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Education

Neurodiversity and Gifted Education

There is no single approach that works well for all gifted kids.

Key points

  • Neurodiversity refers to the differences in brain structure that lead to cognitive, sensory, and emotional differences.
  • There is greater variability among those who are any type of neurodiverse than between neurotypicals and neurodiverse individuals.
  • Giftedness is a form of neurodiversity; the pathways leading to it are enormously variable, and so are children's resulting learning needs.
Robert Collins/Unsplash
Source: Robert Collins/Unsplash

Over the past several years, I’ve been reading more and more about “neurodiversity.” These pieces are sometimes tinged with judgement about those who are considered “neurotypical.” While I love the ideas of inclusivity and of recognizing the strengths inherent in experiencing the world uniquely, differently than most others, it strikes me that these words are too often used to create artificial distinctions that do more harm than good. We all benefit when diversity of every kind is respected, and we’re all damaged when being typical (or being different) is disdained. That’s as true for those on the autism spectrum (or who are different in other ways) as those who meet gifted criteria.

What is Neurodiversity?

“Neuro” means “relating to the nerves or nervous system,” which includes the brain. Neurological differences—or neurodiversity—are the differences in brain structure, chemistry, and functioning that are associated with differences in sensory perception, cognitive functioning, and mental health. As with other human variations—size, culture, temperament, etc.—these differences can lead to a variety of different outcomes and needs. Diversity, including neurodiversity, is what makes each of us unique, and gives our species the remarkable capacity to invent and adapt to changing circumstances.

What About Neurotypicals?

It can be tempting when contrasting those who are neurodiverse with those who are more neurotypical to see them as categorically different, but there is a huge range within each of these categories: those on the autism spectrum and those who meet gifted criteria (and those who are atypical in any other way) are at least as different from each other as they are from those who are more neurotypical. There is considerably more variation within each of these categories than between and among them.

How Does Neurodiversity Apply to Gifted Education?

My work in Special Education has focused primarily on giftedness, and on the ways that children with gifted learning needs are different than others, and also have the same basic requirements as other kids. Simply put, my work suggests that every child—whether they have problems or advantages with learning, behavior, emotion regulation, social skills, or something else—can be supported in thriving only when they’re given what they need to keep learning, and to feel they’re a valued member of a learning community. Schools and curricula are usually designed to meet the learning needs of most kids, and my work has focused on addressing the needs of the kids who don’t fit into the “most kids” category.

That’s why Joanne Foster and I open Being Smart about Gifted Learning: Empowering Parents and Kids Through Challenge and Change with, “There’s no such thing as a typical gifted child. Each child with gifted learning needs is unique, with their own story and life experiences, their own profile of strengths and challenges." We recommend that parents, grandparents, and others involved in shaping kids' lives acknowledge the diversity of individual experience, remembering that there’s no single approach that works well for all children.

Joanne Foster and I describe the Optimal Match approach to addressing gifted learning needs. That means looking for ways to support each child's curiosity and continued engagement in the learning process. This approach works well across all areas of strength (and weakness), and across all cultures and situations, and can be tailored to virtually any environment or circumstance. It is infinitely more inclusive and flexible than most other approaches to gifted education.

As I see it, then, every child is unique, and “neurodiversity” can probably be stretched to include pretty much everyone. The term made an important contribution in the early days of rethinking autism, and is still importantly useful in some applications, especially when it leads to a more respectful and inclusive attitude to people who seem different from others. At the same time, however, if we’re to understand kids who are different than others and support them in their development, we should try to avoid categorizing them. Instead, it's usually best to affirm each child's individual differences, and look for ways to make sure their environment and education match their emotional and learning needs.

For more on benefits of the Optimal Match approach, see

Gifted Education: Losing the Racism and Elitism

Two-Eyed Seeing

How to Raise Intelligent Kids

A Better Way to Support Gifted Learners

References

Nicole Tetrault (2021). Insights into a Bright Mind: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Stories of Unique Thinking. Gifted Unlimited.

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