Celebrating Neurodiversity

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Being an autistic student in mainstream education is not for the faint hearted. Setting aside the sensory overloads that come from being in a loud and bustling school environment, most autistic students spend their school lives being misunderstood.

Autism causes significant communication challenges. Many of us find it challenging to express ourselves, especially when anxious. Many of us also struggle to understand other people’s motives and intentions. Yet, our communication challenges are not one-sided. Our communication challenges are significantly exacerbated by the fact that most classroom teachers have very little understanding of autism. As a consequence, our behaviour is often misinterpreted.

“Like many autistic girls, I spent by primary school years hiding in plain sight. The signs were all there. It’s just that none of my teachers knew what they were seeing. None of my teachers knew that autism looks very different in girls than it does in boys”.

- Siennna Castellon

Labelling and missconceptions 

Instead of being identified as autistic, I was labelled as painfully shy, quiet and passive. I was the girl who the other kids labelled “weird” and “strange” and who they rejected for not being one of them. The girl who was sensitive to loud noises and who was chastised for not making eye contact. The girl who knew she was different, but did not know why. Being well behaved, conscientious and nerdy meant that I went under the radar and would not be diagnosed as being autistic until I entered secondary school.

In addition to being autistic, I am also dyslexic, dyspraxic and have ADHD. I was not diagnosed with ADHD until I was 15, for the same reason that my autism went undetected and undiagnosed. Like autism, ADHD presents differently in girls. But, once again, none of my teachers knew this. Instead, my tendency to get easily distracted and my difficulty focusing were signs that I was a “day dreamer” and had my “head in the clouds.” 

My experience has been that schools still have a long way to go in identifying and supporting their neurodivergent students. 

Approximately 20% of all students have a special educational need (SEN). In other words, 1 in every 5 students is neurodiverse. Yet, despite there being strength in numbers, many of us have negative school experiences.

Neurodiversity celebration week 

At school, we are often seen as a problem. We are also frequently underestimated, because we are predominantly assessed on the areas we find the most challenging (such as reading, writing and spelling), while our many strengths and talents are often overlooked. Furthermore, our hard work and the extra effort needed to compensate for our learning differences often goes unnoticed. Instead, our perseverance is eclipsed by our poor spelling, reluctance to read aloud, clumsiness, inability to organise ourselves and our illegible handwriting. Since the school day is mostly focused on what we find hard and on what we are doing wrong, we are often made to feel like “failures” and are teased and bullied by our classmates. Constantly being battered down can be very frustrating and demoralising. It makes it hard to believe in yourself. I want to change this.

I recently launched the Neurodiversity Celebration Week campaign, because I believe that we need to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that many people still have about SEN students. I also believe that our strengths and unique talents should be recognised and celebrated. For a change, I’d like schools to flip the narrative and focus on our strengths rather than our weaknesses, such as our creativity, innovative approaches to problem solving, our ingenuity and resilience; skills that will be beneficial to our jobs and careers. Despite our many challenges, we have huge potential. That’s a message we don’t hear often, but it’s one we should be shouting from the rooftops.

Neurodiversity Celebration Week will give schools an opportunity to highlight and showcase the talents of their neurodivergent community, many of whom attribute their success to their unique way of seeingand interacting with the world. Over 30% of entrepreneurs are dyslexic, over 70% of Silicon Valley is believed to be autistic and many successful musicians and entertainers have ADHD. It is time that we begin to look at SEN students in a new light. I hope that Neurodiversity Celebration Week will also change how SEN students see themselves.

There are currently over 175 schools and over 155,000 students from the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States and Qatar taking part in the first ever Neurodiversity Celebration Week on May 13 to May 17. The campaign is supported by 22 major charities and organisations, including the ADHD Foundation, Anna Kennedy Online, British Dyslexia Association and the Dyspraxia Foundation.

My hope is that every school in the United Kingdom will eventually participate in Neurodiversity Celebration Week. We deserve to have our potential recognised and our strengths and talents celebrated.

About the author 

Siena Castellon is a 16-year old neurodiversity advocate and the founder of qlmentoring.com, a website that supports neurodivergent students. She is a Youth Ambassador for the ADHD Foundation and for Anna Kennedy Online. Siena has won many national awards for her advocacy and website, including the 2018 BBC Radio 1 Teen Hero Award, the Diana Award, the British Citizen Youth Award and most recently, the “Young Person of the Year” at the 2019 Shine a Light Award.

For further information about the winners, head over to 2019 Shine a Light Awards webiste or check out the latest Twitter feed.

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