Moving from Specific Learning Difficulties to Neurodiversity.

Neurodiversity is the term used to describe the differences in brain function and behaviour that would be regarded as normal variation within a population.

A Specific Learning Difficulty, (SpLD), refers to the difficulty a child or adult may experience with specific aspects of their learning. The most common SpLDs include: Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Dyscalculia, Attention Deficit Disorder / Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, (ADD), along with some aspects of Autistic Spectrum Disorder, (ASD). The needs of the majority of pupils with SpLD can be met within the mainstream classroom through differentiation.

Specific Learning Difficulties are often referred to as Specific Learning Differences to emphasise that the problem is not always within the child, but linked to the demands being made of them in different contexts. 

Historically, different SpLDs were defined in comparatively narrow ways. Dyslexia being associated with literacy problems; dyspraxia with co-ordination problems; dyscalculia with numeracy difficulty; attention and hyperactivity difficulties with ADD; and sensory issues and social awkwardness with ASD. Unfortunately, these narrow definitions have created misconceptions, particularly amongst adults in school. For example: Thomas cannot be dyslexic, because he can read. Freya cannot be dyspraxic, because she’s in the hockey team. George cannot have ASD, because he can look me in the eye. Eve cannot have ADD, because she can focus when she wants to, but only on those topics she’s interested in. 

It is important to remember that any child with a SpLD is an individual, and will exhibit their own personal profile of strengths and weaknesses in the same way everyone else will do. It is not possible to put individuals into boxes.

Susanna has poor spelling and terrible handwriting, is forgetful, and dislikes noisy and crowded environments. She also loves to read, is popular with peers and teachers alike and excels at gym and dance.

Josh has limited attention, terrible time keeping, never appears to listen and has few friends amongst his peer group. He also produces beautiful poetry, is working his way quickly through his Music exams, and is Captain of the school’s debating team.

In addition to the difficulty of identifying a child as, for example, dyslexic or on the autistic spectrum, because of the overlap between different ‘conditions’, other factors play a part in a SpLD diagnosis. These factors include:

  1. Which professional assesses the child. Educational psychologists, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and specialist teachers will all focus on their own specialist areas, and will use their own specialist tests.
  2. The child’s age at the time of assessment. The pre-school child may be assessed as having a speech and language problem and then, when they are in school, the same child will be diagnosed as dyslexic.
  3. The child’s gender. Many assessments were originally designed for boys, so male behaviour is more likely to match the diagnostic criteria. This means that girls are often overlooked.  
  4. The ethos of the child’s school. A school may be very formal, and staff may have unrealistic expectations of the pupils’ behaviour and academic performance.
  5. The child’s level of maturity. The school year starts in September and runs through to August. Those children with birthdays later in the school year, perhaps in July and August, may be developing appropriately, but inevitably be less mature than peers with birthdays in September and October.

All of these issues: the interweaving of the different SpLDs, the interaction of the child’s strengths and weakness with their SpLD, the differing levels of support and understanding they receive from the adults, limit the value of a single SpLD label, and may negate any generic support given to the child in the light of that label. 

It would be far preferable to treat each child as an individual in line with current theories of neurodiversity and to continue to advocate for the inclusion of all. 

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