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Learning difficulties and neurodiversity
Learning difficulties and neurodiversity are two related concepts that refer to the diversity of human brains and how they affect learning, interaction, and sensory experiences. Neurodiversity is a term that recognizes that these challenges are not necessarily disorders or dysfunctions, but natural variations in human neurology that also have strengths and potential (Dwyer, 2022). Learning difficulties are challenges that some people face in acquiring, processing, or applying information, such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, or attention deficit disorder.
Some examples of neurodiverse conditions are autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD, and Tourette syndrome. These conditions can affect how people communicate, think, perceive, and behave in different ways. For instance, some autistic people may have difficulty understanding social cues or expressing emotions, but also have exceptional memory or attention to detail. Some dyslexic people may struggle with reading or spelling, but also have creative or spatial abilities (The LEANS Project, n.d.).
Neurodiversity is important to consider in education because it can help teachers and students understand and respect the differences in learning styles and needs of each individual. It can also help promote inclusive practices that support the participation and achievement of all learners, especially those who face barriers or discrimination due to their neurodivergence. For example, some strategies that can benefit neurodiverse learners are providing multiple modes of instruction and assessment, allowing flexibility and choice, using assistive technology, and fostering a positive and supportive classroom climate (Jenson et al., 2023).
Special Education Needs and Disabilities
SEND stands for Special Education Needs and Disabilities. It is a term that refers to the learning difficulties and/or disabilities that require special health and education support for children and young people aged 0 to 25 in England (NHS England, n.d.). The SEND Code of Practice 2014 and the Children and Families Act 2014 provide the legal framework and guidance for identifying, assessing and supporting children and young people with SEND (Department for Education & Department of Health and Social care, 2015). An Education, Health and care plan (EHC) is a document that outlines the needs, outcomes and provision for a child or young person with SEND, which is developed in collaboration with the local authority, health and social care services, education settings and the family (NHS England, n.d.). The aim of the SEND system is to ensure that children and young people with SEND are supported to achieve their full potential and live an ordinary life.
Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty that affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling. It also affects information processing, organisational skills and other areas such as language, motor co-ordination and mental calculation. Dyslexia is not related to intelligence and can affect people of any intellectual ability. Dyslexia is a lifelong condition that can present challenges in daily life, but with appropriate support, people with dyslexia can be successful at school and work.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects the ability to focus, control impulses, and regulate emotions. People with ADHD may experience difficulties in various aspects of life, such as school, work, and relationships. ADHD is not a sign of low intelligence or laziness. It is a condition that can be managed with appropriate treatment and support.
Dyscalculia is a learning disorder that affects the ability to understand and perform mathematical calculations. People with dyscalculia may have difficulty with counting, memorizing maths facts, recognizing numbers, or solving word problems. Dyscalculia can affect people of any age, but it is often diagnosed in childhood. Dyscalculia can cause academic, social, and emotional challenges for those who have it, but it can also be managed with appropriate interventions and accommodations.
Dyspraxia is a disorder that affects movement and coordination in children and adults. It can make it difficult to perform everyday tasks that require balance, fine motor skills, or learning new skills. Dyspraxia does not affect intelligence, but it may be associated with other conditions, such as ADHD, dyslexia, or anxiety. Dyspraxia can be diagnosed by an occupational therapist or a paediatrician, and it can be treated with therapies that help with daily living and coping strategies. Dyspraxia is not caused by brain damage or illness, but by a disruption in the way that messages are passed between the brain and the body.
Dysgraphia is a neurological disorder and learning disability that affects the ability to write, primarily handwriting, but also coherence. It is caused by problems with orthographic coding, which is the aspect of working memory that allows one to permanently remember written words and the way to write them. People with dysgraphia may have illegible handwriting, incorrect spelling and capitalization, slow or labored writing, difficulty copying words, and other challenges. Dysgraphia can be diagnosed by a team of experts and treated with occupational therapy, writing programs, and medications.
Aphantasia is a condition where a person cannot voluntarily visualize mental images. This means that they cannot picture something in their mind’s eye, such as a face, a place, or a memory. Aphantasia can affect different aspects of cognition, such as memory, imagination, and dreaming. Aphantasia is not a disorder or a disability, but rather a variation of human experience.
Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and conduct disorder (CD) are two types of disruptive behaviour disorders that affect children and adolescents. They are characterized by persistent and severe antisocial behaviour, such as aggression, defiance, disobedience, lying, stealing, bullying, cruelty, and vandalism. ODD is usually diagnosed in younger children (10 years or younger) and involves less serious conduct problems than CD. CD is more common in older children (11 years or older) and may involve breaking the law or harming others. Both disorders can cause significant impairment in family, school, and social functioning, and may lead to other mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or antisocial personality disorder. The causes of ODD and CD are not fully understood, but may involve genetic, biological, psychological, and environmental factors.
Autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological and developmental condition that affects how people communicate, interact, learn and behave. ASD is a spectrum that includes a diverse group of symptoms and abilities, which may vary from person to person and over time. ASD is not an illness or a disease, but something people are born with. It is estimated to affect about 1 in 100 people worldwide. There is no known cause or cure for ASD, but some people may need support to help them with certain things.
Autistic stimming is a term for self-stimulatory behaviour that involves repetitive movements or sounds. It is common among people on the autism spectrum and serves various functions, such as **blocking out excessive sensory input**, **communicating emotions**, or **providing enjoyment**. Some examples of autistic stimming are hand-flapping, rocking, humming, or spinning objects. Stimming can help autistic people cope with stressful or uncomfortable situations, but it can also be a sign of boredom or agitation.
Foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) are conditions that affect the development of a child due to exposure to alcohol during pregnancy. Alcohol can cross the placenta and interfere with the oxygen and nutrients that reach the foetus, causing damage to the brain and other organs. FAS is the most severe form of FASD and is characterized by growth problems, facial abnormalities, central nervous system dysfunction and behavioural issues. FASD is a broader term that includes FAS and other disorders that have similar features but do not meet the full criteria for FAS. There is no cure for FAS or FASD, but early diagnosis and support can help improve the quality of life of the affected child. The only way to prevent FAS and FASD is to avoid alcohol during pregnancy.
Department for Education & Department of Health and Social care. (2015). SEND code of practice: 0 to 25 years. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/send-code-of-practice-0-to-25
Dwyer, P. (2022). The neurodiversity approach(es): What are they and what do they mean for researchers? Human Development, 66(2), 73–92. https://doi.org/10.1159/000523723
Jenson, R. J., Lee, M. S., Day, A. D., Hughes, A. E., Maroushek, E. E., & Roberts, K. D. (2023). Effective inclusion practices for neurodiverse children and adolescents in informal STEM learning: a systematic review protocol. Systematic Reviews, 12(109). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13643-023-02278-2
NHS England. (n.d.). Special educational needs and disability (SEND). https://www.england.nhs.uk/learning-disabilities/care/children-young-people/send/
The LEANS Project. (n.d.). Learning about neurodiversity at school: Key concepts for communicating with children aged 9-12 years old. https://www.research.ed.ac.uk/en/publications/learning-about-neurodiversity-at-school-key-concepts-for-communic