“Neurodivergent” encompasses autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and other conditions that impact the way people think, communicate, and process information. As of 2020, around 20% of people were neurodivergent. Thanks to early identification and more thorough screening, this number is expected to rise over the next few years, which means neurodivergent children can start receiving the support they need earlier than in past years.
Unfortunately, many school districts aren’t knowledgeable or prepared to provide adequate services to their neurodivergent students. If school districts want to empower neurodivergent students, they must create an environment where they feel safe, supported, and welcomed.
Here are 3 ways districts can support neurodivergent students:
- Create sensory-friendly spaces
According to the National Institute of Health, more than 96% of autistic children have sensory sensitivities. Students who experience sensory sensitivities become uncomfortable and overstimulated by certain sights, sounds, tastes, and smells as well as physical objects that they touch. This overstimulation can make it difficult for neurodivergent students to concentrate, regulate their emotions, and communicate, resulting in a negative impact on behavior and academic performance. Unfortunately, traditional classrooms usually aren’t sensory-friendly. They consist of bright lights, loud noises, and other features that can easily overwhelm neurodivergent students.
Sensory-friendly spaces promote self-regulation and allow neurodivergent students to release energy, which can reduce behavior incidents and classroom disruptions and help the students concentrate on learning. The most effective sensory-friendly spaces give students options for items that will appeal to their senses. By adding sensory-friendly spaces to every school in a district, district leaders can show that they genuinely care about creating positive learning environments where all students can thrive. It might sound expensive, but it doesn’t take much to turn a classroom into a sensory-friendly space. Some of the most popular sensory-friendly items include:
- Flexible seating such as rocking chairs, rugs, and bean bags
- Dim and/or multi-colored lighting
- Noise-canceling headphones
- Bins filled with kinetic sand, clay, water beads, etc.
- Fidget toys
- Weighted blankets
- Provide adequate training
Districts throughout the United States are experiencing major teacher shortages. More than 75% U.S. states reported teacher shortages in 2022. Many of these districts are in tough situations where they have no choice but to hire teachers who are not certified in special education or even trained on how to properly teach neurodivergent students. This can lead to neurodivergent students not receiving the support they need, which also puts the school district at risk for legal noncompliance and lawsuits.
Parents send their children to school with the expectation that school staff, not just special education teachers, are equipped to provide a supportive learning environment. Neurodivergent students often interact with teachers who are not in the special education department. Every interaction is an opportunity to enhance the student’s school experience or diminish it. Inadequately trained teachers are liabilities, especially when it comes to special education. Districts can support neurodivergent students by ensuring that school employees are knowledgeable about how to support them.
- Invest in tools and resources that educate, engage, and empower neurodivergent students.
Neurodivergent education is undergoing a much-needed transition. More and more districts are realizing the importance of empowering neurodivergent students to be themselves rather than forcing them to conform to neurotypical standards. Neurodivergent students need to see themselves represented in a positive light, so districts must be intentional about investing in tools and resources that do more than educate and engage students. They must empower them.
Ava by Social Cipher is an SEL curriculum and online game designed by a neurodiverse team specifically for neurodivergent students. Students learn valuable social-emotional (SEL) skills as they play the role of Ava, an autistic space explorer. Throughout the game, students learn how to navigate challenges, manage emotions, build positive relationships, and so much more. Ava is aligned with CASEL standards and can be used to support common IEP goals.
Supporting neurodivergent students starts at the top. When district leaders invest in sensory-friendly spaces, adequate training, and empowering tools, they show that they are committed to ensuring neurodivergent students feel safe and supported in every school.