School is hard. I remember when I was in school; I couldn’t wait to finish it and move on to college. The cliques, the friend groups, the drama, the tests and exams, the pressure of the future, and the stress of it all are pretty hard to handle for the ingenuous adolescent trying to prove themselves in the big world. You know what’s worse than high school? High school when you’re neurodivergent.
Neurodiversity is a term used to describe brains that are wired differently, especially with regard to executive functioning. It is an umbrella term for a lot of conditions like autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and so on. It was coined by sociologist Judy Singer in 1998; she had intended for it to be a social term to understand neurological diversity and not as a clinical diagnosis. However, it is described as a learning and developmental disorder by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, a manual proposed by the American Psychiatric Association to classify mental disorders, while also stating what kind of psychiatric tests and intervention each disorder needs.
Schooling as a neurodivergent is especially hard because school systems (or any system within our society, really) is built with only neurotypical people in consideration. For example, on an average, we have about 6-8 subjects to study per year like Math, Social Science, 2-3 languages, and so on. We are expected to excel in all of them, and this doesn’t consider the special interests that neurodivergent people have which, many a time, aren’t even introduced in the syllabus. A student is punished for not showing interest in one or more subjects while being hyperfocused on certain others. We are often told that a student’s job is to study and be invested in everything they study.
Another example is tests, where marks are deducted for spelling errors that don’t consider dyslexia. Meltdowns are seen as tantrums and children are given disciplinary punishments without considering that the environment is overstimulating them. Eye contact, class participation, making friends and group projects are all compulsory experiences for a student. Being on time, having a certain percentage of attendance, following a strict dress code, and other such rules don’t take into account someone’s executive dysfunction which make it hard to maintain such routines or engage in social interactions.
I spoke to the admins of @neurodivergentfairy, an Instagram page dedicated to educating people and spreading awareness for neurodivergents. It is run by Rebecca and Hailey, two wonderful neurodivergent students based in the US. They shared that the education system must first value and appreciate neurodivergent existence because we have a very ableist understanding and representation of neurodiversity. “Our systems value compliance and lack of originality and those things pretty much go against neurodivergent nature; this allows society to degrade and devalue neurodivergent ideas and expression”. They also said that we need to destigmatise accommodation in schools where neurodivergent students are accused of cheating or lying when trying to ask for accommodations for their conditions.
With the pandemic and online schooling system, Rebecca personally found it beneficial since online schooling means learning from a controlled environment with limited social interaction which isn’t overstimulating – boosting her grades in the process, since there are fewer classes per day and less ableism to deal with. Although she points out that a lot of neurodivergent students find online classes to be less mentally stimulating, while also lacking the social aspect of going to school.
Like most other systems and structures in society, education isn’t free of colonial and capitalist impact. Although education is important, schools, exams and tests aren’t necessarily the best measurements of intelligence and creativity. The system that we have relies on memorisation and rote learning of concepts only for students to spit them out in exams and it’s not always very practical. The syllabus is also controlled by people in positions of authority and the students don’t get to decide what they want to learn, and so they learn compliance instead of practising liberal thought.
The duo at neurodivergentfairy thinks so too. Going back a little in time, they talk about Rockefeller in the US, the filthy rich oil tycoon. He put in $129 million to form the General Education Board to benefit himself and form a nation that works to make money, rather than thoughtful individuals. Deliberate hierarchies are created which exclude and marginalise various groups of people (like BIPOC, disabled, queer people) and they are left without resources and opportunities to take control over their lives, and instead have to remain working for the white, male capitalist. In the context of the US, schools are left underfunded and marginalised children are portrayed to be criminals and unworthy because the lack of education impacts future job opportunities, housing, access to healthcare, insurance and so on which is a tool to control and exploit them. “Students in the current educational system in the United States are taught that everyone has to follow the same standards and have the same content. Teaching students to be like a production line”.
Neurodivergent children are forced to mask their behaviours and habits. Masking is a way of appearing to be neurotypical which consumes a lot of energy. They are forced to be something they’re not, behave in a way that sometimes has physical consequences like fatigue, pain, etc., and to also think in a way that isn’t natural to them.
Neurodivergent children are also bullied in school. For example, non-verbal autistics are seen as the weird ones who don’t talk, dyslexic kids are made fun of because they can’t read like the others and most neurodivergent kids are excluded because they don’t understand the social cues and rules in their friend group. Children are punished for not doing their homework, not interacting with other children is seen as a problem and a complaint goes to the parents that their child needs to be more social, and just so many other things that harm!
The existence of schools for children with “special needs” is not the best way to understand neurodivergence and, in my opinion, isn’t as progressive and inclusive as it is made out to be. Children from these schools continue to be othered and differentiated from the rest. While it is nice to think that neurodivergent kids might have a safe space where they can be themselves, the schools aren’t always so because a lot of teachers are neurotypical and don’t fully engage with their students in a way the children understand. There is a notion that something is wrong with them and that these children need to be pitied and have their hands held throughout their lives. This leads to neurodivergent children being traumatised because their agency is taken away from them and they aren’t seen as “normal”. This also increases their chances of developing mental illnesses, low self-esteem, lack of confidence, and so on.
There is a strict binary that’s created of what is normal and what is presented to us as inherent truths of the world. This binary completely disregards society’s role in creating these differences in the first place. We create a closed-off and strict world instead of an open and welcoming one. It is in fact the system and the society that needs to alter itself to be more accommodating and more inclusive of various people and the way they function.
A lot of what we consider “knowledge” – including what we understand about disabilities and disorders is very colonial, capitalist and heteropatriarchal. It needs to be decolonised, and we need to rebuild it with a kinder, more gentle touch rather than brash, ableist notions like ‘hustle culture’ which serves an economy based off profit, and not a society invested in wellness and empathy.