How to support neurodiverse needs in the classroom

You need to understand different learning needs to be able to support them. Sarah Hopp describes strategies to involve, respond to and support neurodiverse pupils

Author details

Sarah Hopp has 25 years of experience as a specialist SEND leader, assessor and teacher for students with a wide range of complex needs including SEMH, ADHD, autism and dyslexia, and has also been a mainstream subject and pastoral teacher in a...

Neurodiversity is a concept that was first coined by Judy Singer in 1998. It refers to the infinite variability of the neurobiological make-up that makes each human unique in their disposition, perception, ability and needs.

The spectrum of learning differences

Learning differences are often described as being on spectrums. A ‘spectrum’ is often visualised as a linear graph, however, think of it more as a venn diagram with the various characteristics of each learning difference intersecting and interacting with each other. 

For example, some people with ADHD will share traits of autism or dyspraxia and vice versa. Where a person lands on the venn diagram creates a diagnosis. People that do not hit the threshold for a diagnosis may also share some traits.

Additionally, a person’s emotions, beliefs and perception are influenced by:

  • their mental wellbeing
  • their cultural, sexual and gender dispositions
  • their personal life experiences and interactions with their friends, family, peers and professionals.

A person then, is a complex being and teachers should be aware of these complexities and how they may play out in the classroom.

How can you identify neurodiverse needs?

  • Be aware of your pupil’s strengths and use strength-based strategies.
  • Read application forms carefully to check for any declarations.
  • Liaise with your SENCO and ask for as much background information from them as possible.
  • Develop working partnerships with parents and guardians.
  • Do an online screening test.
  • At the beginning of the academic year, do a writing and arithmetic exercise as a screener.
  • Get to know your students.

What are the signs?

Neurodivergent characteristics are vast and vary from person to person, but more subtler characteristics may include the below.

  • The ability to hyper-focus on one thing often to the point of obsession.
  • Intelligent and can think outside the box yet has sustained academic underperformance compared to peers.
  • Has excellent academic performance but shows little emotional empathy.
  • Systematises everything, sees everything in black and white.
  • Finds changes in routine difficult to cope with.
  • Extremely creative and can think divergently but has difficulties with organisation and time perception.
  • May appear untidy and/or clumsy and lack spatial awareness.
  • Can appear to act impulsively.
  • May have difficulty with or avoid social interaction.
  • May become defensive if they feel threatened.
  • May go from being fine to extremely anxious in seconds.


Anxiety often originates in perception and may be a result of distorted thinking patterns created by low self-esteem.

Many neurodivergent pupils may feel misunderstood, feel time and again they ‘get it wrong’ and wait to hear from their teacher or peers compounding their low self-esteem. This often results in pupils behaving in one of two ways.

  1. They become withdrawn.
  2. They become defensive, which may present in aggression or behaviour that is regarded as poor in the classroom.

These types of behaviour patterns are an attempt at a cry for help, but not knowing how to communicate that need.

Identifying and responding to need

  • Try active empathetic listening: listening, observing and providing feedback.
  • Awareness of the pupil and willingness to be flexible.
  • Create an environment that is not challenging to the senses, ask pupils here what they prefer as this differs with individuals.
  • Make use of visual prompts on walls, colour code key words and have visual prompts in presentations and when giving written instructions.
  • Create a working relationship with your SENCO, ask for them to observe your lesson, attend departmental meetings and run workshops.
  • Look for opportunities for professional development (see useful resources below).
  • Create a bank of reference books.
  • Look up Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): short courses offered by universities and sometimes accredited.

Supporting neurodiverse needs in whole class activities

Make learning activities a fun and enjoyable experience. This includes thinking outside the box and taking the classroom outside.

Where possible, present assessments as games or quizzes to eliminate anxiety. Be sensitive to social differences and have a sensory room or at least a quieter space within the classroom.

Focus on varying modes of communication and assessment and provide opportunities to learn in novel ways. Keep activities varied and multi-sensory; set clear boundaries with the involvement of the class and follow through with consequences.

Try sympathetic marking, allow for difficulties with spelling and sentence expression where possible and encourage the use of digital tools where appropriate.

Pitfalls to avoid

  • Don’t be patronising, work on the relationship with the student, give praise and ask them what helps them.
  • Don’t use sarcasm but use humour.
  • Don’t think of stereotypes, for example, dyspraxic people are clumsy, autistic people can’t empathise and those with ADHD are poorly behaved.
  • Learn about different types of neurodiversity and get to know the individual who will have a unique disposition.
  • Don’t ask the SENCO for a generic set of strategies for each learning difference, each individual is unique and strategies may not necessarily work.

Remember that a learning difference is exactly that, a difference. The person is not somehow less or deficient; a wider understanding of what it means to be human is required.



Last Updated: 
12 Oct 2022