Large version of the headshot for education officer James Galpin

nasen - Neurodiversity: reaffirming the inherent differences that unify us all

17 Mar 2021|13:27

For Neurodiversity Week, Dr James Galpin, Education Officer at nasen, reflects on the importance of celebrating diversity in SEND:

Judy Singer’s paradigm busting work, stating how autism could act as the clarion call for “a politics of neurological diversity, or ‘neurodiversity’” (Singer, 1999, p.64), crystallised a renewed focus on the social model of disability, particularly with regards to the way in which different ways of thinking were stigmatised, marginalised and devalued. The term ‘neurodiversity’ has moved into the wider public vernacular and in so doing has become a moving target with regards to how it is to be defined. As Chapman (2020) notes, it will no doubt “continue to change and ‘move’ due to complex interactions between those who are categorised by it…as well as the various relevant institutions it challenges and responds to” (p.219). Education is one such institution where the challenge is welcome. It should cause us to explicitly question the processes of pathologising “difference”, while constructively questioning traditional educational thinking and practices.

The number of children and young people identified with a special educational need in the UK continues to rise. If the rate of increase over the past five years continues into the next five years, over a fifth of all pupils will be on their schools’ SEN register. A greater focus on early identification of need and a proliferation of CPDL, focussing on the increasingly wide range of categories into which pupils are placed, has contributed to this rise. Timely support for children and young people is vital and an increased recognition of need may well have been highly beneficial for many students. However, an unintended consequence of a greater awareness of specific areas of difference is the re-emergence of the medical model. Within this context, SEN are conceived of in terms of discrete diagnostic categories: ADHD, dyslexia, autism and so on. Teaching staff are now expected to have specific theoretical, and increasingly, neuropsychological knowledge about this growing set of categories in order to support their students. More often than not, this knowledge focusses on the deficits and disorders that certain children have and what steps we can take to make up for their ‘shortcomings’. This enables us to push them towards the ‘mainstream’ outcomes currently considered to be desirable.

Sticky labels

The idea that categorical labels are something concrete that exist independent of any particular observer’s definition, can stifle and “restrict the available ways of conceptualising and responding to human difference in our schools and more specifically within special educational needs” (Billington 2017). Any label within education requires critical interrogation because it is not simply descriptive but acts to “constitute and limit who those students are” (Youdell, 2010, p. 78). Autistic pupils have a ‘disorder’, those with ADHD have a deficit and a disorder, for example. Labels, a set of temporary constructs, do not only serve to describe, but to define. These definitions generate norms around expectations and identities (for example, what constitutes a ‘normal pupil’). They lead to an increasing number of pupils being situated outside of a normative construction of education, because “it is not the right place for them”. We should instead be asking, “Who is this the right place for?” and looking at the environment we have created and the extent to which it is an exclusionary space for certain children and young people. Too often, the focus is on the poor fit of the child rather than the environment they find themselves in. Unique attributes can then end up reframed as inadequacies as a consequence of the unachievable endeavour to teach to the non-existent ‘normal’ student.

“The purpose of identification is to work out what action the school needs to take, not to fit a pupil into a category” (SEN Code of Practice, 2015, Paragraph 6.27).

When complex social and educational problems are reduced to a psychomedical deficit using the labels of disorder, deficit and dysfunction, the struggles pupils have in school are framed as being solely based within them and their left superior temporal gyri, dysfunctional striatal networks and altered gabaminergic and glutaminergic systems - their disordered, deficient and dysfunctional brains. This myopic focus limits our ability to take a step back and examine the curricula, classrooms and content for signs of disorder, deficiencies and dysfunction. To accommodate the growing number of pupils who are not considered when designing education, the number of pathologies continue to expand and their arbitrary and ill-defined boundaries welcome ‘out’ a greater proportion of our young people. As noted by the Association of School and College Leaders in their written evidence for the SEND Education Committee “…when designing the national curriculum, school accountability, assessment and qualifications” we have failed children and young people who think differently because we have failed “to fully consider the evidence and pedagogy around inclusion” (First Report of Session 2019, HC 20).

Human, kind

Evidence is increasingly recognising the need for more flexible, universal support strategies to be embedded within schools. We need inclusion by design as opposed to the piecemeal adoption of isolated interventions. Efforts to better understand complexity have shown that categorical distinctions provide less value than we had previously supposed. The Centre for Attention, Learning and Memory, notably through the use of network analysis, have shown how a child's diagnosis provides no reliable indicator of their cognitive profile (Astle et al, 2019). The shift away from studying discreet groups towards a better, transdiagnostic, approach to understanding strengths and needs is spreading within many areas of cognitive research (Astle, Holmes, Kievit & Gathercole, 2021). Essentially, the transdiagnostic approach concentrates on what unites us all, rather than trying to suppress our inherent diversity. Greater understanding is to be found when we celebrate and embrace complexity and by reiterating the notion that where we draw the line between ‘disordered’ and ‘normal’ is ultimately a political and social choice, not a scientific one.

Within education and the wider public consciousness, neurodiversity can once again serve as a clarion call - a challenge or an invitation to “both reimagine pathologised and dehumanised kinds in a more humane and compassionate way and reimagine the world in a way that is less hostile to such kinds” (Chapman, 2020, p.219). Bringing difference back into the realm of a human universal can re-empower the teaching profession to be able to support all the children and young people who form part of their community. Recognising that difficulties with reading or differences in attentional focus do not constitute developmental failure, but are just an expression of normal individual differences, should have no practical implications for the way in which we support all pupils in creating rich learning environments for all.

As neurodiversity week draws to a close we must work to ensure that its overarching message does not fade. Neurodiversity and the reconceptualisation of SEND can be a banner from which an understanding of the term “diversity” can be expanded beyond different ways of thinking to focus on the value of differences in gender, race, socio-economic status, cultural groups, sexuality, abilities and interests and the way in which schools can welcome, nurture and celebrate them all. As Edgar Morin highlighted in his 1999 work on what elements should be central in building the future of education: “the idea of human unity should not efface the fact of its diversity and the idea of its diversity should not efface the idea of its unity. […] Understanding what is human, means understanding our unity in diversity, our diversity in unity. […] Education should illustrate this unity-diversity principle in all spheres”. That future is now.


Astle, D. E., Bathelt, J., CALM team, & Holmes, J. (2019). Remapping the cognitive and neural profiles of children who struggle at school. Developmental science, 22(1), e12747.

Astle, D., Holmes, J., Kievit, R., & Gathercole, S. E. (2021). The transdiagnostic revolution in neurodevelopmental disorders.

Billington, T. (2017). Educational inclusion and critical neuroscience: friends or foes?. International Journal of Inclusive Education21(8), 866-880.

Chapman, R. (2020). Defining neurodiversity for research and practice. In H. B.Rosqvist, N.Chown, & A.Steinning (Eds.), Neurodiversity studies: A new critical paradigm (pp. 218–220). Routledge.

Morin, E. (1999) Les sept savoir necessaires a l’education du futur. Paris: UNESCO

Singer, J. (1999) Why can’t you be normal for once in your life? From a problem with no name to the emergence of a new category of difference. Disability discourse, 59-70

Youdell, D. (2010). School trouble: Identity, power and politics in education. Routledge.