By Hannah Wise
Research Assistant at Vogl & Blake Research Consultants
The things we need in order for our daily lives to run smoothly is something that varies from person to person. Some of us share similar needs, whilst others will need different kinds of support to access and succeed in the same environment. Whether a physical, mental, or emotional need, everyone deserves access to support and resources that aid their personal development and success.
It is so important to nurture the idea that we all think differently, learn differently, and feel differently. Operating differently is the foundation for creativity, curiosity, and originality, all of which bring incredible value to the world. But the wonderful outcomes of difference are often limited by outdated structures and spaces that stop people before they get in the door.
Many institutional spaces have long been designed under the notion that if it suits the average person, it will suit the most amount of people. This not only isolates and denies access to those who don’t function in this specific way but forgoes the unique skills and perspectives of these people. Instead, we should focus on creating flexible spaces that welcome people to function in their most authentic ways.
The cognitive differences between every human brain
Someone who shows different patterns of thought or behaviour
Someone who fits ‘typical’ patterns of thought or behaviour
Aid people need to access and function in neurotypical systems
What is neurodiversity?
Every human brain is unique and comes with a different set of characteristics and behaviours. The way a person’s brain develops will impact their mood, how they learn, perform tasks, regulate emotions, socialise, and many other aspects of daily, work, and social life. Neurodiversity is a term used to describe the many ways in which the human brain and nervous system can develop.
What does neurotypical mean?
Neurotypical refers to someone whose thoughts, feelings, needs, and abilities align with ‘typical’ ways of functioning. Environments such as schools and workplaces are designed to support neurotypical people. Oftentimes, neurotypical people are unaware of this categorisation as they are adequately supported and able to function in these settings.
What does neurodivergent mean?
People who do not fit neurotypical standards and have different support needs are considered ‘neurodivergent’. Neurodivergent people often display patterns of thought and behaviour that differ from those considered ‘standard’. They are often diagnosed with developmental conditions such as:
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
- Autism Spectrum Disorder
- Sensory Processing Disorder
Individuals with these conditions may experience things like a sensitivity to lights or noises, difficulty with self-regulation, delays in verbal processing, or differences when interpreting social situations. Although every individual will experience these differently, many neurodivergent people face similar challenges in neurotypical environments.
Common neurodivergent traits
Discussions about neurodiversity are often centred around the challenges that neurodivergent people face day-to-day, but it’s important to pay equal attention to the strengths of being neurodivergent. Many neurodivergent people have incredible intuition and an ability to recognise patterns and make predictions that other people often miss. Others have special talents in memory, or the ability to make connections between things that would seem unrelated to a neurotypical person, which leads to skills such as creative problem solving and innovation.
Strengths and challenges often go hand in hand. Take hyper-focus for example, if a neurodivergent person is particularly interested in something they can spent extensive periods of time focused on said thing. A challenge this may present is being so focused that they forget to eat or forget to complete a task that was a higher priority that day.
Strengths and Challenges
Neurodivergency is often limited to abnormality, so highlighting the strengths and advantages of neurodivergent brains is helpful to move us away from a purely pathological understanding of neurodiversity. However, this should not come at the expense of understanding the challenges facing people who are neurodivergent. It is crucial to offer support in order to limit the challenges caused by having to operate in unaccommodating environments, and allow these neurodivergent strengths and skillsets to flourish.
What are support needs?
Depending on the situation, different people will need different things to access and be successful in a given environment. Support needs are areas that people need accommodation in so that they can function in a certain environment. The best way to accommodate individuals is to confirm with them what their support needs are. A support need will entail a specific method to aid with a specific difficulty. For example:
- Noise sensitivity –> noise cancelling headphones or earplugs
- Self-stimulation –> moving chair, repetitive sounds or movements, doodling, chewing gum
- Reading difficulty –> someone to offer reading support
- Anxiety –> a space to take breaks when needed, comfortable seating, information for advance preparation, etc.
- Light sensitivity –> variable lighting options (no fluorescent overhead lighting)
- Time management challenges –> extended time for task completion, extra reminders and notices, flexibility and patience from others
Visualisation of Traits and Support Needs
Conversations in and about neurodivergent communities often use the word ‘spectrum’. Many people think of this spectrum as a line representing the least to most neurodivergent. Instead, it is more like a colour wheel, with every individual having more or less of certain traits, and more or less support needs in certain areas. Visualising neurodivergent conditions in this way offers a complexity and flexibility to how we understand these experiences and how variable they can be.
These four wheels represent four individuals and how they are impacted by Autism symptoms. Each person experiences different levels of intensity for each symptom, and will require different support needs.
These three wheels represent three individuals and their ADHD symptoms. Similarly, to the individuals with Autism, each of these individuals will require different support needs.
Facilitating inclusive research
Similarly, to places such as schools or workplaces, research environments have been designed to cater to neurotypical individuals. Neurodivergent experiences and perspectives are critical to developing diverse and comprehensive insights, but they are often left out due to accessibility issues. By focusing on inclusive research design and practice, researchers have a great opportunity to create accessible participatory research spaces. This will engage more diverse perspectives, enrich data samples, and offer people an opportunity to contribute to research that oftentimes will ultimately impact their lives. Practical options to meet support needs will likely need to include pre-session surveys to make sure specific needs can be accommodated. This might look like:
- organising a quiet environment
- making sure professional support is available on-site
- access to technological tools such as a phone app to communicate non-verbally
- setting appropriate expectations with participants in terms of the intended impact and results of the project
- offering written or visual directions for those who do not process verbal language
- if the research topic is on neurodivergent people – consult the target community in the project design from its inception
Neurodiversity, similarly, to a physical disability, is often defined by society’s expectations of how people should be able to function in a certain environment, rather than how an environment can limit a person’s ability to function. It is important to design things and spaces with flexible options so that everyone can have access to a suitable environment, and consequentially feel as though their experiences and opinions are heard and valued. This will create environments that celebrate difference, value creative and independent thinking, and nurture innovation, which ultimately benefits everyone.
Singer, Judy. “Reflections on Neurodiversity” https://neurodiversity2.blogspot.com/p/what.html
Leadbitter, Buckle, Ellis, Dekker., A 12 April 2021 Autistic Self-Advocacy and the Neurodiversity Movement: Implications for Autism Early Intervention Research and Practice https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.635690
Fletcher-Watson, Brook, Hallett, Murray, Crompton. ” Inclusive Practices for Neurodevelopmental Research” 9 April 2021. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40474-021-00227-z Holmes, Kat. “Rethink What Inclusive Design Means” Jun 26, 2019