This week is Neurodiversity Celebration Week (15-21 March 2021), an awareness campaign that recognises the strengths and talents of those with learning differences.
According to a Government report last January, there are now 1.3m pupils with Special Educational Needs (SEN) in England (up from 14.9% in 2019 to 15.5% in 2020). To put it more tangibly, your average class of 30 children may have at least four or five children with a learning need or disability. That’s a surprising ratio, and one that must put enormous strain on the education and health care system.
Neurodiversity is a topic that’s quite personal to me, as I’m the mum of a child with additional needs. People we know don’t necessarily realise it, but our 10-year-old son has a number of hidden disabilities and special educational needs. He was diagnosed with, amongst other things, Auditory Processing Disorder (APD), a neurological disability affecting around 5-7% of kids.* It impacts how the brain processes sound which can make understanding speech (especially in noisy environments) very difficult, in spite of having perfect hearing.
Neurological diagnoses can come with an array of challenges: behaviour that can, to the outside world, appear naïve, age inappropriate, or inexplicable; massive restrictions in where and what you can do as a family; judgement from well-meaning bystanders. It’s all understandable as it’s hard to comprehend what you can’t see.
Today, awareness around hidden neurological disorders is increasing. Some are genetic, some due to physical trauma or illnesses, and some are still a bit of a mystery. Autism, ADHD, Tourette’s, and Dyslexia are probably the most well-known in children (but still enormously misunderstood) diagnoses, but there’s a stack of others.
Dyspraxia, Dysgraphia, Dyscalculia, Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA), Meares-Irlen Syndrome (or Visual Stress), Prosopagnosia, Synesthesia, and Sensory Processing Difficulties are just some of the conditions that go unheard-of by much of the population.
The Venn diagram of neurological disorders is extensive, with many overlapping conditions and symptoms, making a diagnosis by a professional both essential and complex. Often, anxiety, poor self-esteem, and other mental health issues run in parallel, a by-product of exhausting struggles with seemingly simple tasks. Why is writing so hard for me? Why can’t I ride a bike? Why can’t I understand what people mean?
A few years ago, I read an article about TV vocal coaches Carrie and David Grant who have four children, all with additional needs including Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, ADHD, Dyspraxia, and Dyscalculia. “What are the odds of that?!” I thought. Turns out it’s pretty high if there’s a genetic or hereditary factor.
The debate will rage on as to why there has been an increase in diagnosis – societal reasons, environmental factors, or just improved identification and public education. What’s clear is that the long-term impact of going unsupported and misunderstood can be devastating.
With the right help, these children can flourish. Neurodiverse kids can often be extremely creative, artistic, passionate, sensitive and empathetic. There are stacks of examples of successful famous figures with neurological conditions, from Bill Gates to Albert Einstein. The crucial point is that not everyone learns in the same way.
As with a physical impairment, neurological difference should not be a barrier to achievement. Every child should be given the chance to reach their own personal potential by receiving the support and accommodations they need. So, this week, let’s celebrate all minds and the wonderful diversity they bring.
* Recent international research has indicated that APD is thought to be present in 5% to 7% of children (some sources say up to 10% or 1 in 10) and in over 20% of adults. The amount increases steeply in children who have learning difficulties, with up to 40% of those children also having Auditory Processing deficits. By comparison, according to the WHO in 2019, Autism/ASD is thought to affect only 1 in 160 children worldwide (with an estimated 1.1% in the UK). For more details visit the APD SupportUK website: https://apdsupportuk.yolasite.com/