Dream school for neurodiverse students – surprising things at school that aren’t inclusive

Schools have to cater for lots of students at once. For simplicity, it can be easier to focus on conformity and teaching everyone the same, with the same experience. But this doesn’t support neurodiversity, from ASD to ADHD, that is highly likely to be present in every classroom. What does our dream school for neurodiverse students look like? Here’s 8 ways schools can be more inclusive.

Why do we have classrooms that are tailored to neurotypical children? What could it look like if schools were designed from the beginning to be inclusive of neurodiversity?

How can schools be more inclusive for neurodiverse students?

Maybe schools, if they were supportive and inclusive of neurodiversity, would have:

An awareness of the sensory environment

  • no loud bells. Sirens, bells and other loud noises to signal the beginning and end of lessons can be a sensory and auditory overload. Instead of neurodivergent children having to wear noise cancelling headphones or cover their ears with their hands, why not removing the bell?
  • flexible and relaxed uniforms. What you wear does not impact on learning, unless it’s uncomfortable and causes you to be self-conscious. Blazers, ties, pulled up socks – even having to get changed into another set of clothes for PE. How about just having a uniform that is made from comfortable fibres, with a relaxed fit? Or making it ok to wear PE uniform (which is often more comfortable that the formal uniform) every day? Autistic kids often like to have hoods or other clothing that they can ‘hide in’. Why not have a jumper in the uniform with a hood and a zip up (instead of over the head)?
  • flexible and varied classroom spaces. Instead of bright fluoro lighting everywhere in the classroom, have some varied lighting that enables some dimmer corners. Bright lights are often a sensory overload for autistic children. A comfortable couch or beanbag in a dimmer corner could make classrooms feel safer for neurodivergent children.

Not penalising executive functioning delays

  • no locker areas. Locker areas can be squishy, loud and dangerous places when all the students are exiting for the day. They can be hidden and crowded, leading to bullying and harassment being common in these spaces. Locker areas can also hinder neurodiverse students who struggle with organisation. With lockers, students are expected to remember what lessons they have, only take out what they need, and not return until break. For students with low executive functioning and organisation, this is a tricky task.
  • allowed assistive technology. Mobile phones are being banned in schools across the country. But reminders, alarms, and calendars can be helpful to guide and support organisation in students with low executive functioning. Why can’t a phone or smart watch be used to support transitions to next lessons, reminders of what to do or bring to class, and timers for self care like toileting?

A human-centred approach to regulation

  • food and drink permitted in class. In neurodiverse children, body needs like hunger, thirst and toileting often come on instantly. They can cause great discomfort, anger, and dysregulation – although the child may not be able to identify why. Why couldn’t classrooms be more human and allow eating whenever hungry – as long as the mess is cleaned up.
  • more natural activity. Students with ADHD and ASD would benefit from more opportunities to naturally regulate body energy and get sensory input. Why do lessons involve so much sitting down in rows – we know sedentary activity is bad for health! What if every lesson started with a sensory break that transitioned students into the class? Or if learning was more active and hands on, involving standing up and moving around rather than sitting down?
  • nice toilets. Clean, neat, single, all-gender cubicles with floor to ceiling doors. This is inclusive of gender diversity, students who need privacy. It supports neurodiversity because it’s quieter and students are less likely to get bullied compared to in toilet blocks.

Conclusion: human, inclusive, supportive

What would you recommend to schools to be more inclusive of neurodiversity? Many of the things on the wish list above would cost nothing, yet make school more inclusive and humanising for a range of neuro-types. What would your dream school for neurodiverse students look like?

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