What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiverse pupils may have different needs which must be supported in the classroom. Our experts discuss how schools can achieve this and be more inclusive

Author details

Lisa Griffin is content lead at Optimus Education, focusing on leadership and governance. 


  • Sarah Hopp, Head of Additional Learning Support and Inclusion, St Francis Xavier Sixth Form College
  • Andy Smith, Inclusion Ambassador and SEND Advocate at Bury Council, Founder of Spectrum Gaming
  • Dr Ruth Moyse, Associate and Director, AT-Autism

What does neurodiversity mean? How do we define as neurodivergent?

Sarah: Neurodivergent means lots of different things to different people. The term was first coined by sociologist Judy Singer in late 1990s and includes a range of conditions such as autism, ADHD and dyspraxia. It’s about recognising the uniqueness of each individual and their contributions to society.

Those that aren’t typical - those who behave differently to others or who communicate differently – are defined as neurodivergent. I have argued that if we’re all different and unique then there is no such thing as neurotypical; we are all neurodiverse.

There has been research into workplace environments which shows if you have a neurodivergent team it can make you stronger. It means you see many perspectives and have a much wider understanding of problems and situations than if everyone came from same background.

Andy: I’m autistic and every neurotype whether it be autism or ADHD for example has its positives and negatives. Being neurodivergent isn’t a bad thing, it’s just being different.

You can’t see that someone’s brain is wired differently so you might not understand responses to things or behaviours displayed, or what needs to be done to enable those who are neurodiverse to live the best life they can. 

When people get a diagnosis of autism, it’s often at a crisis point and when they are struggling the most. At this time those with autism are also often experiencing things like anxiety, trauma, depression etc and when they get the diagnosis of autism it’s common to link these things to autism and think they are part of being autistic.

Because of this people often feel embarrassed or ashamed of their diagnosis – not because they feel autism is inherently a bad thing but because they’ve learnt to blame autism for other difficulties they’ve experienced.

Ruth: As individuals we’re all different and we all react differently to what society expects. There is no right way of being, it’s about being yourself.

When you’re given the confidence and support to do this, all individuals start to thrive. We want a society that accepts neurodivergent individuals.

What can teachers do to support neurodivergent pupils?

Andy: One of the most important things is to teach accepting difference and to talk about differences to increase understanding. If things like autism and neurodiversity are not spoken about openly in the classroom, how will pupils understand them?

People often fear things that they do not understand so facilitate discussions in classroom and encourage young people to talk about their needs and differences. Make pupils feel comfortable in doing so.

Peer support is also invaluable. Young people want to feel they are understood. Ask yourself:

  • does the young person have a place where they feel comfortable and accepted?
  • does the young person have at least one person who they’re able to be themselves around, who they can talk to?

Ruth: Take time to listen to pupils. Connect with them, get to know them, and show them you see them as individuals. Find out what they’re interested in and ask them about it.

Understand their differences and that what they may find challenging, such as timekeeping or organisational skills, may not be the same things you or other pupils find challenging.

Sarah: The key to everything is trust. Build relationships with your young people based on empathy, communication and trying to understand each other. Build relationships with the parents and guardians too and make them feel supported.

Encourage career aspirations and help pupils find careers based on their strengths. Make staff aware and train them on different types of neurodiversity.

When and how do prejudices develop?

Sarah: Different elements of society including education, culture, religion, family all combine to make a person who they are and how they see themselves and how they see the world.

These elements all have accepted social norms. If there is any bias within these elements, they can become embedded in a person and result in unconscious bias. This describes the associations we hold, outside our conscious awareness and control.

Unconscious bias is triggered by our brain automatically making quick judgments and assessments. I told my class that my daughter was taking me to a rave and the responses ranged from surprise to sheer laughter. Their unconscious bias told them I'm too old to do this.

Ruth: We’re influenced by people around us, what we see and hear on social media, on television etc and that creates a view in our minds of how the world should be.

This can lead to the occurrence of ‘othering’, which is holding beliefs or views about people that might not be right or reasonable. For example, ‘we’re not like them, they don’t look like or behave how we do.’

Often othering occurs when people are afraid. This goes back to what Andy said about the importance of teaching about difference in the classroom and teaching acceptance.

Three tips to being more inclusive


  1. Take time to listen and provide a way that makes it easy for pupils to communicate that they are comfortable with. Don’t make assumptions of how someone is feeling or what they need.
  2. Act. Do a sensory audit of the school with a young person and find out how you can help them feel less overwhelmed or anxious. Take time to self-reflect on staff actions and what can be improved.
  3. Show you care. Show pupils you see them as individuals. Make them feel like they belong and aren’t a burden for having different needs.


  1. Trust. Show pupils they can trust you; build a relationship and work in partnership. Ask a young person what will help them if they feel overwhelmed.
  2. Focus on wellbeing in and out of the classroom.
  3. Talk about autism and neurodiversity and difference to help all young people understand it.


With thanks to Sarah Hopp, Andy Smith and Ruth Moyse for joining our panel discussion at the Leading SEND Provision conference.


Last Updated: 
22 Mar 2022