Recognising and Supporting Neurodiversity

21 March 2022
Laura West
Male teacher at a table helping a student

Did you know that roughly 15 – 20% of the population are neurodivergent? (Doyle, 2022)

That’s around 1 in 7 people, which means that in a class of 30 learners, it would be fair to estimate that three or four of those students will be neurodivergent. Whether they are diagnosed or not, is an entirely different story.

Neurodivergence is also known by the more common terms like autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia and other specific learning disabilities. Simply put, neurodivergent brains function in a way that that society doesn’t deem “normal” or “typical”, their brains are different. (Walker, 2014)

Neurodivergence is becoming more and more recognised in society, but there are still lots of people who are being missed or misdiagnosed as they move through their time in education. The Department for Education (DfE) notes that “the identification of a potential Special Educational Need (SEN) usually started with a concern being raised by a teacher” (Department for Education, 2021) but what if that teacher doesn’t know what to look for?

Common signs of neurodivergence

Some of the more common signs of neurodivergence are different responses in social settings, different responses to sensory input, and varying abilities to adapt to change and transitions. Most teachers would feel comfortable raising a concern to their Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO) if they had noticed one or more of these common signs. But what about some of the lesser-known signs that could mean a child in your classroom is neurodivergent and needs some additional support?

Would you stop to think that your learner that daydreams through the majority of your lesson but then gets all the work done in the end might be neurodivergent? Would you re-assess that the “naughty” child that every teacher so far has struggled to engage with, might have more to manage internally to access your teaching and the classroom? What about the learner who is constantly unorganised, finds completing the classwork hard, and never hands in any homework but still manages to pass all assessments with flying colours?

If you’re seeing any of the following in learners your classroom, it’s worth having a conversation with your SENCO to discuss further support you can offer, maybe spark discussions about referrals and family support

Emotional dysregulation

  • Everyone has moments of impulsivity and can struggle to keep their cool in emotional situations. However, if it’s more than just the odd moment of impulsivity, it may be a sign of something more than just someone starting to find their way in the world. Struggles with impulsivity, emotional literacy, and self-control are some of the key symptoms of neurodivergence. Neurodivergent people also note that they feel emotions more intensely than other people (The Ed Psych Practice, 2021).

Executive dysfunction

  • We all know if we’re not excited about a task, we can find it hard to get up and running. If you start to notice that the procrastination is more than just a one off, OR once the initial excitement of the task has worn off, it’s harder to keep going and get the work done, it might be executive dysfunction.
  • You might also notice that when you set a list of work to be completed, only the last one or two of the tasks have been completed. Being able to successfully follow a verbal list of tasks is part of working memory, and studies show that neurodivergent people, compared to their peers, have a less developed working memory. With support and work, working memory skills can be developed and improved (THINK Neurology for Kids, 2020).


Have you ever noticed that if given the chance to work on a topic that they are really interested in, maybe even a special interest, your learner loses track of time and wont’ stop working? Even to the detriment to the rest of their tasks, and their physical needs? Maybe even forgetting to eat or drink without reminders, and not going to the toilet for hours on end? This is hyperfocus and can be one of the biggest missed signs of neurodivergence, especially if the subject you teach is a special interest for your learner.

“Psychiatrist and author William W. Dodson, MD, estimates that by age 12, children with ADHD receive 20,000 more negative messages from parents, teachers, and other adults than their friends and siblings who do not have ADHD” (Dodson, 2021). ADHD isn’t the only condition that sits in the umbrella of neurodivergence so just imagine how many neurodivergent children you’ve met who have received those 20,000 messages!

So now you can recognise some of the lesser-known signs of neurodivergence and you’re ready to jump in and help, what can you add to your classroom to support these learners?


Emotional dysregulation

  • Teach specific emotional literacy skills or consider requesting specialist input to support these skills.
  • Offer time outs as needed to support regulation.
  • Use Positive Behaviour Support and positive messages in your classroom.
  • Look for the little wins in every day for every learner.

Executive dysfunction

  • Offer visual checklists of work to complete.
  • Get ready, do, done is a great resource to help with task initiation. Especially if the learner finds it hard to visualise the end project of the task, so they can’t figure out the steps they need to get to the end project (Ward, and Jacobsen, 2014).
  • Use the 5-minute rule to help with procrastination and task completion.
  • Suggest that your learner just does 5 minutes of work to get started, after those 5 minutes the task may seem less overwhelming and make it easier to keep working.


  • When you notice a learner hyperfocusing, use their name to slowly break those moments and bring them back to the task at hand. Allow your learners some time to respond to their name and don’t communicate further until they have responded to their name. You may need to say their name more than once, or add in further cues, such as a tap on the desk, or a gentle touch on a shoulder, dependent on the learner.
  • Set visual timers for tasks and consider auditory timers as well if you think your learner would benefit from them.

Finally, if you notice a learner who is possibly neurodivergent and you feel you need to offer more support for them in your classroom, before you do anything else, your first step should always be a conversation to ask how you can help.

Neurodivergent voices have been spoken over by neurotypical professionals for many years and in your classroom, you have the power to raise those neurodivergent voices up and improve not only their educational outcomes, but also their self-esteem and quality of life!

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Reference list
Department for Education (2021). SEN Support: Findings from a Qualitative Study. [online] Department for Education, Department for Education, p.8. Available at: [Accessed 16 Mar. 2022].

Dodson, W.M. (2021). ADHD and the Epidemic of Shame. [online] ADDitude. Available at: [Accessed 16 Mar. 2022].

Doyle, N. (2020). Neurodiversity at Work: a Biopsychosocial Model and the Impact on Working Adults. British Medical Bulletin, [online] 135(1), pp.108–125. Available at: [Accessed 16 Mar. 2022].

The Ed Psych Practice (2021). Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria: How ADHD Makes Children Fear Rejection. [online] The Ed Psych Practice Blog. Available at: [Accessed 16 Mar. 2022].

THINK Neurology for Kids (2020). How ADHD Contributes to Memory Problems: THINK Neurology for Kids: Pediatric Neurology. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 Mar. 2022].

Walker, N. (2014). Neurodiversity: Some Basic Terms & Defintions. [online] Neuroqueer. Available at: [Accessed 16 Mar. 2022].

Ward, S. and Jacobsen, K. (2014). A Clinical Model for Developing Executive Function Skills. Perspectives on Language Learning and Education, [online] 21(2), pp.72–84. Available at: [Accessed 16 Mar. 2022].