Neurodiversity – Spiky Profiles

When an individual has an Educational Psychologist’s assessment, the psychologist analyses their performance in a variety of areas. A generic assessment would cover verbal and visual-spatial ability, working memory and processing speed. Verbal ability relates to the individual’s skill when using and understanding language. Visual-spatial ability refers to the skills necessary to interpret charts, graphs, diagrams, and judge where objects are in space. Working memory refers to the ability to hold and manipulate information mentally. Processing speed refers to the speed at which an individual is able to receive, understand and respond to information.

The scores for each area are taken from an amalgamation of results from several sub-tests, which are then presented as a ‘standard score’ for that particular skill. 

The average standard score would be 100, although statistically any score between 85 and 115 would be considered to be the average ability range for the general population.

Neurotypical individuals will have standard scores that vary according to their personal characteristics, strengths and weaknesses, but most scores will be around the same level. For example: 106 for verbal ability, 104 for visual spatial, 97 for working memory and 100 for processing speed. If these scores were presented in the form of a line graph, the graph would appear to undulate, but only slightly. 

However, the profile of neurodiverse individuals, (those who experience such specific learning differences as dyslexia, ADHD, dyscalculia or dyspraxia), will appear as ‘spiky’. These individuals may excel in some areas, but struggle in others; hence the term ‘specific‘ learning difficulties. For example, the individual might achieve a standard score of 94 for verbal ability, 122 for visual spatial, 65 for working memory and 111 for processing speed. They may achieve differing results for the individual sub-tests within the separate areas, with excellent scores in some of the tests, but much lower scores for others. If these individuals’ scores were presented in line graph form, they would appear as a series of mountains and valleys: some scores being very high, while others are very low.

This mismatch between their different skill sets may result in neurodiverse children being accused of laziness in school: they appear to master some things easily, but inexplicably fail at others. Unsympathetic school staff may assume this failure is due to a lack of effort, when in reality, any failure is the result of the specific skill set that the child is using at that moment. Is it a strength or a weakness? The child may be unaware of the discrepancies between their different abilities and accept the idea that they are idle or stupid, with many of the children playing to the labels they are given.

Neurodiverse children tend to cope better at primary school, albeit at a level below their potential, but will experience more of a problem at secondary school. Secondary school teaching methods tend to be designed with the neurotypical individual in mind, so there is the danger that the neurodiverse pupils may switch off from learning, fall behind and lose motivation. This situation is not inevitable, and when alerted to these pupils’ problems, good schools and teachers can succeed in making secondary education more welcoming for the neurodiverse pupil. 

‘A little consideration, a little thought for others, makes all the difference.’


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