but how do they nurture you as a learner? Care is critical and intersectionality is part of that.  
  • Ableism (and disableism) exists within education – you are not imagining things - awareness is growing and approaches are changing, but more is needed. You can be a part of this.
  • Others stigma and stigmatising actions are not yours. Stigma is a societal issue.  
  • Your medical history is private! Only share details if you feel you are in a safe, sensitive, supportive environment and with trustworthy individuals. This is imperative. Be vulnerable only on your terms.  
  • Look for educational establishments who don’t outsource their support to different campuses. Accessibility is key!
  • Look for courses (tutors and peers) that don’t expect you to be ‘switched on’ all the time. You are not there as a part-time surrogate tutor, to organise your tutors or your peers or act as a Q & A service station. Assess if those around you are responsible for their actions. Being Neurodivergent means using more energy for executive function tasks and communicating (speaking, writing and all the forms and streams of social communication modern society unfortunately demands) and simply existing in high demand environments. 
  • Protect your energy. Some use 'spoon theory' to describe the amount of energy they have. I use terms/language such as 'I currently don't have the band width to take on these additional responsibilities right now'.  
  • Pace equals space. Move away from others panic (yes, we can sense this more potently) and hurry and give yourself space where ever possible and when ever possible. 
  • All tension, tension, tension and no release, with added sensory burdens, and constant barrage of external requests is disabling and near on impossible to learn in without cronic burnout. Abraham Marslow knew learners needed their needs met in order to learn. 
  • If you feel your tutors understanding is limited in terms of neurodivergency, try to talk to them initially and if possible. For example: Your tutor only questions you in constant discussion but then provides no transition time between queries, ask for transition time or for them to move on to another learner or task. If they don’t do this think of complaining. Also, if you feel you are being side-lined, complain. If you feel unsupported, complain. If you feel the validation processes are biased, complain. All educators need to be trained by neurodivergent trainers and educators for neurodivergent learners. 
  • Your educational environment is hugely important!! Neurodivergent learners are more sensitive to their environments (this will vary.  You may want to investigate sounds sensitivities, for example. This MIST-A Sound tolerance questionnaire may help). I know I am less likely to have a quality learning experience in perpetually negative, cold and sensorially demanding environments. There is no ‘getting over’ these aspects or ‘toughing up’ for me as a neurodivergent learner. For further information please see this following study from 2020,  'Distraction, distress and diversity: Exploring the impact of sensory processing differences on learning and school life for pupils with autism spectrum disorders' *Full open access article available

'Data indicates that it was largely negative sensory experiences that impacted learning, in turn
causing distraction, anxiety and limited participation'

Notes. PF, 2021

  • You are fully within your rights to think differently and to have more time and space. This does not mean you aren’t 'open minded'. The Neuromajority group think discounts a lot of the actual neurodivergent lived experience on a daily basis.  Consider who is being open minded. Is there a knowledge mismatch leading to a power imbalance? 
  • Educational social atmosphere matters ('Emotional contagion', for example) .  This I firmly believe to be a part of an educational establishment / educators 'duty of care' and not to be simply left to the student, even in the midst of 'igniting individuation'. It is a community effort even for those who the educator disagrees with. There are multiple philosophies out there and yet more to be discovered.  Everything is subject to change. We are moving past, with huge relief (!!)  male dominating 'air of theory' now. A 'self directed' course, needs to be as it indicates - Self directed. 
  • Get out of the studio and lecture rooms to shift the sticky heavy clinging atmosphere(s) and help move your nervous system back to a rest and digest state (parasympathetic) from potential fright and flight and demand(s) (sympathetic) mode (s). I personally love walking, follow breathing and tapping exercises and take time out (Artists need to have a life to create!) all of which help clear my head from continual wants and demands and boost my creativity. I am not creative in continually angry demanding overly questioning (you don't need to answer everyone’s requests/questions. You will already likely have enough) spaces due to filtering differences. I will notice someone brooding from meters away or chaos happening rooms even further away, which is draining. It is not selfish or 'unproductive' to take time to realign away from chaos- it is in fact vital in an era of less and less personal spacetime.  While walking and breathing exercises may not work for you, consider what other things you enjoy and bring your energy back. Stimming, shaking, bouncing, reading a book alone, listening to music, sitting in the sun, films are also great for moving from the constant non-requested tension of others on us and our nervous system. 
  • And to repeat from my previous page: You are allowed to laugh, not 'live the tragedy narrative' and enjoy (please, please do!) the process of art making.  Joy is a permissible emotion! That in itself is a magical form of relief, replenishment and meaning.  Never underestimate the power of a Flow state, for example, in terms of creativity. See the work of pioneer psychologist the late Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi . 
  • Methods of debate are in themselves ableist. How many Neurodivergent Alexiythymic learners attempts at discussion are cut across? How many AAC users are able to debate in class? How many Dyslexic students have not only their writing but speech 'corrected' continually when patience is all that's needed? Education isn't meant to worsen your disabilities. Ever.  Approach and method matter and that comes with a feeling and sense of being welcomed in community. 
  • If you can’t find an appropriate course or educational establishment, consider creating your own course and/or curriculum and seeking out appropriate mentors. Seek out discussion groups and providers. More online provision is now available (Hybrid learning, is now more prevalent post-pandemic, for example). This can be a more trial-and-error approach at striking out in this direction but it can also be hugely rewarding and could be a lesser financial burden(s) on you.
  • You have every right to be creative on your terms. 
'A mind seeks what is meaningful to itself in the universe' 'The book of Minds'Philip Ball 

  • Educators:  Spread the physical and psychological loads around a class. Example:  Who's, energy, knowledge, equipment, tools and time is being used the most and who's isn't? Are you visible and approachable?  Are you loading supervision or general responsibilities on to the same few learners? Is it their responsibility or yours (are the learners offering more pastrol care than you/ your collegues/ and/or the instituation is?)?  Your neurodivergent and/or disabled learners, as many learners, will remember how they were treated. They will remember actions, approaches, being patronised and favouritism(s) and what your relationships are with the people around you and them. Wistfully declaring 'Adorno as your favourite' and then continuing to posturingly 'punch downward' is a contradiction too far.  When a learner declares they have a mental health issue, such as anxiety, for example, they are often asking for help and appropriate response would be 'are you ok?'. Not 'Anxiety is a normal response' in the philosophical sense (it is not the time to be smug. Remember the possible power dynamics), can act as a fait accompli, and can come across as a 'cease and desist' response.  Neurodivergent learners are often Hypervigilant and the intensity of Anxiety is not a crass 'learning opportunity'.  And definitely not an opportunity to negate the already negated. These moments are best dealt with privately away from a class room. Sensory anxieties are very real and manifest in many different ways.  You can be right and kind. Empower your learners to say 'no'.  Your words and actions matter. Stress, agitation and constant 'tension' narrows both the learners and educators view, so why persist?
  • Using out of date psycho analytics (and not understanding Neurodivegent culture and perception/sensory differences and needs) to cause a state of confusion in student(s) is ethically questionable.  
  • I will add, we see the many pressures educators are under - under resourced, under funded, under supported.  Your collegues leaving.  Short term contracts. Your pensions taken and management structures in constant flux, with very little support from government and linked institutions.  Many have/ are seeing this and have lived it and these aspects aren't going un-noticed and have a direct affect/effect on you and your learners.  But the current structures do not work for Neurodivergent learners and educators in many circumstances.  
I came across this poem some time ago, by Artist Grada Kilomba, titled 'Decolonizing Knowledge', which spoke deeply to me and solidifed what I had viewed before fully understanding the reaches of Abelism and which now acts as a frequent guide in those 'punching down' moments :

"When they speak, it is scientific;
when we speak, it is unscientific.
When they speak, it is universal;
when we speak, it is specific.
When they speak, it is objective;
when we speak, it is subjective.
When they speak, it is neutral;
when we speak, it is personal.
When they speak, it is rational;
when we speak, it is emotional. 
When they speak, it is impartial;
when we speak, it is partial.
They have facts, we have opinions. 
They have knowledges, we have experiences. 
We are not dealing here with a peaceful coexistence of words,
but rather with a violent hierachy, which defines
Who can Speak, and What We Can Speak About."

Grada Kilomba, in 'Decolonizing Knowledge' (2016)


We don't need to be cruel to teach the Contemporary.

This is not an exhaustive list and I fully realise even this list may not be fully accessible to all, so I am more than happy to hear from others to discuss aspects I’ve noted above.  Please contact me via the contact page if you wish to discuss further or add too. My aim here is to save others time and negate ableist systems. 

Good teaching is an artform.

Additional recommended reading / audio (click on titles):


' The Good University'. 'What universities actually do and why it's time for radical change'. By Raewyn Connell ( Available in text )

'Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education' (Corporealities: Discourses Of Disability). By Jay T Dolmage. (Available in text and audio formats)  

'The body holds the score'. By Bessel Van Der Kolk ( Available in text and audio formats) 

'Neurotribes' By Steven Silberman (Available in text and audio formats) 

'Neuroqueer Heresies' By Dr Nick Walker (Available in text, including eBook and audio formats) 

'Divergent Mind' By Jenara Nerenberg (Available in text and audio).  Please see further information on Nerenberg's website here - Jenara Nerenberg & The Neurodivesity Project. 

'NeuroDiversity: The Birth of an Idea' By Judy Singer (Available in text) *Please note Judy Singer did not coin the term 'Neurodiversity' it actually heralded from the Neurodivergent community. Judy Singer bore witness to the terms birth though and detailed it.  I will note more details regarding this significant point when I can.  

'Neurodiversity Affirming Glassary of Key Vocabulary. The PDA Space Summit 2023 Edition' By Helen Edgar, Autistic Realms (Available in text). 

'The Care Manifesto.' By The Care Collective (Available in text)

'The Extended Mind' By Annie Murphy Paul (Available in text) 


'Ableist Ideologies Stifle Neurodiversity and Hinder Inclusive Education'. By Marie Adrienne R. Manalili, Ought: The Journal of Autistic Culture. Vol 3, Issue 1 (2021) 

'Anti-Abelist Takeover Issue'  The National Society for Education in Art and Design (NSEAD) Magazine. Autumn 2022. Issue 35

'Effects of Teachers’ Emotions in Teaching and Learning in the Foundation Phase Open access. Published 2021. Primary foundational teaching level. 

New addage [2023]
Problematising 'Ableist' epistemologies in Higher Education By Ursula Mary Blythe. 

Recommended organisations who offer training and co-designed education improvement programmes for teachers, created with, by and for Autistic and Neurodivergent people: 

Ausome Training - https://ausometraining.com/

Divergent Perspectives - https://www.divergentperspectives.co.uk/

Magical Women
- https://www.magicalwomen.co.uk/home

LEANS Project (Edinburgh University)
- Free downloadable Neurodiversity co-designed opensource resources available here: https://www.ed.ac.uk/salvesen-research/leans

GRRAND Project (Group for Research in Relationships and NeuroDiversity)
Playing A/Part project - 'an interdisciplinary project, exploring the identities and experiences of autistic girls and adolescents through creative and participatory research. It is a collaboration between the universities of Kent and Surrey, involving academics in drama, music, media arts and psychology' : https://playingapartautisticgirls.org/ 

PARC: The Participatory Autism Research Collective https://participatoryautismresearch.wordpress.com/

Additionl reading and resources

'Double Empathy: Why Autistic People Are Often Misunderstood' :  


'Monotropism' - 'Monotropism is a theory of autism developed by autistic people,' Initiated by coined by the late Dr Dinah Murray and Wenn Lawson. 
A questionnaire now been developed for and by community members to help individuals 'self-report' and 'measure' Monotropism in Autistic and non-Autistic people. The questionnaire can be found here : https://osf.io/ft73y/ 

'The Reason I Jump' - A film 'Based on the bestselling book by Naoki Higashida, THE REASON I JUMP is an immersive cinematic exploration of neurodiversity through the experiences of nonspeaking autistic people from around the world. The film blends Higashida’s revelatory descriptions of his autism, written when he was just 13, with intimate portraits of five remarkable young people. It opens a window into an intense and overwhelming, but often joyful, sensory universe, a sensually rich tapestry that leads us to Naoki’s core message: not being able to speak does not mean there is nothing to say.'

'Un-typical . How the world isn't built for Autistic People and What we all do about it'. By Pete Wharmby (Available in both text and audio) 

Useful quick reference recommended blog by Neurodivergent Lou. - https://www.instagram.com/neurodivergent_lou/?hl=en

*Please note
This page is intermittedly updated, amended and added to. 

Pernille Fraser, 2020, 2021, 2022 * 2023

#BetterEducationForNeurodivergentLearners #BetterEducationalForThoseWithInvisableDisabilities #DutyOfCare #BetterEducationForAll #Parity #StudentAutonomy #LearnerAutonomy

©2023 Pernille Fraser