What the heck is Neurodiversity?

Firstly a few definitions, Neurodiversity is a term used to describe the spectrum of differences that exist as to the way brains function differently from each other. Neurodivergent refers to an individual who processes information differently to what might be considered standard or typical.

“I am a very slow reader. I have to have things written in a pithy way.” Matt Hancock, Dyslexic.

Most people are classed as Neurotypical, meaning they process information in a manner that would be considered typical. In terms of behaviour, they tend to learn skills and reach developmental milestones around the same time as others. These words are chosen carefully to avoid using ‘normal’ and as a consequence ‘abnormal’. This is not about being politically correct but highlights that the differences can result in both positives and negatives depending on the circumstances.

By way of an example of what processing differently looks like watch this video of Stephen Wiltshire, MBE, the British architectural artist who was diagnosed with autism when he was 3.

Neurodiverse conditions
There are a whole range of different Neurodiverse conditions, they include Dyslexia, Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and Dyspraxia. In terms of how diverse we are as a nation it is estimated that more that 15% of the UK population are Neurodivergent in some way with the most common being dyslexia at around 10%, followed by ADHD.

“Being dyslexic, I was told that I was an idiot all the time.” David Bailey (Photographer), Dyslexic.

I am going to focus on dyslexia because it’s the one most people have heard of but for completeness here are further details of the Neurodiverse conditions mentioned above.

  • Dyslexia, primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent reading of words and spelling.
  • ADHD is behavioural resulting in people being restless, struggling to concentrate and having a tendency to be impulsive.
  • ASD, as the name suggests is a spectrum, with people experiencing a wide variation in the type and severity of symptoms. The main ones being difficulty with social communication and interaction, and restricted, repetitive behaviours or interests.
  • Dyspraxia affects movement and co-ordination.

“I had to train myself to focus my attention. I became very visual and learned how to create mental images in order to comprehend what I read.” Tom Cruise, Dyslexic.

What’s happening in the dyslexic brain
Like many other Neurodiverse conditions dyslexia results from the way in which the brain processes information. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has provided us with a unique picture as to what is happening in the dyslexic brain, for example we know that when people who are dyslexic read, a different part of their brain is activated. The main problem with the commonest form of dyslexia, phonological dyslexia is that the brain finds it difficult to recognise phonemes, these are the basic sounds of speech, for example the C in Cat is a phoneme. The impact is that it’s hard for the brain to connect the sound with the letter which in turn makes recognising words problematic. Unfortunately, in the time it takes to make the connection, comprehension is lost and the learner falls behind, creating the impression that they are slow and not very clever!

“Being diagnosed with dyslexia at age 60 was like the last part of the puzzle in a tremendous mystery that I’ve kept to myself all these years. “Steven Spielberg,” Dyslexic.

What causes Dyslexia
Knowing what is actually happening inside the brain of someone with dyslexia is interesting but there is perhaps a more pressing question, why do some people have it and others do not? Most of the evidence points to a genetic connection with some suggesting that if a parent has dyslexia there is a 40% to 60% chance of their children also being dyslexic. The risk is increased if the condition is known to exist in the wider family. That said the degree to which anyone is impacted is less well known and it may be relatively mild and as a result will go undetected. Environmental factors are also believed to play a part, these include the mother’s health during pregnancy and poor diet.

“Both my sons are dyslexic, and so, too, in a much milder form, is one of my daughters.” Theo Paphitis, Dyslexic.

At this point I did intend to add that dyslexia is two to three times more prevalent in males, however this is not universally accepted and there seems to be some contradictory research so I will leave that one for now.

“I suffer from severe dyslexia. I was the only child on my block on Halloween to go ‘trick or trout’ … Here comes that young William’s boy. Better get some fish. ” Robin Williams, Dyslexic.

What can you do?
Should you get a formal diagnosis, well maybe and it could be necessary especially if you want to get extra time in an exam. A diagnostic assessment for dyslexia is carried out by experienced specialist teachers and psychologists across the UK. The British Dyslexic Association (BDA) quotes an average fee for a specialist teacher of £515 and for a Psychologist £670 although there are cheaper options available. But if you just want to know a little more there are many free checklists or screening options, here is one from the BDA.

However, if you are a slow reader, have difficulty spelling, need to re-read paragraphs to better understand them and confuse similar words such as dog and dug then maybe you have enough information. Whatever route you choose for diagnosis, below are some positive steps that can help improve how you learn.

  • Do not use dyslexia as an excuse, it’s not who you are, nor a reason as to why you can’t succeed.
  • Recognise that dyslexia has nothing to do with intelligence, it’s a processing of information problem.
  • You may find that podcasts and other forms of audio recordings are an easier way of taking in information. You can also listen to them several times.
  • Ask for and use dyslexic friendly fonts. In a classic study, fonts that were found easier to read were Sans Serif fonts, such as Arial and Comic Sans with a font size of 12-14 point, another key takeaway was that italicising words severely decreases its readability.
  • Make lists and produce notes in a bullet style format. Also consider using more visual techniques such as mind maps and diagrams.
  • Allow for the fact that it will take you more time, tell yourself that slow is better.
  • Consider dyslexic tools such as coloured overlays, there are also many great apps out there that can help such as Voice Dream Reader which lets you listen to any document and ebook using text-to-speech.

The overall message is that we all process information in different ways, but a traditional school environment does not favour those with Neurodivergent traits. However, take full advantage of all the support and remember school may not be your best event in the “decathlon of life” but there will be other events at which you can and will excel.

I would like to thank two of my Kaplan colleagues Abbi Nolan and Kirsty Gibson for sharing their expertise and inspiring me to find out more about this fascinating subject.

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