Unlocking the superpowers of neurodiverse learners

Issue: Volume 102, Number 9

Posted: 13 July 2023
Reference #: 1HAahk

A group of 15 Young Neurodiversity Champions are standing up for the rights of all neurodiverse young people in Aotearoa – and calling for a long-term change process across every level of the education system.

Education Gazette caught up with Tom, Riley, Kartini and Katie to understand their experiences in education, and how educators can help unlock the enormous potential of all neurodiverse learners.

The Young Neurodiversity Champions at a White Paper Launch Event in Wellington on 7 June 2023. From left: Annabelle, Katie-Rose, Riley, Sankhya, Kartini, Christina, Scarlet and Maria. The other Champions are Tom, Charlotte, Elliot, Jas, Jasper, Maia and N

The Young Neurodiversity Champions at a White Paper Launch Event in Wellington on 7 June 2023. From left: Annabelle, Katie-Rose, Riley, Sankhya, Kartini, Christina, Scarlet and Maria. The other Champions are Tom, Charlotte, Elliot, Jas, Jasper, Maia and Nellie.

"My superpower is my energy and enthusiasm,” says Tom, a Year 13 student at Taradale High School.

When Tom was five, he was diagnosed with ADHD. He remembers always having lots of energy although, he says, this wasn’t always channelled in a positive way in his education journey.

“I remember one situation led to my teacher getting a Vivid marker and drawing an X on the carpet, where I was confined to sitting and staying.

“This made me feel alienated and different to everyone else, and this is the worst thing for a neurodiverse student.”

However, Tom can speak to better experiences in the classroom, including with a teacher who is helping him unlock his potential and channel his ADHD into something positive.

Expressing emotions

At Taradale High, Tom is part of the Young Enterprise Scheme (YES), supported by economics teacher and deputy principal Toni Dunstan.

Through YES, Tom founded the Pūkare Cards company alongside fellow students Jasmine, Elizabeth and Liv.

As a young person with ADHD, Tom says he sometimes found it hard to express his feelings or communicate them. Tom and his peers have taken this experience and turned it into an opportunity to create something positive for others.

Pūkare Cards is a pack of 25 different emotion cards in English and te reo Māori with scenarios on the back to help adults have meaningful and fun discussions with rangatahi about their feelings/mental health.

The cards were shared with two psychologists for input and review, and use of te reo Māori was supported by Chad Tareha, chairman of the Ngāti Pārau Hapū Trust.

Made by youth, for youth, the cards are currently selling and in use across the motu by parents, teachers, counsellors, and schools.

The goal, Tom says, is to normalise talking about feelings from a young age.

“We have created a product which we needed when we were growing up and would have benefited from.”

Taking part in YES is how Tom discovered that his energy and enthusiasm are his superpowers – and this has broadened his passions and aspirations beyond school.

“I love business, I love the thinking, the fast pace, and how it’s self-led. I am thinking of going to university next year and doing a commerce degree majoring in accounting and marketing.”

Finding strengths

Tom says it’s important for teachers to recognise that neurodiverse students are different, but never less.

“Our brains are different, but they’re not less. It’s just important to help neurodiverse people feel welcomed, included, and supported in a classroom. How do you expect the student to learn when they are constantly in the fight or flight mode or when they don’t feel safe? It’s going to be really tricky,” he says.

Tom says the key lies in helping neurodiverse people find and uncover their strengths.

“Growing up, I saw my burdens or my struggles, but once I saw the things that I was good at, that really helped.”

Tom says things are often going to be tricky for neurodiverse students and their teachers.

“It’s important to understand their learning needs, what’s happened, and to really try and work out how they can be best supported.

“Normal, traditional teaching models aren’t always going to work. So be flexible, be adaptable, and ready.

“Be ready to help your diverse students. Although we’ve had lots of challenges, we’re able to be resilient and through resilience and adversity, we grow stronger.”

Scarlet and Tom at a workshop session in March. Photo: Nikki Gibbons.

Scarlet and Tom at a workshop session in March. Photo: Nikki Gibbons.

Recognise, and ask

For 14-year-old Riley, there just aren’t enough resources and supports for teachers to truly know how to best help neurodiverse students.

He says often, all neurodiverse students are lumped in with each other, instead of recognising the diversity and differences between them.

“Teachers aren’t trained enough on how to deal with neurodiverse people. And there are no protocols in place that are suitable, as well as the fact that they’re sort of stereotyped within each thing. So, they just treat all ADHD people the same as autistic people or gifted kids, even though that’s not how they think.”

Riley says despite this, there are many well-meaning teachers who want to help. His advice? Ask students how they would like to learn.

“I think a big thing is recognising when there is a neurodiverse student and realising that they think differently.

“They’re not disadvantaged, they just think differently. So, they need to learn differently. And a great way to start is asking them how they would like to learn.”

Riley says everybody has the potential to be amazing, as long as they are given the support they need.

“A lot of the time, they’re just misunderstood, or their ideas aren’t fully grasped because they just interpret things in such a different way.”

Looking to his future, Riley is currently studying business, and he is aiming to be an entrepreneur.

“As somebody with ADHD, I think self-management is a big thing. I don’t like having to answer to somebody else. Obviously, I know I’m going to have to do that. But I really would love to be my own boss.”

‘Give us agency’

University student Kartini Clarke agrees about recognition being the first step.

She says educators need to understand what neurodiversity is and how it presents itself in children.

“A lot of the time we can often be seen as lazy, oppositional, defiant, and bored. But with neurodiversity, we do get bored in the classrooms if we are not engaged enough, and a lot of the time we are shoved to the side in favour of students who work in neurotypical way.

“I was also told by teachers that I would really struggle at university because of my differences, and in the way I behaved as well. I was often held back from leadership positions, and I got bored at school.”

However, Kartini says there was this one teacher in particular who was the “best teacher ever”.

“He understood my brain, he could engage with me. That was in Year 13, and I had hope in teachers again after having him as my maths teacher – he was just the best.”

When asked what she would like teachers to know, Kartini says neurodiverse students want to learn and find their interests and strengths.

“We might be different. We might not act the same as other students. But we do want to be there. Let us work at our own pace. Because we can really create beautiful things if you just give us more time.

“Give us more agency and empowerment with our learning. Let us delve into our special interests, because we can write so much if you allow us to create lesson plans for ourselves and let us explore our special interests within the context of the class, whether it be geography or English.”

A current law student at the University of Auckland, Kartini is passionate about improving experiences for neurodiverse people. She wants to be a lawyer and create a law firm which helps neurodiverse and other disabled lawyers be treated with respect within the profession.

As a Young Neurodiversity Champion, Kartini proudly shares her experiences as a student with ADHD and autism to make education better for all neurodiverse people.

Unlocking potential

Gifted student Katie, who is 17 years old and currently at Howick College, says the first thing in unlocking the potential of neurodiverse students is acceptance.

“Accept that neurodiversity is going to be a part of children’s lives and in classrooms. It’s everywhere in New Zealand and creating a stable plan to help neurodiverse students is what we need to do. We can’t unlock potential if we don’t understand how they work.”

Katie says it’s important to share her experiences, both negative and positive. She starts by drawing on her memories of primary school and the isolation she felt.

“I didn’t really have that much of a positive experience in primary. When you don’t fit in somewhere, you know you’re different and you know that you don’t quite fit into this puzzle. So, I isolated myself.

“You really look up to teachers; when you’re not at home your teachers are your parents, you learn from them, and you see what they do. And when you’re not up to their expectations, it can be difficult.”

Going back to Riley’s observation, Katie agrees and says often, teachers just don’t understand how to teach neurodiverse students.

As a gifted student, Katie says she struggled learning in the way that worked best for her, and this was on top of trying to find her sense of belonging with her peers and in a social context.

“I was kind of weird, I was a weird kid, I didn’t really fit in. So, I kept myself busy. I’d get all my work done as soon as possible but then I’d be left with nothing for the rest of the four days of the week. I enrolled myself in all these different extracurriculars and filled my time so I wouldn’t have to think about how I’m not fitting in.”

Katie says she did benefit from a programme designed for gifted students and find her love for learning.

“After I got diagnosed as gifted, I was put into this MindPlus programme, a school for gifted kids. One day a week, I would go off to the school with other gifted students, and it was honestly paradise.

“It was my heaven, because in a normal school, you’re ridiculed, and the teachers don’t understand what’s wrong or how you’re working. But then at this school, you’ve got this teacher who’s trained in giftedness and knows how to teach and can find ways and understands.”

“Be ready to help your diverse students. Although we’ve had lots of challenges, we’re able to be resilient and through resilience and adversity, we grow stronger.” Tom, Year 13

“Be ready to help your diverse students. Although we’ve had lots of challenges, we’re able to be resilient and through resilience and adversity, we grow stronger.” Tom, Year 13

Neurodiversity isn’t easy

When asked what she wants teachers to know from reading this article, she says she wants teachers to know that it’s important to care that neurodiversity isn’t easy.

“I would recommend learning more about it. And to help us press this issue of neurodiverse inequity, because it’s not their [teachers] fault that they’re not taught or shown how to teach and nurture neurodiverse students.”

Katie says she feels there is no plan for students who think differently but wants people to know that neurodiversity is not a curse.

“Neurodiversity means that this child is possible of great things. Create plans that work and don’t ridicule a student because of how they learn or what they learn. Neurodiversity means you could, you might, struggle in some areas but also excel in other areas.”

Katie recalls the story of an author called Benjamin Zephaniah, who is dyslexic and writes in slang.

“He’s found this whole new level to writing because his mind is just so incredible in the way he thinks and in his perspectives. But he was told, ‘you’re stupid, because you can’t write, or these words are jumbled up on a page so you can’t read it properly’. It’s just incredible the ways that people can turn it around.”

Like her peers who also spoke to Education Gazette, Katie is passionate about making the lives of neurodiverse people easier.

“One of my aspirations is to make neurodiverse students’ lives easier than it was for us, and to make sure that they get a good education, and that they belong in a school. That’s what I want for them.”

Resources and support

Schools and educators are supported with a range of Ministry of Education-led or funded services, tools, resources, and websites to notice, understand and support ākonga who are neurodiverse.

Many are available at inclusive.tki.org.nz(external link), which includes guidance for teachers to design supports across the curriculum, including FASD and Learning(external link), ADHD and Learning(external link), ASD and Learning(external link) and Dyslexia and Learning(external link) guides. 

Specific training for autism (eg Tilting the Seesaw) is funded by the Ministry and is provided by Autism NZ.

The Better Start Literacy Approach (BSLA) is a professional development support launched in 2021 to support literacy specialists and teachers with a focus on lifting the development of early literacy. Findings on the approach show statistically significant gains in learner achievement after 10 weeks of BSLA teaching. 

The Ministry has developed a series of Inclusive Design Modules(external link), which will soon become available online. The modules are for teachers, whānau, resource teachers, and Ministry practitioners. They aim to grow understanding of neurodiversity and how to design inclusive learning environments. 

Special Education Needs Coordinators (SENCo) and Learning Support Coordinators (LSC) work within a team or alongside a teacher to understand and respond to neurodiverse ākonga needs in classroom contexts.

These learning support roles have a national network to support professional growth with a specific focus on neurodiversity. Learning Support Study Awards are available for degree-qualified kaiako who want to grow their understanding and capability to support complex and diverse needs.

When schools need additional support, they can also request access to Ministry Learning Support Specialists and the Resource Teacher Learning and Behaviour (RTLB) Service. The supports are shifting to focus on inclusive design of the curriculum and learning supports as part of everyday teaching and learning. Supports focus on adaptations within education settings as well as more targeted and tailored supports for ākonga.  


Young Neurodiversity Champions at Parliament in March. Back row: Jas, Nellie, Annabelle, Christina, Maria, Jasper and Tom.  Front row: Charlotte, Katie-Rose, Maia, Sankhya, Scarlet, Kartini and Riley. Photo: Nikki Gibbons.

Young Neurodiversity Champions at Parliament in March. Back row: Jas, Nellie, Annabelle, Christina, Maria, Jasper and Tom. Front row: Charlotte, Katie-Rose, Maia, Sankhya, Scarlet, Kartini and Riley. Photo: Nikki Gibbons.

Neurodiversity in Education Coalition

Young Neurodiversity Champions is an initiative of the Neurodiversity in Education Coalition which brings together ADHD NZ, the Dyslexia Foundation of NZ,
Autism NZ and the NZ Centre for Gifted Education.

Justine Munro, one of the Coalition’s co-founders, says they are committed to amplifying the voices of neurodiverse tamariki and rangatahi.

“Neurodiverse young people are telling us very clearly that their needs are not being met. We are backing them by working both from the top to advocate for system change and from the bottom up, creating simple, scalable initiatives that work for busy teachers and schools.”

The Coalition is pushing for a national awareness campaign to address some of the stereotypes and misconceptions that prevent young neurodiverse people being identified and supported by teachers, whānau and their peers. It is currently developing a Neurodiversity Playbook for all classroom teachers focused on neurodiverse learner characteristics, many of which overlap diagnoses, that teachers can notice and recognise, with tips on how to respond.

A Neurodiversity Action Plan for schools is also in development, as well as a new Neurodiversity Clubs initiative, co-designed with Young Neurodiversity Champions, to create inclusive, positive spaces, potentially face-to-face and online, for young people to explore their identity together.

Find out more at:

neurodiversity.org.nz(external link) 

Inclusive education guides(external link)

Inclusive design modules(external link)

Education Gazette series on inclusive practice(external link) 

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 9:39 am, 13 July 2023

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