The benefits of an inclusive, self-directed approach to education for students of all neurotypes
by Kate Smith - WCSS Parent
My family is most definitely neurodiverse! Over half of my relatives, my siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews and now my children have diagnoses of either dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD, autism or a combination of these.
We certainly have our challenges navigating a world not always designed with us in mind. However we also have many strengths because we think differently, creatively and sometimes hilariously, solving problems in a multitude of interesting and innovative ways.
In a recent report in the Irish Times, neurodiversity was shown to be a competitive advantage at work, with neurodiverse teams achieving 48% higher productivity than their neurotypical peers at the bank JP Morgan Chase.
While I am not keen to conflate productivity at work with the worth of a person these results left me wanting to learn more. I have been reading as much as I can on the special dynamic that exists in both my family and our school, the West Cork Sudbury School (WCSS), on how students with diverse cognitive styles, or neurotypes, engage with and learn from each other.
It turns out that a great amount of research has been carried out specifically on the benefits to students of inclusive and diverse learning communities like WCSS, but first, I want to clarify a few terms.
What exactly is neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity is an umbrella term for all the ways of being, thinking and communicating that exist. Terms like “neuroatypical” or “neurodivergent”, given to or claimed by folk with neurotypes like ADHD, Dyspraxia, Autism, Tourette’s syndrome, Dyslexia (and many more), can be helpful to highlight differences and discrimination that come with being different to a majority.
However, exclusively using those terms to describe differences, cements the notion that there is a “normal” way that equals “the right way”. The term neurodiversity highlights that the human experience is diverse, not only in terms of appearances and cultures but also in ways of thinking and communicating. When we talk about neurodiversity we include everyone, majority brains and the neurotypes that are in the minority.
When we look at educational systems, we can see that they are often built by people with majority brains for people with majority brains, which can lead to exclusionary environments no matter how hard individuals try to counteract that. This is not surprising, but is it desirable or just?
So what are the five good reasons we should be chosing a school for our children that embraces neurodiversity as part of the human experience?
1. Universal design
West Cork Sudbury School takes a universal design approach to education: it is designed by people of diverse neurotypes for students of diverse neurotypes. This is a strength-based approach which acknowledges that there are multiple forms of intelligence and no “right” way of learning.
Like all universal designs that accommodate the needs of specific groups, what designers have found again and again is that these accommodations result in innovative solutions that benefit not only the target group.
This is often called the curb-cut effect:
Picture Credit: sketchplanations
A British Psychological Society report on universal design in schools emphasises the need for a shift “away from modification of a person against a norm, and towards cultivation of that individual on their terms.” I’m guessing many of us would like to see our children cultivated in this way. We want them to know and use their strengths, boosting their self-esteem and quality of life no matter what their neurotype (see Schippers, 2022).
2. A supportive Community
Recent research has shown that students who experience higher levels of connection with their peers, regardless of their neurotype report higher satisfaction with life.
An inclusive school community such as WCSS’s is very intentionally fostered by staff and students, through regular meetings, consensus-based decision-making, parent learning workshops and the use of transformative practices to resolve conflicts. In this way, students of all neurotypes (and their families) support each other's learning and growth, creating an atmosphere where everyone's strengths are celebrated, and challenges are approached collectively, promoting compassion and understanding.
Embracing neurodiversity as an organisation doesn’t mean dealing with a bunch of problems that need solving – on the contrary, it's a “rich community, brimming with individual and collective potential”.
3. Tolerance of Difference and Ability to self-advocate
A frightening statistic in Ireland in 2023 showed an 85% unemployment rate amongst autistics, attributed mainly to employer attitudes. Inclusive schools, that are opposed to segregation into units and special classes, actively challenge stereotypes and misconceptions. Students develop a more open-minded and tolerant attitude towards individual differences, reducing stigmas and promoting a culture of acceptance and celebration of differences. Such inclusive environments have been found to promote positive self-esteem and well-being for all students (Cooper et al. 2023).
At schools like WCSS, students are empowered to become accomplished self-advocates who understand their needs and feel no shame in asking for help (Aitken and Fletcher-Watson, 2022). This is an essential skill for all neurotypes: Those confident to state their own needs will often learn to recognise and address barriers to inclusion throughout their lives and are confident to speak out for others, fostering their leadership skills.
4. Enhanced Teamwork
Learning within an inclusive community, provides a rich tapestry of perspectives, enabling all students to develop a heightened sense of empathy and broaden their skills for social interactions (Sharma, 2021). Schools such as WCSS are hyper-social as students negotiate how they spend their abundance of time together. This encourages communication and collaboration across various styles while also teaching conflict management techniques. This experience helps all students develop flexibility and adaptability in their social interactions, essential skills in an increasingly diverse and interconnected world.
5. Improved Creativity and Problem-solving
A recent study compared pairs of students working together on a creative project: building towers out of dried spaghetti and plasticine. Again they found the most creative and innovative designs were achieved when two different neurotypes worked together.
This finding is borne out every day at WCSS: The students demonstrate a wide range of cognitive strengths and thinking styles and benefit from exposure to different problem-solving approaches and unique perspectives. This diversity enhances the overall intellectual and creative environment, promoting cognitive flexibility and a deeper understanding of complex concepts.
Neurodiversity embraces the idea that all neurotypes are normal variations of what it means to be human and gives us an amazing vantage point for collaboration, listening, creativity, innovation and empathy.
My family and our school community are embracing neurodiversity. What this means in practice is that we will always give choice and flexibility to our young people. We emphasise teamwork over competition, and creativity over rote learning, stressing the need for physical and mental well-being and lots of play.
At WCSS it means freedom, autonomy and independence. It means greatly reduced anxiety levels - well known to exacerbate the symptoms of neurological differences, but surely good for everyone. It means a non-judgmental learning environment, with space to move, space to connect with others, space to be quiet, and space to deep dive into and excel in any area of interest with an abundance of creativity and support.
Neurodiversity is about Social Justice and also about so much more: These innovative and inclusive practices have positive impacts on the mental well-being and social outcomes of all students and, I truly believe, contribute to a more connected family, a more cohesive school community and, I hope, a more tolerant society.
Kate is a parent at the West Cork Sudbury School. She works as a freelance academic psychology researcher and editor and is always trying to learn a bit more on the side about parenting a neurodiverse family.