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In It Together

The advent of Neurodiversity Paradigm and the need for more Higher Education Neurodiverse Role Models

Dr Chris Knifton, De Montfort University and member of ‘In It Together’ 

The neurodiversity paradigm (Grant, 2024) with its early beginnings in a collective of work including the work of sociologist Judy Singer, recognised for her influential work in raising awareness of the term  ‘neurodiversity’ (1999). As well as importantly others too (Blume, 1997; ISNT, 1998, cited by Botha et al, 2024) perhaps less well known can be seen as an alternative to medical model descriptors that have previously focused on disorder.  Now as we move through March, plans are likely underway across many colleges and universities to support greater neurodiversity affirmation, based on the neurodiversity paradigm through Neurodiversity Celebration Week (www.neurodiversityweek.com – running from March 18th to the 24th).  

Making plans more locally within my own institution I reflected back on the workshop I ran at last year’s ANTF Symposium where I delivered a talk on recognising the positive attributes and abilities that being neurodiverse can bring. Supporting educators to help students recognise their positive neuro-diverse attributes is an important shift in practice, but not something perhaps we may think of doing. This does not deny, however, the challenges that people face but rather opens up our understanding and challenges our bias and potential for unconscious discrimination.  

Added to this, however, more as a pause for thought, neurodiversity as a term focuses on a host of what the medical model would describe as ‘neurodevelopmental disorders’ (APA, 2013). Aside from the problems associated with the use of the term ‘disorder’, I would also encourage a wider application of neurodiversity to include other conditions that fit under neuro-cognition. This would widen our lens to greater inclusivity to include brain injury and dementia (including young onset) as well as cognitive challenges encountered in anxiety, depression, menopause, etc. In essence neurodiversity from a neurodevelopmental perspective is perhaps only just one side of the coin. 

Neurodiversity affirmation then is an important next step then for Higher Education Institution (HEI) educators. This approach seeks to employ practices that affirm the students position and empower them to be their true authentic self. There are many creative and innovative ways this can be done, but perhaps what has gained little attention, yet has the potentially to be very influential, is through the use of HEI role models. The term ‘role model’ can be traced back to another sociologist, Robert Merton (1968), who discussed how people actively compare themselves against the social reference groups that they also occupy. Role models in HEIs aligned to ethnicity, gender and LGBTQIA+ , for example, are not uncommon, but ironically, given the focus on ‘learning’, neurodiverse role models (whether neurodevelopment or neurocognitive in origin) are. During Neurodiversity Celebration Week at my own institution, we start to address this by showcasing staff who are happy to open up about their own neurodivergence, highlighting that although many have faced challenges along the way, it need not affect academic and graduate successes.  

Sharing knowledge about one’s own neurodiversity however is not always easy. I am very open about my own autism and feel it makes me who I am. Embracing it facilitates me to be my true authentic self as a HEI educator. Others of course may not feel comfortable or that its of any relevance to reveal their neurodivergence. This is of course a very personal decision. At the upcoming ANTF Symposium in April I feel very privileged to be delivering another workshop, this time considering what being a role model, particularly a neurodivergent role model, actually means. The positives but also the disadvantages of opening the lid on being neurodivergent do need a wider and more careful understanding. The benefits for the students are huge, but is there a personal cost for the educator? This will be the focus of that upcoming workshop, to discuss what being a role model means and generate discussion on how we can prepare educators to be better informed when considering taking on such roles within their institution or even the NTF broader community, for example through Allyship. The hope is this will facilitate a growing body of role models by educators including NTFs within HEIs, representing a wider range of social reference groups, including neurodiversity, for our students, and of course social reference groups for each other. 

The Committee of the Association for National Teaching Fellows (CANTF) is committed to addressing under-representation in the NTF community (i.e. ethnic minorities, individuals with a disability, college-based HE providers, part-time colleagues, LGBTQ+ and professional services colleagues). To facilitate this, in 2023 the ‘In It Together’ working group and EDI officers created a community of allyship (with support from Advance HE). NTFs who are willing and able to support aspiring NTFs from underrepresented groups have signed up to proudly display an allyship badge on their NTF profiles (details and search for an ally at: www.advance-he.ac.uk/awards/teaching-excellence-awards/national-teaching-fellowship/allyship-scheme). Currently we have around 50 NTFs who have an allyship badge which indicates their willingness to support colleagues from underrepresented groups in the NTF community include disabled and neurodiverse colleagues. Get in touch with one of them if you would like some support and guidance.  

Also check out neurodiversity celebration week www.neurodiversityweek.com

References: 

American Psychiatric Association (2013) Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders – DSM-5. APA 

Blume H (1997) ‘Autism and the internet’ or It’s wiring, stupid’. Media in Transition. Available from: http://web.mit.edu/m-i-t/articles/index_blume.html?fbclid=IwAR3vkHBJc8GiommvlZcGN2MPZMCZuV6XQuvGzMhq9LAq8CSzg4nod0GfAPU 

Botha, M., Chapman, R., Giwa Onaiwu, M., Kapp, S. K., Stannard Ashley, A., & Walker, N. (2024). The neurodiversity concept was developed collectively: An overdue correction on the origins of neurodiversity theory. Autism0(0). https://doi.org/10.1177/13623613241237871 

Grant, R.J. (2024) Play interventions for neurodivergent children and adolescents. Second edition. Routledge: London 

Merton, R. K. (1968). Social theory and social structure. New York, NY: Free Press. 

Image: Image by Raman Oza from Pixabay