What Makes a Curriculum Neurodiversity-Affirming?

by Kat Harhai on November 2, 2021

At Bridges Learning System, we create neurodiversity-affirming curricula for neurodivergent youth. But what exactly does it mean for a curriculum, service, practice or program to be neurodiversity affirming?

Neurodiversity is a lens used to understand neurological differences from a humanizing, strengths-based lens. Neurodiversity is the alternative to the pathologizing, deficit-based model for understanding neurological difference, and is overwhelmingly preferred by the neurodivergent community.

For a tool or practice to be neurodiversity-affirming, it must be rooted in the values of neurodiversity. In our work creating the SEA Bridge curriculum for neurodivergent youth, this has been guided by the following:

We understand disability via the social model of disability, not the medical model.

Using the social model of disability, people with different abilities are not inherently disabled, but rather become disabled by a society that wasn’t built with their needs in mind. Using this lens, the onus is placed on the broader able-bodied society to make infrastructure, technology, cultural norms, transportation, etc. accessible to people with a diversity of abilities. In short, the environment needs to change, not the disabled person.

The status quo curricula, programs, and services for neurodivergent youth are rooted in the deficit model, and task the child with changing (aka suppressing their needs) in order to navigate the world at hand. These programs ask children to make eye contact to “show respect,” undergo sensory “desensitization” to be able to tolerate painful stimuli, and to use mouth words rather than their AAC to communicate. These are just several examples among many other instances of explicitly or implicitly teaching the child that they need to change and become less neurodivergent.

At Bridges Learning System, we firmly reject this model. Instead of tasking a child with shapeshifting to fit inside a neurotypical box, we encourage building awareness of the person they exist as most naturally. In instances when needs go unmet, we encourage youth to look to what in their environment needs to change for them to exist as their authentic selves.

We validate neurodivergent needs as well as provide tools and advocacy skills to navigate the obstacles that come from being neurodivergent in a world built for neurotypicals.

Welcoming all shapes, flavors, and dimensions of neurodivergence does not magically make the challenges neurodivergent individuals face go away. It is however, an important first step in placing the onus to change in the appropriate part of the equation.

Being neurodivergent in a world created for neurotypicals comes with many challenges. Among those challenges is that our world invalidates and minimizes neurodivergent needs, or paternalizes the neurodivergent individual by calling their needs “special.”

All people, neurodivergent or not, have individual needs. Neurodiversity-affirming curricula must validate these individual needs of neurodivergent youth, including sensory needs, communication needs, needs surrounding authentic connection, executive function, and capacity, among others.

Using this lens, all needs—universal and individual—as equally valid. Students are encouraged to build their awareness of their own needs and are supported in developing advocacy skills to get those needs met in a world that doesn’t do so by default.

Nothing about us without us.

Neurodivergent people need to be guiding voices if a project, service, or curriculum is intended to serve their community. Neurodivergent people also need to be at the table for conversations totally unrelated to disability, but we’ll save that conversation for a different day.

At Bridges Learning System, we employ a neurodiverse team made up of autistic, neurodivergent, and neurotypical voices.  We also collaborate with autistic and neurodivergent folks outside of our small but mighty team, to ensure that we’re capturing a diversity of perspectives beyond just our own. One of the many ways we’ve done this is by conducting surveys and focus groups with neurodivergent adults to get their input, feedback, and recommendations on how to create a curriculum that best serves neurodivergent youth.

We encourage taking pride in one’s identity as neurodivergent.

Current cultural attitudes lead to an enormous amount of shame, misunderstanding, and judgment surrounding one’s neurodivergent identity. For example, hearing from doctors, teachers, therapists, caregivers, and peers that they want to “cure” an individual’s autism (which is an unchanging component of identity, not an ailment) is a harmful message that can and will be internalized if heard enough times. It is thus no wonder that rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide are higher in the neurodivergent community compared to the general population. Encouraging youth to take pride in their neurodivergence is a crucial act of resistance in a world that otherwise sends them the message that they are inherently broken.

Encouraging pride in neurodivergence looks like: acknowledging difference without judgment (different isn’t better or worse, different just is); validating one’s own neurodivergent needs, and understanding that all people have individual needs; changing the environment when needs go unmet, not the neurodivergent individual; and understanding neurodiversity as one of many components of human diversity, all of which are important and equally valid.

For more information on reframing autism using the neurodiversity paradigm, click here for a free downloadable resource.

We recognize the dangers of masking, and support educators/caregivers in creating safety for their neurodivergent kids to unmask.

Camouflaging one’s neurodivergent traits is not “fitting in,” it’s suppressing one’s needs for the comfort of others. This process takes a detrimental toll on physical and mental health.

Status quo services and programs both implicitly and explicitly teach youth to mask.

To be neurodiversity-affirming, a curriculum or service needs to swim upstream by actively encouraging youth not to mask and making that possible by creating safe environments for them to unmask.

In our neurodiversity-affirming curriculum, we’ve done this in a few ways. We validate the many different ways of accomplishing any given task, and encourage children to explore the way(s) that work best for them (i.e. listening can look like fidgeting, moving, sitting still, humming, looking away, making eye contact, doodling, etc.). We also provide our educators and caregivers of learners in SEA Bridge with resources to better understand neurodivergent masking, and how to create safety for their kids to unmask.

Want to learn more about our flagship neurodiversity-affirming curriculum? Schedule a call with our founder Katrina Martin to get the scoop on the SEA Bridge.

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