Alia’s Approach on Neurodiversity in Schools

Written by a neurodivergent staff member

At Alia, we have observed that there are generally 3 levels of acceptance in schools regarding neurodiverse learners. Alia prefers to operate at Level 3, which supports the idea that everyone is capable of learning given the right environment, whatever their diagnosis happens to be.

Level 1

Level 1 acceptance is the level that most neurodivergent adults will have grown up with. Perhaps they were excluded from friendship groups without understanding why or had teachers that told their parents that they just ‘couldn’t sit still’. Diagnoses were available but were few and far in-between, and teachers didn’t really understand what they meant. The term autism was an insult, and children who had one of these diagnoses were labelled as ‘different’ or ‘special needs’. This is generally rare in schools these days.

Level 2

We now have a broader and clearer understanding of neurodivergence – less often we use the terms ‘Asperger’s’ or ‘high/low functioning’, and generally accept that students have a variety of different learning needs. The ability to receive a diagnosis is higher now, but still difficult if you are an undiagnosed adult. Schools try and make accommodations and allowances for students, but unfortunately these often end up isolating them from their peers, even if their peers are supportive. Individual learning plans, teacher aids and special programs can create a sense of labelling students as their diagnosis, and publicly calling out what the school perceives they ‘cannot’ do. These accommodations are a product of the system’s inability (not the school’s or teacher’s inability) to provide these learners with opportunities to engage, not because of the student’s ability. Students start to believe the adults in their life telling them that they can’t participate in school the same way as their peers, and internalise this as depression, anxiety and learned helplessness.

Level 3

If Level 2 acceptance was enough for students (where their diagnosis is acknowledged and the school is trying to accommodate for them), neurodivergent students wouldn’t be seeking alternative options, or school refusing.

At Alia, while the diagnosis is often very useful, it doesn’t even come into the conversation about whether a young person can learn – they can. Learning is so much about the environment that one is in – if you placed any of us in a room that’s on fire and asked us to learn our times tables, we would simply not be able to! If a student is able to learn in a way that works best for them (and not have to follow an inflexible path), then they will see that they can learn! Students from all different backgrounds prefer a calmer, more relaxed environment, free of arbitrary unnecessary rules and uncomfortable uniforms, where they can be themselves and not be judged.

While teachers and staff are aware of student diagnoses and use these to inform us of where students might require additional support, we are not in the business of telling students they can’t do things because of said diagnosis. In fact, we do the opposite – we tell students they can, they might just need an alternative way of doing things to their neurotypical peers. A student wearing headphones while completing work is accepted, as is a needing a brain break outside of the classroom. Level 3 acceptance is the highest level of acceptance, as we treat everyone charitably, and see our students as individual people with their own strengths and challenges.