Neurodivergence in Education

There is increasing discussion on social media and in the media about the lived experience of children in education who have neurodiversity. It’s good that the topic is being raised but often the media focusses on specific groups of individuals in a very generic way. There are headline titles about ‘Ghost Children’ (a term Katie finds quite offensive) with specific focus on the children not attending school due to poor parenting or domestic abuse. There is not much focus on why the education system isn’t working for children with neurodiversity and more specifically adopted children with neurodiversity. If you speak to many adoptive parents however you will hear that education is a source of constant stress for our children and their adoptive parents and the reality is of children who fall between the cracks in the education system, due to lack of specialist understanding and support for the needs they have, especially when they also have co-occurring diagnoses. 

Those of us who walk the path of both adoption and the non-neurotypical become masters on the subject. We have to be. We are seeking to understand our children, ourselves, or (as it turns out in many cases) both. When neurodiversity comes into your life you want to know all that it is possible to know and it can be easy to forget that other people around you don’t see the world through your lens. The same thing is experienced by anyone who has a specific life event or illness. We seek to understand the world we live in when we are affected by specific things. We then encourage the world to see through our lens and to offer greater understanding and support to all those affected by the same issue. 

As adopters we start off a little more prepared than others that our children may have challenges. I’m not sure our brief preparatory courses really prepare us for developmental trauma and how it can impact on a child’s life (or our own) though. I can remember a sentence from the letter the medical adviser who did Katie’s pre-adoption assessment provided. She wrote that there was the possibility that Katie might have FASD and “might need a bit of extra support in school”. All I can say is if I could get Katie actually into school, yes she’d definitely need extra help with her learning (as her EHCP states) but all the other additional overlapping diagnoses combined with lockdowns and losing her dad have left her so anxious that she can barely leave the house. A little more than a bit of extra help, I think it’s fair to say. Pip was said to have had a better start in life. I now know that means being exposed to domestic violence in utero, most probably along with some undocumented alcohol and possibly drugs. As a result he has significant developmental trauma due to the impact of all he experienced in the womb and after birth and is being assessed now for both ADHD and ASD (autism). It’s likely that he also has FASD to some degree. He, too is unable to attend school due to anxiety and has an EHCP (Education Health Care Plan). 

Those of us who have children with an array of challenges often struggle with the school system. Classes are too big, teachers are overloaded and not trained in supporting children with complex needs and there isn’t enough support or space in the class to manage all the needs effectively. Schools often aren’t up to date with understanding how to support neurodivergence other than the basic stereotypical information about ASD and ADHD. There is, as they say, an urgent training need. It’s not just about training and awareness though, it’s about the whole school set up. 

There is a saying that if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. Each person is impacted differently, which is why it is a spectrum. The same is true for any neurodiversity including developmental trauma. It’s a lot for a parent to understand let alone a busy school. We are learning all the time. When I hear our Prime Minister giving speeches about how he wants our children to do some form of maths until they are 18 just so we are competitive on the world stage, it certainly shows me where the priorities of the education system are, and it most certainly isn’t our children who are often doing hardly any maths at all! 

Anyone who knows me knows that my frustration with the education system sits on the “epically high” level on the swingometer. It’s hardly surprising when I have spent the better part of the last decade fighting for support for my children and trying to educate people about the sorts of challenges our children have. It’s even less surprising that I’m frustrated when both of those children are barely receiving an education as a result of that antiquated system. A system that is struggling post-pandemic with the needs of many children affected by the lockdowns but is under pressure to sweep it all under the carpet and return learning levels to what they were before the lockdowns. Children have been changed by their experiences. Regular children are finding the school day hard. Anxiety and other mental health issues are rising. Schools have reduced funding due to rising gas and electricity costs and mainstream schools often aren’t used to offering the support needed to pupils with emotional needs. Diagnoses of ASD and ADHD are on the rise and specialist school places are oversubscribed. Mainstream education is not equipped to cope with this crisis and a generation of children are being let down within education. 

Within my frustration though I reflect. I ponder on what isn’t working and why. I look at what the pressures our school system is under to deliver specific outcomes, most of which aren’t child-centred. I can see that, as a starting point, most schools don’t really understand neurodivergence and especially don’t understand developmental trauma. It’s a highly complex issue so I’m not surprised.  I can see how hard it is for most schools to offer what many children with neurodiversity need. It’s possibly even harder for adopted children with neurodiversity because of the insecurities they can feel and the impact of developmental trauma on the nervous system.. 

In the UK, we have a variety of different schools. We have mainstream schools, SEN (special educational needs) schools, SEMH (social emotional mental health) schools, and schools specific to autism. Additionally there are faith based school and private schools, as well as some very specialist schools.  The problem many of our adopted children with challenges such as complex developmental trauma have is that mainstream schools often overwhelm our children due to too much sensory feedback i.e., noise, being overstimulated due to class sizes and learning needs, feeling distracted, not being able to sit still and concentrate due to hyper vigilance, feeling anxious about being away from parents. Add onto this list FASD, ADHD and ASD and the situation is even more complex. 

Often our children are academically more able than many other children with SEN but all the other issues prevent them from learning. Ability and capability are two very different things. Pip is bright but he also has significant dyslexia. His anxiety about not being able to read and write easily then is exacerbated because he feels anxious.  When he feels anxious the only person he wants is me. He has developmental trauma which affects his sensory system as well as his neural responses. His anxiety makes him “fizzy” and hyperactive. He cannot concentrate and his resulting low self esteem means he struggles to have what schools often describe as a “can do attitude”.  When Katie started at her very small school for girls with autism she felt stressed because she doesn’t see herself as having the sorts of behaviours she witnessed by the other girls and her self esteem was affected. Her school have been wonderful in trying to support her but she is finding it hard to engage after several years out of school. It might have been different if it hadn’t taken so long to get her EHCP and be awarded a specialist placement. Similarly, now I have developed a better working relationship with Pip’s school, we are making some tentative steps forward for him. I am left, however, trying to work out what sort of education will suit Pip best because he isn’t really mainstream but he doesn’t really fit the learning ability level for an SEN school. A package of home education is the only option left but that leaves concerns regarding maintaining friendships. An option is an SEMH (social emotional mental health) school but often these schools have children with behavioural challenges which can be scary and triggering for children with early trauma and resulting hyper vigilance. So where should they be educated? It’s no wonder that many adopted children are no longer in school.

I actually have sympathy for schools.  It might be surprising to hear that because I have had significant battles with school. I have battled lack of understanding of the children but also lack of understanding of what’s involved in parenting the children. I have experienced referrals to children’s services. My experience has been that it’s easier to blame me for the fact the children can’t cope in school than accept it’s the school system that isn’t offering them what they need and supporting the parents trying to navigate the system. Schools have OFSTED and the local authorities breathing down their necks, looking at exam results and making sure the right boxes are ticked. They are told how to teach the curriculum. It’s hard to see where there is flexibility for them, as well as our children. There is huge pressure to whizz through the topics to ensure everything is covered. There is no time to notice is a child is overly quiet, or if they don’t have friends in the playground. There isn’t the expertise to understand PACE or therapeutic responses, instead there are behaviour charts and exclusions to try and keep everyone behaving within a specific ideal. They also forget that we are not birth parents. We are the parents who are trying to help our children make sense of who they are and to help them heal from difficult early experiences. We do not hold the whole of our children is history in our hands. We were not there for its entirety. We are the parents who are trying to keep up with research into developmental trauma and the best ways to help our children. We are the ones who live with the often difficult realities of how developmental trauma affects our children. We learn not to talk about much of this with other parents because these are experiences they often cannot understand and the judgement our children often face as a result is an ever present fear. 

Personally I don’t think anyone understands neurodivergence until they walk that path and they start to understand how difficult it can be to provide the right environment for our children to learn. It’s no wonder we feel frustrated with education. It’s a pretty blinkered system. Interestingly even the SEN schools follow the same school day. The length of time in school has been one of the key issues for both my children. There’s no real flexibility of thinking or ability to think outside the box. Everything is a set routine. 

There has never been more urgency to overhaul the education system then there is now. Even children who went to school happily before the lockdowns are struggling. My vision is for schools that are much smaller everywhere. Secondary schools that mimic the size of primary schools where class sizes are smaller, there are fewer pupils, teachers can give individual attention, the day is less overwhelming for pupils and teachers alike. There is a sense of community as a result. Primary schools in local areas could join forces to offer specialist support for local children in need of a different environment. Secondary school pupils can follow an academic pathway or a more vocational one where pupils can learn a trade or become artists. Such schools could manage the needs of the more mainstream SEN pupils far more easily. Children, who need them, could have more flexible timetables if necessary but because their needs would be more easily met within school, this would become less frequent. People would want to train to become teachers because it would be more enjoyable and rewarding for them. I’d this just utopian thinking or is it a possibility? 

I often joke that our life is totally normal until we step outside of our front door. Nobody feels different because emotional needs are being met more easily. We need that emotional support and awareness to underpin education. Maybe then our Prime Minister would achieve his political dream of the UK competing on the world stage again for education and (more importantly) all our children could get the education they deserve and achieve their own goals in life with confidence. And neurodivergence would be less of an issue in school for everyone (especially the pupils themselves) because everyone’s needs could be more easily met. 


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