Neurodiversity and the School System

Recently, the news in Scottish education was that the SQA would be abolished and replaced. In Scotland, we like to pride ourselves on our school system’s inclusivity, diversity, and strong history. Education is important here: it is a policy priority for most parties, and we often bring up – free tuition is commonly mentioned in political conversations. Last week’s news, however, shows that Scottish education is still far from perfect and needs many reforms. A new exams agency will not solve all the problems with Scottish education, however. 

Our school system remains unequal and discriminatory in one crucial way: neurodiversity. Though there are many issues, including how exams have been run, the biased systems the pandemic revealed around grading, and other administrative problems, the issue of neurodiversity is closest to my heart. Neurodivergent children in Scotland are still less likely to succeed, and even if they do, they are more likely to have poor school experiences.

First, let’s define ‘neurodivergent’. A person is neurodivergent if their brain thinks in a way that is not typical ofthe norm, so it encompasses different conditions from autism to ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia and other similar conditions. The idea of neurodiversity is that society is diverse, full of people with different ‘neurotypes’ (i.e. the type of brain someone has, whether a neurodivergent or neurotypical) and that to enable everyone to thrive, we need to create a society that embraces this neurological diversity and allows everyone to think differently as is natural to them.

Sadly, our school system is not designed to be inclusive to everyone regardless of their neurotype. The school system continues to cater to neurotypical children. At the same time, neurodivergent kids are often left behind, struggling to do the work in an environment not suited to them, and frequently bullied by their peers for behaving in a manner different to the majority of others. There are multiple ways in which neurodivergent pupils are disadvantaged in this system.

Firstly, the very structure of the school day can make things more difficult. This is most applicable with regards to kids with ADHD but can also apply to other neurotypes. If someone struggles with focus and attention, then sitting in the same classroom all day being told to do their work will make things harder. Homework can also disadvantage some kids, especially when it has unclear instructions, and therefore a child may not understand what they’re meant to do. Also, getting a child to do schoolwork at home might be more complicated because some neurodivergent people strongly associate certain activities and places.

The physical design of classrooms can, in many places, also be a barrier in itself. Making kids sit in groups can lead to atypical children being bullied at their desks, and if it’s everyone’s word against theirs, the teacher might not even believe them! Many classrooms, especially in primary school, are very bright, cluttered and loud. A child who experiences sensory overload or is easily distracted can make it much harder to focus on their work or remain in the space when feeling overloaded and stressed by the physical environment. 

Bullying is a significant problem, and neurodivergent children are far, far more likely to be bullied. In our culture, children tend to be hypervigilant to the presence of any difference and upon noticing that difference, pick on it. Mob mentality still rules the playground, and particularly for autistic or otherwise neurodivergent kids, the mob is very rarely on our side. Throughout one’s entire childhood, concentrated bullying can be traumatic, distracting and adversely affect a child’s future.

Depression and anxiety are seen as ‘normal’ for certain neurodivergent people. Given the frequent bullying, it is unsurprising that neurodivergent kids may develop one or both, but why is this so? Perhaps not because they are innate to certain conditions, but rather because people with these conditions are often continuously bullied, abused, told they would never amount to anything and set up to fail. An anti-bullying policy is frequently inadequate. Neurodivergent kids often lack friends and thus also lack witnesses. In some cases neurodivergent kids have to deal with bullying from peers and teachers.

Many teachers are quick to hand out punishments to children for behaving in ways that are natural to neurodivergent people, especially children who are not yet diagnosed. Doodling may help a child with ADHD focus, but teachers will usually punish them for ‘not concentrating’ if caught doodling. Flapping hands and stimming (using repetitive movements, words or sounds to calm oneself) can help autistic kids self-regulate, but they will be punished for being ‘childish’ and ‘distracting’. Dyslexic kids may be penalised for not doing homework because it’s literally just too difficult for them to do.

Because these things are natural behaviours, they will recur, and therefore the punishments will build up, and the child will gain a reputation for being ‘naughty’ and a ‘troublemaker’. Which then leads to harsher penalties. At this stage, the child might become depressed in response, give up on trying  because no matter what happens, they’ll be punished or even decide to play into their reputation and misbehave on purpose. After all, if you’re in trouble, either way, there’s nothing to lose.

Despite our words about ‘no right path’ and diversity, our schools still push children towards conforming to a specific path. Six years of secondary school followed by four years of university is still seen as the gold standard, and any other way is deemed ‘lesser’ in the eyes of our society. For a lot of neurodivergent kids, this isn’t possible. And yet, for others, it is possible but not necessarily desirable! But children often aren’t given a choice about what they want to do with their lives and are pushed onto one path or the other depending on the grades they’ve received, their behaviour and their social class.

By the time we leave school, many neurodivergent people are traumatised by our experiences. From spending every day in a physical environment that causes overload and pain, to being expected to read minds when given vague instructions, to being horrifically bullied, to being punished for behaving in manners that are normal to us, it can just be too much. The school system is broken, but that’s not unexpected because society as a whole is broken in how it treats neurodivergent people.

Society needs reforming, and so too does the school system. Alas, they are two parts of the same cycle, where children see adults (including some teachers) mistreat neurodivergent children and thus consider neurodivergent kids to be lesser. They then become adults who think neurodivergent people are inferior and show the next generation these beliefs, thus perpetuating this cycle. SQA reform may improve the exam systems, if done right, but it is woefully inadequate in tackling more significant educational inequalities. The only way to break it is to implement policies focused to make schools more accessible and genuinely tackle bullying. Otherwise, it will continue to repeat, and children will continue to suffer.