6 facts I wish people understood about neurodiversity
As someone with ADHD and Dyslexia, Cory shares what he wishes educators and employers knew about neurodiversity. Cory currently works in the Human Services field. Prior to this, Cory was a teacher in Canada teaching children in Pre-K to Grade 3. By sharing his experiences and insights, Cory hopes that he can help more people to understand what it’s like to be neurodivergent living in a ‘neurotypical’ world.
1. Being made to feel different leaves an impact
According to research;
- learners with learning and thinking differences are 31% more likely to be bullied than their peers
- 65% of adults with dyslexia have experienced symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from trauma experienced at school
There are many articles and studies that demonstrate the link between trauma and learning. As a neurodivergent person, from my own experience I can relate this back to being made to feel different.
In grade 3 I was placed into a special education program due to remedial struggles I'd been having in school. When I told my friends I was going into this classroom they told me they didn’t want to be friends with anyone who was in the ‘stupid class’. I think this was my first experience with discrimination for being different (and have continued to experience this throughout my life). This and the bullying that proceeded, are some of the reasons I began to self isolate at around the age of 9-10 years old.
In high school I was also placed in a Resource room (a separate setting where a special education program is delivered). I could only apply to basic level courses. Fortunately for me my Resource teacher was fantastic and very supportive of my learning endeavors. When the time came, she and my father advocated for me to get into general level classes. This was largely because of my high achievements in Industrial Arts, where I was obtaining a 90% average. But, it was quite the battle.
We were called to a general meeting to plead our case against a board of around 6 people. This consisted of the Principal, Vice Principal, and a psychologist amongst others. There appeared to be a great deal of concern that should I fail a course that this would be quite traumatizing for me and be very detrimental to my success. The reality, however, was that it was traumatizing for me to be made to feel different. Eventually, I was given permission to go into general level courses which made me feel fantastic.
Today, 7 out of 10 kids with IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) for learning disabilities spend 80% or more of the school day in general education classrooms. This is a great step towards inclusion. But there’s still a long way to go…
2. Our goal should be to enable, not disable
Often, neurodivergent people are being forced to learn, work and behave like someone who is neurotypical. This can disable our unique gifts, and all the advantages that come with being neurodiverse.
For example, while it’s great to see a trend of inclusion in mainstream education, it’s important to note that only 30% of general educators feel strongly that they can successfully teach kids with learning disabilities. This often means that in the school system, we’re being taught to be neurotypical. Because our neurodivergent ways are not understood.
It also means that our environments often focus on the negative aspects, such as the challenges that we can have. It’s important to remember that what you focus on grows consequently. So, if there’s a focus on the negative, that’s what becomes most prominent.
It’s when there’s a focus on the gifts of being neurodiverse that we can achieve our full potential, and our self esteem is reinforced. Our goal should be to enable not disable children in their learning pursuits.
This counts for the workplace too.
Personally, as someone with ADHD and Dyslexia, I don’t perceive myself as being disabled. I see neurodiversity as a gift with many marketable skills.
However, if I don’t say that I’m disabled, I will not receive funding for or be allowed to have the accommodations that I need. There are many psychological ramifications for being put into this position: the least of which is being forced to describe yourself as broken (at least that’s how it feels for me). Telling a potential employer that I have dyslexia in an interview also has the added fear of discrimination and not getting hired. Especially since I have been discriminated against in the past.
Better awareness, training, and support are needed so that diverse learners and workers can thrive in general education classrooms, and the world of work. By normalizing different ways of learning and working, we can create environments that are universally designed for all. In such environments, support such as inclusive technology would be available for everyone - and that would be a much more welcoming and comfortable experience for someone like me.
3. We must remove neurotypical expectations
Writing for a dyslexic is not just writing. It can be an emotional roller coaster ride of self-doubt, fear, anger, all sorts of ghosts, and flashbacks. Often, we’re told we’re not good enough. That’s my experience anyway.
As someone with ADHD, I also tend to have a lot of information in my mind at any one time. I can have so much information, it feels like an iceberg in my brain. But, I only have a small porthole to spit the information out. It can be difficult to decide where to place my focus, and at what point to cut it off. In school, and indeed the workplace, there’s a form of perfectionism when it comes to reading and writing.
While I believe reading, writing, and arithmetic are all very important and necessary skills to acquire, I do not believe that learning has to adhere to a strict time schedule based on neurotypical expectations. As a teacher, I have the capacity to teach children all of those skills at any point in their lives, but it is exceedingly difficult to help a student regain their self-esteem when it is lost. And, contrary to popular belief, teaching a child to read does not improve self-esteem. We need to eliminate the idea that kids are required to be at a certain level of proficiency at a certain time.
In my opinion, that line of thinking has more to do with stakeholders than it does for children. Quite frankly, it can cause trauma to children both directly and indirectly. Through the pressure placed on them, and the bullying they may receive as a result of being centered out as being different. As well as through the messaging that somehow these children are lesser-than because they struggle remedially or with math. I think it’s very important that kids learn these skills, but not at the expense of their mental health or psychological safety. Remember, in regards to learning reading, it’s a dance, not a race.
Similarly, in the workplace there’s often a focus on grammar, spelling and communication. Too often, we see requirements such as ‘must have excellent communication skills’ written in job descriptions. Someone who is neurodiverse may not have the confidence to apply because they do not view their reading and writing skills in this way - even though they may have excellent verbal communication. This places a barrier to the workplace before we can even get in the door.
I was once told by a supervisor that there was too much writing involved in a position I wanted to apply for, so I wouldn’t qualify for the job. I was more than qualified for the role, and had the experience required. When I was a teacher, I was asked by another teacher why I ever wanted to become a teacher since I had dyslexia.
Rather than placing a focus on perfectionism when it comes to reading and writing skills, let’s embrace the unique skills the neurodiverse can bring. And instead of leading with neurotypical expectations, you can support our journey with tools such as technology. Technology exists to help us to do everything from grammar, to reading and writing, and math. Let’s embrace it.
4. We should take a growth mindset approach
Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer, encourages dog owners to use calm and assertive energy when training their dogs. He also constantly reminds us that dogs aren’t people. You have to watch very closely to see that you’re not reinforcing behaviors you don’t want. I think the same thing is true with children, particularly the neurodiverse. We must be mindful of our interactions.
Research has also shown that the neurodiverse show greater emotional reactivity than the neurotypical. While this often means higher emotional intelligence and empathy in social relationships, it can also mean that the neurodiverse are detecting emotional cues differently from neurotypical individuals.
Many teachers are neurotypical and therefore have neurotypical experiences. So when they try to communicate with and educate neurodiverse students, sometimes it gets lost in translation. They encourage the very outcomes they’re trying to avoid. For example, a red pen is often used to identify mistakes. For someone like me, with dyslexia, this can reinforce the feeling of failure. The pen in combination with writing can bring back strong emotions that reinforce the idea or feeling of being broken. This inhibits me from wanting to do the writing process and creates one hell of an internal battle.
Part of the reason a neurodiverse individual presents differently is because their volume is turned up a little more than a neurotypical. If you will, they perceive the world more intensely than a neurotypical, who has a tendency to want to turn down the volume. For example, the neurodiverse can often be more sensitive to sensory stimuli. To put this into context, the average individual sees 150 images a second whereas the average dyslexic sees 1500 to 4000 images a second. If there’s too much noise, we might not be able to process the information that’s being presented to us and loud noises can be irritating.
We need to help neurodiverse students to learn to regulate in a growth mindset approach with strategies such as resilience training, choice theory, and mindfulness, as opposed to an unhealthy approach.
As many teachers know, the profession of teaching is very complicated and becoming more and more so as the years go on. Teachers typically have 30+ students in their classroom. They are required to do their own lesson plans and unit plans based on the curriculum which is ever changing. There are constantly new initiatives being implemented with greater and greater expectations. It is becoming increasingly more political both in and out of the classroom. There's not enough time to teach all the curriculum so teachers are required to overlap. And teachers' time after school is not their own. This excessive amount of time requirement takes away from time spent with family. And here I am asking you to accept yet another new perspective and consider a new approach. While I know this sounds daunting, my hope is that it will alleviate some of your stress. I recently spoke with a principal who was most certainly sympathetic towards the neurodiverse and was eager to find methods to help these students because she often had these students in her office for disciplinary measures.
In the world of work, we often see the same.
Too often, disciplinary procedures are used rather than employers taking a step back to assess how they can better support their employees. With this in mind, I would say to employers - often, the neurodiverse have had to work two to three times harder to obtain the education and the positions they are in. We have been in the fire a little longer than most, and as a result we have a great deal of determination and grit. We have a never quit, never give up, and never surrender mentality. That plus all the other gifts that we bring to the table make us a very rare diamond in the rough, who with the right employer and polishing can shine the brightest.
5. Neurodiversity must be understood
Unfortunately, for a long time neurodiversity has been largely misunderstood. There’s been a language of broken (and blame) in regards to how neurodivergence has been described through the neurotypical lens, which is juxtaposed to our gifts and abilities
Being neurodiverse can represent: empathy, resilience, creativity, and lots of other great qualities.
It can also represent: interrupting conversations because we have a lot we want to get out and we're worried we might forget. Or, misinterpreting social cues.
This has the potential to create suspicion, or people will make up things in their minds to make sense of what they're seeing. When we have accommodations in place, it can create jealousy amongst our classmates and colleagues. We have an invisible difference that can perplex teachers and colleagues. The result can be unconscious bias, or conscious bullying for that matter.
If we can raise awareness of what it means to be neurodiverse, alongside our strengths and abilities, the world would be a more neuro-inclusive place.
With this in mind - the neurodiverse are famous for being divergent thinkers, but what does this really mean?
I have two analogies for this. At least, they explain how I think as someone with ADHD and Dyslexia.
The first is what I like to call popcorn thinking. When I’m given a topic to consider, my brain starts to act like popcorn. I start coming up with all sorts of ideas rapidly. But, unfortunately my thoughts can have a tendency to go all over the place. I often need a strategy to help me focus my thoughts. Despite the challenges I can have, the advantage is that I’m highly curious, highly creative and have a knack for exploration.
The next analogy I have is that of a fox with a head cold who’s chasing after a rabbit. I run down every rabbit hole I see, and sure I chase up all sorts of good and bad stuff, and lots of times I still get the rabbit, but I’m exhausted! Again, the advantage of this is that I’m highly driven and focused on success. But I may need some support to recuperate.
I hope these two analogies shed some light on what it feels like to be neurodiverse. And can help people to understand and accept the need for strategies, resources and tools that help us to manage and capitalize on our gifts.
6. Celebrating neurodiversity helps us to thrive
With increased understanding, neurodiverse people are better able to be their true selves. Often, when we’re judged by neurotypical people through a neurotypical lens, based on their own lived experiences, we begin to judge and compare ourselves through the neurotypical lens. We aren’t getting a true understanding of what it means to be truly neurodiverse. This can be damaging. We begin to question our own gifts.
That fact is, our brains are built differently. But that doesn’t mean we are any less capable.
I received my formal diagnosis of Dyslexia and ADHD when I was completing my degree (of which I graduated with distinction). During my psycho-educational assessment the assessors said;
“Cory has many learning strengths including very superior abilities in spatial/abstract reasoning and fluid reasoning. He has superior abilities in attention to visual detail and sequencing information in a logical order. His vocabulary and ability to understand abstract language are above average. Cory has average achievement in reading comprehension”.
When it came to reading, writing and mathematical skills, however, I scored quite low. This is consistent with dyslexia. Understandably, this is perplexing for teachers who see a tremendously bright young student that strangely enough struggles with reading, writing, and arithmetic (also, limiting for teachers is that they tend to focus through the lens of a neurotypical individual). Unfortunately the methods which most teachers use to evaluate students are not true measures of a dyslexic’s abilities. Similarly, in the workplace, traditional hiring processes often don’t allow us to display our strengths in the best way.
This well-known saying comes to mind - “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
The neurodiverse tend to display right-brain thinking. Creativity is linked to the right side of the brain, as well as emotions. While we have the capacity to hyper-focus on things that interest us, we also have the tendency to hyper-focus on the negative.
If neurodiversity was recognized, or better yet celebrated, in our everyday environments, our gifts and talents would be able to shine much brighter.
In this blog, I have tried to provide examples and information about the abilities, characteristics and emotions often experienced by neurodiverse individuals. I’ve also tried to conceptualize our functioning as gifts as opposed to liabilities. It is in the interest of these individuals, and indeed society, to re-conceptualize their functioning in a positive way. Only then are we able to take an approach as educators and employers that can capitalize upon and reinforce these gifts.
My name is Cory Quigley. I am 53 years old, and I have been blessed with the gift of neurodiversity. I have dyslexia and ADHD.
I have a degree in education, in which I graduated with distinction. I have a diploma in social work and a diploma in addictions counselling. I have a life coach certificate and numerous certificates in trauma informed care, motivational interviewing, and suicide prevention to name only a few. My formal education, combined with my adversaries in the school of life, have been my greatest teachers. I strongly believe that life is conspiring in your favour.
I am a strong advocate for inclusion, diversity and justice and a proponent of change, growth and learning. I have had a wide array of professions largely in the human services field. My greatest gifts are my ability to empathize and connect with my students or clients, my tenacity or grit, if you will. I don’t give up, I’ll never quit, and I always find ways around a problem. This, along with the many gifts that come along with being Neurodiverse, are a blessing that I feel very fortunate to have.
In my work life I have worked with special needs children in a variety of different settings. I have taught in a public school system. I have worked as a job developer. I have written, created curriculum for, and obtained funding for, an employability program. I’ve been a guidance counsellor and now I hope to become a public speaker, open up my own platform to tell my story and advocate for the Neurodiverse and maybe even write a book.
Thank you for listening and being part of my journey, together we can unravel the language of broken to build a more inclusive community. I wish you all the best on your journeys.