Neurodivergent childrenNeed help?
Read this piece on the social and emotional difficulties that autistic children experience, as well as strategies for supporting them. Although it focuses on autistic children, many of the points it makes are relevant for a range of neurodivergent learners.
Read the passage and then answer the short questions below.
Supporting social and emotional competence for autistic children
Many neurodivergent children have difficulties with social, emotional, and behavioural skills which may impact on their learning achievement and relationships both in early childhood education and at school. Skills for effective learning in school, including skills for positive peer interactions and cooperative and independent learning, are crucial to ensure successful transitions into school, and to the development of positive attitudes and dispositions towards school which are found to persist over time and impact on later learning.
How much research exists about neurodivergent social and emotional competence?
A large proportion of the research on neurodivergence and social emotional competence is focused on autistic children, and the research base remains limited. Further, many research findings are conflicting. For example, research has found both specific delays in emotion knowledge for autistic children and evidence of relatively less difficulty with understanding emotions. Similarly, higher levels of negativity in autistic children have been reported, whereas other studies have found no difference in negativity.
In addition, there is much individual variation between autistic individuals, and thus it is difficult to make generalisations. Much of the research assumes neurotypical norms and expectations for social behaviour, and presents differences in neurodivergent behaviour as a deficit. Further difficulties are present in evaluating the literature because ‘emotional regulation’ is not a common term: more common is reference to specific behaviours and actions stemming from poor emotional regulation, such as tantrums, meltdowns, and aggression.
What do we know about autistic children’s social and emotional development?
Autistic children may have increased difficulty in many areas of social and emotional competence, including executive function, emotion knowledge, emotional regulation, and social skills. Differences between autistic and allistic (non-autistic) children can be less apparent at younger ages, but may increase as children grow.
Autistic children often have difficulty in executive function skills, particularly with focusing their attention, changing focus, and inhibiting responses. They can also be challenged by joint attention or shared engagement with others, which requires them to regulate their focus and interest. Instead, autistic children often demonstrate intense focus on topics that are of interest to them, and this can lead to advanced knowledge or skill in a particular area. While this certainly should be seen as a strength, when combined with cognitive flexibility challenges, particularly changing focus or adapting plans, this can contribute to autistic children’s challenges with peer engagement and engagement in learning that is outside of their personal interests.
Knowledge of emotions is found to be linked to children’s social competence. Research evidence suggests that autistic children and many other neurodivergent children have difficulties and delays in their development of emotion knowledge. For example, autistic children are often challenged by attending to and interpreting facial expressions, although some evidence suggests that autistic children can have particular strengths in recognising and understanding simple emotions, such as happiness. They are more challenged by the recognition and understanding of negative emotions, including anger or fear, as well as ambiguous or complex emotions.
Some research provides support for an explanation of autistic people’s challenges with emotion as being caused by a heightened sense of emotional empathy, although this may be out of balance with their sense of cognitive empathy. This means autistic children may pick up on and share the emotions of others in an intense way, and instead of being able to acknowledge and understand another person’s perspective and context, they may take on that perspective and see things through it. Studies demonstrating autistic children’s greater ability to show facial affect than neurotypical children, and their ability to show appropriate responses to images of distressed people (often refusing to look at these), as well as practitioners’ and caregivers’ perceptions of a high sensitivity to the emotions of others, lend support for this view.
Research shows that from an early age, autistic children commonly have difficulty with emotional regulation, which is related to higher levels of negative emotions and poor repertoires of strategies for emotional regulation in later childhood and adolescence. Parents report their autistic children as having more negative emotions such as sadness, anger, shame, fear, and guilt. When children have higher levels of negative emotions, they may not be as able to take in important information from their social environment or develop effective strategies for solving social problems.
Autistic children are found to experience more emotional dysregulation, and be difficult to soothe, as well as having significant difficulties with self-regulation. Young children need to develop coping strategies for emotionally challenging situations. These may be relatively basic strategies, such as distracting themselves, avoiding the situation, or finding a way to vent their emotions (perhaps by crying). More advanced strategies include seeking support, problem-solving, and positively reframing difficult situations. Autistic children are found to be less likely to use advanced strategies, relying on avoidance and venting strategies rather than more constructive strategies, and are less likely to seek support from adults. Strategies such as venting and aggression are not found to be particularly effective at regulating children when frustrated, and in addition may predict conflict with peers.
Research shows that poorer emotional regulation leads over time to worsening behaviour, declining social skills, and fewer friendships, so that children with the lowest levels of emotional regulation skill fall further behind in their social and emotional competence and, as a result, their ability to learn in early childhood education and in school is increasingly compromised. Higher levels of emotional regulation, on the other hand, are linked to more positive engagements with peers and increased measures of social skills.
Despite some children’s disinclination to turn to adults when dysregulated, adults are an important source of regulation for children. Some research points to a link between early skills in engaging in joint attention with an adult and the subsequent development of regulation strategies, with children who spend more time in joint attention with a parent being more likely to use self-distraction when distressed. Episodes of joint attention may help children learn to control their attention in order to regulate distress.
Autistic children can often experience challenges with social interactions and peer engagement. They may be less likely to effectively initiate interactions or respond to peers, and may experience more disrupted interactions. They may not be accepted by peers, have fewer friends, and be less popular. This means that they are less likely to benefit from the support, assistance, and security that peers can provide. Peer rejection and low social status amongst peers in early childhood is found to be likely to continue into adolescence and adulthood. Peer rejection reduces opportunities for children to practise social skills and, in cases of aggressive behaviour, can exacerbate aggression, while being accepted by peers can act as a buffer for children’s difficult behaviours.
Children’s needs and strengths in relation to social skills will vary. Most neurodivergent children, including autistic children, may need more time than their peers to interpret and respond to social information. While some children may be disinterested in social engagements, many autistic children are keen to engage in social interactions and friendships, even if they have initial difficulties engaging. Some of the challenges children may experience include social-emotional reciprocity, examples of which include initiating interactions or approaching others in an appropriate way, engaging in back-and-forth conversation, adapting their behaviour for other people and contexts, or sharing interests, feelings, and emotions. Children also may have difficulties with non-verbal communication, meaning that they may not be able to integrate non-verbal gestures and gaze with their verbal communication.
It is important to note that, while much of the discourse on neurodivergent social competence focuses on deficits and difficulties, these same difficulties can be interpreted more positively as a form of competency. For example, research into autistic interactions (interactions between autistic people) found that some rather different parameters for social competence hold in these contexts. Although there are ignored contributions, parallel speech, and misinterpretations, these are not always seen as problematic because the expectations about co-ordinating conversations amongst neurodivergent individuals are different. Disconnected and disrupted conversational turns are somewhat mitigated by the way that autistic individuals generously assume common ground, which is found to spark productive and creative dialogue. This research highlights the way in which neurodivergent patterns of interaction, although unconventional, can be potentially rich and enabling of social relation and connection.
Strategies to support autistic children’s social and emotional development
Strategies need to be individualised to suit each child and their characteristics, existing skills, and needs, as well as the particular contexts in which they are living and learning. Not all children will respond the same way to planned supports, and there will be no one-size-fits-all approach to support. One general principle is to treat all children with respect and to offer highly responsive care. In addition, it is important to integrate the teaching and reinforcement of social and emotional skills into daily interactions with children, using consistent language to talk about the specific behaviours being taught, and seeking varied opportunities to reinforce them.
Engaging, one-to-one interactions with adults which offer opportunities for joint attention are very important in building social and emotional skills, and responsive interactive strategies have a significant influence on the social emotional development of autistic children. Responsive interactions are thought to promote the development of key social behaviours such as attachment, self-regulation, empathy, and cooperation. Increased responsive interactions are associated with improvements in children’s social and emotional competence, as shown by decreasing rates of behaviours such as detachment and dysregulation, as well as increasing levels of social interaction and improvement in skills such as empathy, cooperation, and higher communicative abilities. However, responsive interaction strategies are not found to be useful for teaching specific social or self-management skills and additional strategies may need to be put in place for this (see below).
It is also important to ensure that autistic children experience encouraging, positive and constructive interactions with peers and are supported to form friendships. In addition, autistic children may also need support to identify and implement effective strategies when they are frustrated, and benefit from co-regulation with an adult. In supporting children through co-regulation, teachers will need to draw heavily on their own emotional competence, and may even need to work on their own emotional development. Team members will also need to support and care for each other’s wellbeing.
Specific supports for social and emotional learning
Autistic children will not necessarily pick up social skills through implicit learning, and instead may need direct and specific instruction. Teachers might, for example, choose to focus on teaching specific social skills through stories, puppets, and role plays, discussing the behaviours, emotions, and consequences in particular social situations. It is also important to offer children opportunities to practise new skills with peers so that they learn to apply and adapt strategies in different contexts.
Research suggests that strengthening the emotion knowledge of autistic children and linking their emotion knowledge to different social situations is likely to be helpful. Recognition of different emotions is linked to children’s capacity to regulate their own emotions, and may support children in self-regulation. In particular, some research has shown that autistic children’s knowledge about negative emotions such as anger is associated with more positive social interactions with peers. Children with autism have been shown to benefit from games and activities about understanding faces and matching facial expressions with emotions.
Click here to read the fully referenced version of this research review.
In this video, Dr Jessica Tupou discusses the specific difficulties that neurodivergent learners may experience, and how teachers can best respond. As you watch, think about how Jessica’s interview strengthens a positive framing of neurodiversity.
About Dr Jessica Tupou
Dr Jessica Tupou is a postdoctoral research fellow at Victoria University of Wellington. She has a background in primary and early childhood teaching and has spent the past 5 years delivering and researching early intervention for autism through Te Rāngai Takiwātanga, the Victoria University Autism Clinic. Her research focuses on culturally responsive support for tamariki Māori / Māori children on the autism spectrum.
The first thing to acknowledge is that we see a lot of diversity amongst all children. So, we want to be really careful not to make generalisations about all neurodiverse children. But in saying that, there definitely are some broad differences that we see in terms of social and emotional skills. My research background is primarily in the area of autism, but in saying that, we do see a lot of similarities and overlap when it comes to different conditions that fall under that neurodiversity umbrella.
What differences might we see in the social and emotional skills of neurodiverse children?
One of the big differences that we might see is in the area of emotional regulation. So, what we’re talking about there is the ability for a child to deal with the demands in their environment in a calm and skilful way. We all get dysregulated sometimes, and we all have situations where we struggle to deal with those demands in that calm and skilful way, but what we tend to find with neurodiverse learners is that they are often more prone to dysregulation. So it’s often a lot more challenging for them to be able to regulate their emotions. There are a number of reasons why this might be the case. One reason is differences in cognition. So, many neurodiverse children have difficulties when it comes to executive function, and what we’re talking about there is the ability to control your actions to achieve your own goals. So things like organising, problem-solving, planning, use of working memory – all of those quite intentional, goal-driven behaviours can be really challenging for neuro-diverse children. So, what we know from cognitive neuroscience is that there appears to be a really strong link between executive function and emotional regulation. So, for neurodiverse children that have that difficulty with executive function, it’s a lot more challenging for them to be able to regulate their emotions. One of the strengths that we might see in terms of that emotional regulation is often neurodiverse children are really energetic and passionate. They quite often wear their hearts on their sleeves, and these of course are really important emotional and social skills as well. Another area where we tend to see difference is in attention. So, when we think about attention, as it relates to social and emotional learning, a lot of that learning in early childhood comes from paying attention to the social world, watching the people around you, and so it really is quite key to that social emotional learning. Some of the differences that we might see are to do with the amount of time that a child spends paying attention to the social world. So, many autistic children spend less time paying attention to the social world. We might also see differences in ability to maintain attention, so ADHD learners might struggle to maintain attention in a conversation if the topic is not super-interesting for them. We might also see some differences in ability to switch attention from one person to another, or from one thing to another.
A real strength that we see in neurodiverse children in terms of attention is this ability to really focus attention quite intensely on objects or activities or topics that are of high interest. This is referred to hyper-focus, and it can lead to this really amazing in-depth knowledge and understanding. This can be a really neat vehicle into social interaction. So, one child that I worked with, his real special interest was alphabet, so anything to do with reading and writing letters, and he spent a lot of attention and time developing his knowledge and skill here, and with the support of his teachers, was able to use this as a vehicle for interacting and learning alongside his peers who also shared that interest in learning to read and write.
Another important difference to touch on is differences in communication. So, again, this can vary hugely across different neurodiverse children, but some of the differences we might see might relate to pragmatic language, so this is a common difficulty for neurodiverse children. Pragmatic language is really the social use of language, so knowing what to say, and when and how to say it. So, we might see difficulties with things like using and understanding sarcasm and exaggeration and humour. Tact can be a big one, so knowing when to say something and when saying it might cause offence or hurt feelings. We might also have differences in the way that language sounds, so differences in pitch, in intonation. We might have unexpected accents. Echolalia is another common one that we see with autistic children. So that’s where children have heard words or phrases, and it may be on TV or in movies, or from other people, and they are repeating that back word-for-word.
We also have a number of learners who don’t use spoken language or perhaps are still learning to use spoken language. When we really take the time to observe neurodiverse children, a lot of them have actually come up with some really creative, clever ways to communicate with the people around them. Thinking of another example from a child that I worked with, and he didn’t use spoken language, but he sang, and he was a big Adele fan, and if ever he was unhappy with me, he would belt out a really intense part of an Adele song, but if he was happy or excited, it would be a part from quite an upbeat, kind of happy song. So, he hadn’t’ really picked on the words, it wasn’t so much about the words, but he’d picked up on the emotion behind the song, and he was using that to share how he was feeling with me. So a really sophisticated, clever way of communicating. So, yeah I guess, to summarise, lots of differences, and just acknowledging that there are strengths and challenges associated with those.
How might teachers adjust their expectations to be more responsive to neurodiverse children?
It’s really, really important for teachers to get to know each child as an individual: get to know what they’re about, what their interests are, what their strengths and challenges are, and try to avoid some of the stereotypes and assumptions about what they do and don’t like, what they can and can’t do, based on their neuro-type. So, really taking that time to know the child as an individual. It’s also really important for teachers to take a strengths-based approach, so recognising and viewing neurodiverse children as capable and competent learners, expecting that they can contribute in a meaningful and valuable way, that they are able to learn and to develop, just like any other child. At the same time, I think recognising and acknowledging that some situations and activities may be more challenging for neurodiverse children.
When it comes to these more challenging situations, I think there are two key things for teachers to be thinking about. The first is what supports can be put in place to help the child to be successful in that situation or activity, and the second part is really being quite reflective and honest about the importance of that particular activity or situation for that individual child’s learning and development. So, just to, I guess, illustrate with an example, if we think about mat time, all the tamariki come to the mat to share stories and songs, so quite a common occurrence in a lot of ECE settings – also, quite a challenging situation for a lot of neurodiverse learners. So we’ve got a lot going on in sensory sense: we’ve got noise from other children, other children in close proximity, having to sit still – all of these things can be quite challenging.
So, coming back to those two ideas, the first is what supports can we put in place for a child who is finding this difficult, and depending on that individual child’s strengths and needs, it might be a sensory mat to sit on, or maybe ear-muffs to help deal with the noise levels. It might be making sure that that child is the last one to arrive on the mat, and the first one to leave, so we’re minimising the length of time that they’re having to sit still. So, really thinking about what supports can we put there to encourage success. Then the second part of that is thinking about, for this individual child, is this activity really important to their individua learning? In some cases, there’ll be some really great reasons as to why it is important, but in other cases, some teachers that I’ve worked with who have been really honest in saying, actually it’s because that’s what all the other kids are doing, and I don’t want to have to explain to the other children why they have to sit on the mat, and this child doesn’t have to. So, really being honest, evaluating: is this something that’s important, or something that we’re doing just because everybody else does?
What styles of communication and interaction are most beneficial for neurodiverse children?
In terms of interaction and communication, one of the words that you’ll come across a lot when you look at the research around supporting neurodiverse children is this word ‘responsivity’. So, being really responsive – learning to understand the cues that this child is providing, and respond to them in a really sensitive way. Really important to try and keep communication clear and as simple as possible. So, we know a lot of neurodiverse children have differences or difficulties when it comes to information-processing. So they might have difficulty processing complex instructions. They might take a little bit longer to receive the message, to process it, and then to respond. So making sure that we’re keeping things a simple as possible, and providing plenty of time for that child to process and respond.
Another thing that is really important is finding as many opportunities as possible to recognise and acknowledge the positives. So, unfortunately, neurodiverse children are often very used to hearing a lot of negatives – hearing a lot of what they shouldn’t be doing. So teachers really, in some cases, need to be quite intentional about providing that positive feedback and that positive reinforcement, and sometimes that might be in the morning, setting yourself a goal: by the time we get to lunchtime, I’m going to find three opportunities to acknowledge something positive with this child. We know from research that positive reinforcement is really effective in teaching new behaviours and skills, and also strengthening those behaviours and skills that we want to see more of.
Jessica presents a really clear view of neurodiversity as a set of differences involving both strengths and challenges. This variation is clearly normalised when she reminds us that we all have moments of emotional dysregulation. It is possible that, for some of our neurodivergent learners, emotional dysregulation is experienced more regularly, as the research reported in the reading explained. However, it is important to remember that we shouldn’t make any assumptions about neurodivergent learners’ ability to develop skills for emotional regulation.
Jessica’s definition of emotional regulation as the ability to deal with the demands of your environment in a calm and skilful way is a really helpful one. She links emotional regulation to executive function skills, clearly defined as the ability to control your actions to achieve your own goals. Jessica sees being able to control and manage your own emotions as being related to those executive function control and attention skills. This suggests that if we support the development of children’s executive function skill, then at the same time we are also supporting them with developing the ability to regulate themselves at times of heightened emotion.
Every time Jessica discusses a particular challenge that a neurodivergent learner might experience, she also reminds us that these different neurotypes provide children with some significant and important strengths. In regard to emotion, Jessica notes that neurodivergent learners are often energetic and passionate individuals who demonstrate a strong sense of emotion. Neurodivergent children can be very sensitive to the emotional tone of people and places (one reason we need to pay special attention to the social and emotional climate of our settings, as we explored in Part 2 of the course). One of the examples she gives is of a child who tunes in very emphatically to the emotional expression in the songs of the pop star Adele.
With regard to executive function, and particularly the skill of paying attention, Jessica notes that the hyperfocus of some neurodivergent learners can be really productive, enabling children to learn an amazing array of knowledge and skills. Note how well this is framed so that it does not lean on a stereotype of autistic learners. Jessica also points out how the special interests of neurodivergent learners can be used as a vehicle for developing relationships with peers. Again, it is so important to focus on strengths and potential, and to maintain a positive attitude towards neurodivergent learners and their developing competencies. As Jessica reminds us, taking opportunities to recognise positives and being very intentional about seeking and pointing out these positive things is incredibly important to children who may be struggling to understand social expectations, constantly getting things wrong, and feeling a diminished sense of self-worth.
In the second part of her interview, Jessica talks about how to ensure an inclusive and culturally responsive approach for all children in order to ensure that neurodivergent children experience a positive social and cultural environment.
Watch the video and then think about the reflection questions below.
This is a really important thing to consider because, traditionally, we’ve taken a really deficit approach to supporting neurodiverse children in developing social and emotional skills, and we’ve really focused on behaviours and skills that we can teach to these neurodiverse children in order to help them catch up, or fit in, but actually, it’s about considering the environment around that child: how we can adapt it and provide supports; also considering the other people around the child, and how we can increase their understanding, or teach them new behaviours, as well as the skills and behaviours that we can teach to neurodiverse children.
How can teachers adjust environments and teaching practices to better support neurodiverse children?
So, in terms of creating that environment, it really is trying to create a learning environment where diversity is accepted and celebrated. There are some amazing resources available in terms of books and video clips that teachers can share with the whole ECE centre – all children – to teach them about neurodiversity and accepting neurodiversity. Thinking about creating opportunities where neurodiverse learners can experience and demonstrate success, where they have a chance to make valuable contributions. We know all children need to develop that sense of belonging, to feel valued as learners, and it’s no different for neurodiverse children. Thinking about planning trips or excursions or events, our teachers really need to be conscious of making sure that all children can be involved in what it is that they’re planning.
In terms of the sensory environment, that’s another important consideration. Again, a lot of neurodiverse children may have difficulties with either sensory functioning and/or sensory processing, and this can feed into difficulties with regulating arousal or energy levels. So we have sometimes issues with over-arousal or hyper-arousal, and this might look like – we might say bouncing off the walls, full of beans, kind of hyperactive. We also see children who have issues with low arousal levels, so under-arousal, and this might look like quite a lethargic child – maybe a little bit zoned out, really lacking in energy and motivation.
So we know from research that the best learning and engagement comes when children are in the zone of optimal arousal, so that kind of happy middle ground where they’re not over-aroused, and not under-aroused. So, for teachers, being aware of the signs that a child is heading towards over-arousal or under-arousal, and having some strategies up your sleeve in terms of regulating those arousal levels. So, music and movement can be really helpful here, in terms of bringing energy levels down: slow, calm, quiet sounds and movements. Sensory materials like sand and water can be really helpful. For bringing arousal levels up, fast, energetic movements and songs – bouncing can be great. For children that enjoy it, a nice big squeeze can be really helpful. So it’s about really recognising the signs, and having some strategies to respond. Sometimes, as well, having a quiet space that children can use when they need to re-centre – having a sensory box or kit with sensory objects and toys that can be brought out for a child to use.
Another thing to be conscious of is some of the activities or times in the day that might be more challenging for neurodiverse children, and a classic example here is transitions. Many neurodiverse children struggle with having to transition from one activity to another, and there’s actually a really great theory that was developed by a neurodiverse adult to help others understand why transitions were challenging for her, and it’s called Tendrils Theory. The idea is that when a neurodiverse child engages with something or someone that they’re interested in, it’s like all these little curly-wurly tendrils come out from their head, and connect with what it is that they’re engaging with, and it’s these thoughts and feelings, and before they can move onto something else, they need to time to be able to retract all of those tendrils back down into their brains. When someone comes along and interrupts, or forces them to move onto somebody else, it’s like chopping those off, so quite uncomfortable. So just really being aware of the challenge that can come with transitions, and allowing plenty of time, maybe providing a visual schedule or a timer, so that the child knows what’s happening, and has time to prepare for it.
How can teachers support neurodiverse children in culturally responsive ways?
Culture is really important. It plays a key role in how we understand and approach neurodiversity. So it’s really important for teachers to understand how whānau view their child’s neurodiversity, and also their approach to supporting their child’s needs. This comes back to taking the time to build those quality, authentic relationships with whanau: really get to know them, get to see their child through their eyes, and acknowledge and accept that their views and understandings of their child and of neurodiversity may be different from your own, as a teacher, and that’s actually okay. We all have different ways of understanding and approaching.
Another important aspect is around building cultural identity. So we know that building a strong sense of cultural identity is really important for all children, and that includes neurodiverse children. It can be really tricky to be thinking about cultural needs when there are so many needs to be thinking of, but it is really vital. So, for teachers, thinking about ways that they can incorporate a child’s culture into their teaching practice – into the resources, the activities, all the different things that they are doing with that child, and again, whānau can be a really wonderful resource here, in terms of letting you know what it is that you could be doing, or giving suggestions. Of course, being really mindful of not over-burdening whanau: often, caring for a neurodiverse child can come with extra stresses and challenges, so we want to be really mindful not to over-burden whānau, but to work in collaboration with them. Again, research is really clear in showing that teachers actually are much better able to support neurodiverse children effectively when they are working in collaboration with whānau.
So my research at the moment is focused on culturally responsive practice for tamariki Māori on the autism spectrum. One question that keeps popping up, especially from whānau, is whether children with communication difficulties should be learning te reo Māori and English, or whether they should be focusing on one language, usually English, because learning two might be confusing, or might lead to some kind of blended language. The research is really, really clear that learning more than one language is really beneficial for all children, including children with communication difficulties. So again, for teachers, incorporating te reo Māori into your teaching practice is really beneficial for all children. Tied into this, if you’re working with a child with a communication difficulty, find out about what languages are spoken in their home environment, and learn some of those key words and phrases.
I read about a story recently of an autistic child who was just learning … had emerging spoken language, and he spoke te reo Māori at home with his family, and anyway, he was at his ECE centre, and looking at the fish tank, and he pointed to one of the fish and said ‘ika’. His teacher, who clearly didn’t recognise that as the Māori word for fish, said, ‘no, that’s a fish’. Just not great in terms of encouraging communication: really, really important to be familiar with all of the languages that child is exposed to, so you can respond when they’re using those words, and also so you can integrate them into your teaching practice, too.
Again, Jessica challenges us to look past the traditional deficit approach to neurodivergent children, which, as she describes, focuses on teaching behaviours and skills to children, assuming that the problem rests with them. In fact, when we acknowledge and value neurodiversity as simply part of the many differences between people, we can flip this idea of the child containing the problem on its head and see that many of the difficulties experienced by neurodivergent children stem from the way the environment, or the behaviours and actions of other children and adults, are challenging for their particular way of thinking and being. In this case, we can think about how to adapt the environment for neurodivergent children. As Jessica mentioned in the previous video, this might involve rethinking practices such as having every child attend mat-time and sit quietly in a group, or looking at the way we expect children to transition between activities.
Other considerations to make the environment a more comfortable and less threatening space for neurodivergent children relate to the sensory environment. Many neurodivergent children have differences in sensory functioning and sensory processing, and this can mean that environments can be over- or under-stimulating for them (you can read more about sensory processing differences in the Further Reading section). Jessica also explains about the different arousal levels that neurodivergent children may experience, from hyper-arousal to under-arousal, and some strategies for helping children engage at a more optimal level. This is crucial for all learning, including the social and emotional learning that we focus on in this course.
Much of what Jessica shares in this video focuses on creating a positive social and emotional climate for children. Children experience positive environments when diversity, including neurodiversity but also cultural diversity, is accepted, valued, and celebrated in the early childhood setting, and when they have opportunities to demonstrate and experience success, and to make a contribution to the setting and group. This means taking special account of children’s cultural diversity and finding ways to incorporate elements that reflect children’s cultures, and in the same way, taking account of children’ neurodiversity and finding ways to value their neurotypes. All of this supports a sense of belonging and positive wellbeing for all children.
These two aspects come together. That is, making a commitment to inclusive practice and to valuing neurodiversity will involve us in changing environments and expectations in order to suit a wider range of neurotypes. At an individual level, we might value the intense focus that a particular child has for a particular activity, and demonstrate how we value that special ability to get highly absorbed by reducing and providing more time for transitions. We might support that child to take leadership in sharing the knowledge and skills they are gaining with the wider group. Their neurodiversity will be celebrated and acknowledged in a very positive way, and their emotional wellbeing, security, and relationships within the setting enhanced: all of this makes a large contribution to developing a positive social and emotional climate for all children.