A word that has increasingly found its way into the conversation about inclusion is ‘neurodiversity’ – an umbrella term covering dyslexia, autism and other special needs.
An estimated one in 10 people are neurodiverse and schools accept a range of SEND in children. It must follow, therefore, that a proportion of adults in schools are also neurodiverse, either through formal diagnosis or self-identification.
Do we welcome and accept neurodiverse members of staff in the same way we’d expect to treat children? It feels as if not as much attention is given to diversity in schools as a workplace, and while structures and attitudes are in place to meet the needs of pupils, can we say the same for staff?
The challenges encountered by neurodiverse staff
Schools work hard to make children feel accepted and cared about, and this should extend to staff too. Practitioners project an image of themselves and behave in ways deemed appropriate in a professional workplace. But trying to behave in a neurotypical way can put huge pressure on a teacher with autism or other needs, and many report feeling completely exhausted by what is known as masking – a process where identity is suppressed, either consciously or unconsciously. Neurodiverse teachers are at heightened risks of stress and burnout, caused by their (perceived) need to mask their true selves and feel unable to be open and honest to managers. This is something that needs to change.
Reading of documents, policies and emails, often within tight timeframes, can add pressure to staff with dyslexia. The volume and variety of tasks to complete by deadlines could be problematic for someone with ADHD or dyspraxia, while the social nuances and sensory stimuli of a bustling staffroom could represent more stress than relaxation for an autistic person.
Supportive line management
Senior leaders should cultivate relationships where staff feel comfortable being themselves and speaking about their needs without fear of judgement or reprisal. Neurodiverse adults should not feel ashamed or fearful; feelings that no child should experience on account of their additional needs. Heads need to be proactive about having discussions with all staff so that wellbeing is safeguarded and opportunities to put support into place aren’t lost. Having an open-door policy and building a culture of trust, will benefit all staff. A school which embraces inclusion as applicable to both children and adults will instil confidence in those with a neurodiversity to be themselves, and share any struggles they are experiencing.
Once their needs are disclosed, neurodiverse staff have an entitlement to support, and failure to make reasonable adjustments could constitute discrimination. Alongside an open minded and supportive ethos, often simple to facilitate practical accommodations are all that is needed, which can be implemented following discussion with the staff member. It is crucial to get to know employees on an individual basis, to avoid blanket approaches based on assumptions about what a diagnosis means, or how difficulties manifest.
How far can schools actively seek diversity within their teams? If a school is publicly disability friendly then it will naturally be a more attractive workplace for candidates with neurodiversity. As neurodiversity is a term which applies to disability, it is a protected characteristic, and often application forms have a question relating to disability in order to ensure any additional accommodations are made should the applicant be shortlisted.
However, it remains an individual’s prerogative whether or not to choose to disclose their neurodiversity. Schools should revisit their job advertisements and application information packs to make the importance of inclusion for all explicit as well as directly stating how valuable neurodiverse staff are in education. Schools could consider achieving recognised accreditation, such as the government’s Disability Confident Scheme. Taking steps to consider the language used will attract a wider range of applicants and make those with a neurodiversity more inclined to disclose, and appeal to those without by conveying a welcoming and supportive school culture.
School leaders should evaluate the interview process and questions, and consider whether they could be biased towards neurotypical applicants. Interviews are anxiety-inducing to most, and ways should be considered to minimise that. For example, someone with ADHD might speak more quickly when giving a presentation or find it difficult to remain on point when being interviewed. Presenting an autistic candidate with a hypothetical situation could be less useful than asking questions that draw from their own experience. A candidate with dyslexia might need more time to read and process information in an unseen activity. Meanwhile, an interviewee with dyspraxia might be more productive if provided with a laptop to complete a written task. Looking through an inclusive lens at the mechanics of recruitment and making changes to minimise potential barriers to neurodiverse candidates, will allow them to shine.
Benefits of neurodiverse teachers
Leaders should consider the numerous strengths that can exist alongside, and indeed outweigh the challenges of, neurodiversity. People with dyslexia are often creative, visual processors who see issues holistically. Resilience and empathy can be features of those with dyspraxia. The hyperfocus associated with having ADHD and the special interests of autistic people can be a huge advantage where staff have responsibility for an area in which they have a strong interest. Leaders who foster positive inclusive attitudes will also facilitate strategic planning that utilises the particular talents of each member of staff.
Children need a variety of role models, and those who have SEND could respond positively to a teacher who is open about their own diagnosis, strengths and needs, in a school where inclusion is not just applied to children. Teachers aim to connect with their classes, and empathy is strengthened further when staff convey through their teaching strategies and manner, similar challenges to the children they teach. They can draw upon their own experiences and insight in ways that neurotypical teachers can’t. Children feel seen and understood, and could be inspired to become teachers themselves.
The neurodiverse educators’ community
There are a number of publications and organisations you can turn to for further information:
- The Autistic School Staff Project has published Amazing Autistic Teachers – how to learn from them.
- Learning from Autistic teachers - How to Be a Neurodiversity-Inclusive School (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2021)
- The Neuroteachers YouTube channel offers advice and guidance for both neurodiverse pupils and staff, from the perspective of neurodiverse teachers.
- There is also a Neurodivergent Teachers Network Facebook group.
How to be more inclusive
- Have a truly inclusive ethos, in which neurodiverse pupils and adults are welcomed equally.
- Ensure you have in place genuinely supportive line management systems where people feel comfortable disclosing their neurodiversity.
- Be prepared to provide extra time, accessible technology such as screen readers and voice activated dictation, which might be beneficial to teachers with dyslexia.
- Provide support and be flexible with prioritising and meeting deadlines if you have staff with ADHD or dyspraxia.
- Adjust your socialising expectations and consider providing a quiet space as an alternative to the staffroom for an autistic member of staff to decompress when needed.
- Find out more about the three levels of commitment to the Disability Confident Employers scheme at the official website.
Kate Sarginson is a lecturer of education, delivering ITT specialising in SEND and Inclusion. She is a former SENCO and primary deputy head, with over two decades of experience in teaching and school leadership across specialist and mainstream settings.