How to Create an Inclusive Learning Environment for Neurodiverse Students

Many teachers are still exploring the nuances of what it means to be a neurodiverse learner and how to create a fully inclusive classroom. Interest in the term neurodiversity has increased significantly over the past decade, with web searches really taking off after 2015 according to Google Trends. The concept applies to students who have autism, ADHD and other learning differences than their neurotypical peers.

You might not know whether you will have neurodiverse students in your classroom this year, but that doesn’t mean you can’t create a welcoming environment for students of all learning styles.

Neurodiversity and the Role of Teachers

One of the main challenges facing teachers is that many don’t have experience with neurodiverse students or the training necessary to create a safe classroom space.

“While teachers are not mental health clinicians, they have been tasked with both identifying kids who have not yet been identified as needing more support, and with managing these unique brains regardless of how much outside-of-school support they are (or aren’t) getting,” writes registered psychotherapist Christina Crowe, founder of Dig a Little Deeper Psychotherapy and Counselling.

Unfortunately, a lack of training or knowledge can lead some educators to make mistakes when working with neurodiverse students. For example, they may focus on their learning differences without acknowledging their strengths and opportunities.

“A lot of those kids with ADHD and kids with learning disabilities are high IQ,” says Dara Shifrer, associate professor of sociology at Portland State University. “But I don’t think kids are told this when they’re diagnosed, and so it really affects their social psyches and affects the way their teachers perceive them, the way their parents perceive them.”

Additionally, educators can’t paint their neurodiverse students with a broad brush. Just because you had one student with ADHD last year doesn’t mean a student with the same trait will behave the same way this year.

“A critical aspect of neurodiversity is the individual differences that each person brings,” psychologist Rachel Oppenheimer explains at Upside Therapy. “We cannot generalize across the autism spectrum, learning spectrum, or behavioral spectrum, but rather we find more success in individualized learning plans.”

Side view of young teacher talking to two girls during lesson in art class; concept: inclusive learning environment for neurodiverse students

Understanding Neurodiverse Terminology

One of the first steps to working with neurodiverse students is to understand the terminology used. Many widely accepted terms related to neurodiversity can be confusing and the language around different learners continues to evolve.

For example, freelance comic artist and illustrator Rebecca Burgess created a useful comic for Art of Autism that explains why the term “autism spectrum” can be misleading. People tend to think of the spectrum like a thermometer: They see someone ranging from not very autistic to very autistic, moving along a 2D sliding scale.

The reality is that the spectrum looks more like a circle, with different areas like motor skills, perception and sensory needs. A student might have some traits that make them “high functioning” in society, like good language skills, while also having other traits that make it harder to navigate everyday life. No two people have the same collection of traits and dots on the spectrum.

Additionally, neurodiverse is often a catch-all term for different student traits. Kate Lister created a PDF for designing lessons for autistic and neurodiverse students. She dives into the terminology around autism and other neurodiverse learners.

Lister cautions against using terms like “disabilities, disorders, developmental issues, or conditions” that apply the deficit model to neurodiverse learners. This can isolate students as “less than” or “other” creating stress for parents who worry about their neurodiverse kids.

Educators can work with parents to understand how they identify their kids or how kids identify themselves. Lister uses the example of Asperger’s Syndrome. This diagnosis is no longer given, but some people still use this term.

Instead of getting lost in terminology and diagnoses, focus on the students themselves. This will prevent you from making terminology mistakes or accidentally isolating students and families because of different learning styles.

Create a Psychologically Safe Classroom

Before you meet your students this fall, you might not know how they learn or what they need for you. However, you can take steps to develop a psychologically safe classroom for everyone.

“Psychological safety can be defined as having the belief that you will not be humiliated or teased for the ideas you offer, for asking questions and admitting to one’s mistakes,” the team at mental skills training company InnerDrive explains. “When adopted in the classroom, students don’t worry about looking stupid, as the whole class knows that asking questions and making mistakes is crucial to learning.”

Regardless of their learning style or academic needs, students can feel safe asking questions and speaking up for themselves.

Senior education consultant Dustin Bindreiff created a useful graphic that reviews the questions students ask that relate to engagement. These are questions that any student is likely to ask of themselves, regardless of their learning style. For example, the question “do I belong” can apply to students of all backgrounds, from immigrant students to lower-income learners. When the answer is yes, students feel psychological safety. When the answer is no, they feel lonely or isolated.

Psychological safety is part of survival. Students who aren’t comfortable won’t be able to focus on the lessons or absorb the information. It’s why many teachers felt burned out during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lack of psychological safety consumes an inordinate amount of mental energy.

“You can’t just demand more from the brain without also creating the ‘right’ environment for it to perform at its best,” says Karren Jensen, former CEO at NeuroCapability. “Part of the ‘right’ environment for the brain is a psychologically safe one in which students can thrive according to their own unique strengths, interests and skill sets. A dampener to a high-functioning brain performing at its best is stress that comes from externally-placed, arbitrary standards to perform and conform.”

girl reading alone on a windowsill; concept: inclusive learning environment for neurodiverse students

Neurodiversity in the Post-COVID Classroom

All students will have been impacted by the pandemic in multiple ways over the past year. Remote learning took a toll on both neurotypical and neurodiverse learners, which means you may face challenges with students of all backgrounds this fall.

“I think that just coming back to campus [this fall] is a huge success for my participants,” says Jennifer Schoffer Closson, director of the University of Montana’s Mentoring, Organization, and Social Support for Autism/All Inclusion on Campus (MOSSIAC) program. “I’m very proud of them for not letting [COVID-19] upset their lives to a point where they didn’t feel like they could continue their studies.”

Many parents are asking how far behind their children are, and some teachers may face pressure from administration to get students caught up. However, a big part of psychological safety is focusing on learning rather than creating pressure to hit certain milestones.

“We need to change things so that the objective is that our kids feel like they’ve had successful learning experiences,” says Seth Perler, executive function coach. “Not like they have insurmountable mountains and mountains of makeup work that they can never finish, they’re not motivated to finish, and they just don’t have the bandwidth for.”

There are a few examples of schools that are focusing on social-emotional learning rather than grades. These institutions are changing how students learn so they are better able to receive the information they need to succeed.

“We have permission in our school to prioritize social skills—which are important for all children, but especially for kids on the spectrum,” says Tracy Murray, a kindergarten teacher. “If we ignore social skills, it impedes academic success.”

Murray uses the example of one child on the spectrum taking the initiative to talk with a neurotypical student. “I’ll pause the academic lesson, because they’re having a social moment,” she says. “They are learning how to form relationships, how to experience life more independently, learning about themselves.”

You may have students that thrived during the COVID-19 pandemic and are hitting social milestones. However, they are likely sitting alongside students who are struggling socially after more than a year of online learning and social isolation.

two young children use a laptop at home; concept: inclusive learning environment for neurodiverse students

Introduce Neurodiversity to Your Students

Neurodiversity isn’t a dirty word. You don’t need to talk about classroom accommodations in hushed tones during parent-teacher conferences. Instead, bring the concept of different learners to your classroom so your students can better understand their friends and peers.

In the United Kingdom, Neurodiversity Celebration Week is March 14-20, 2022 (and falls during a similar week each year). Started by Siena Castellon, teenage advocate and author of “The Spectrum Girl’s Survival Guide,” more than 1,500 schools and teachers participate. They use a part of each school day to complete activities or lessons related to learning differences.

As more schools participate in Neurodiversity Celebration Week, educators are starting to share lesson plans for introducing learning differences to their pupils. Dyan Robson, a hyperlexia advocate and blogger at And Next Comes L, curated several activities that you can bring to your classroom. These can be applied to all different grades and include basic conversation starters like word clouds to picture books about autism.

Another great resource to turn to is the Ed Wiley Autism Acceptance Lending Library. This organization keeps up an active Facebook page and frequently shares graphics that discuss learning differences with the help of the Neurodivergent Narwhals. You can download printable versions of their social stories on their website for free, and they also accept donations. A few popular titles include:

  • Why is Everything so Weird? – Covid 19 Social Story.
  • Everyone Communicates.
  • Awareness vs Acceptance.
  • The Language of Neurodiversity.

Older students can benefit from these social stories because they break down seemingly complex concepts and can help students of all learning styles better understand each other.

All Students Benefit from Neurodiverse Adaptations

Even if you only have a few neurodiverse students in your classroom (or just one) the steps you take to create a safe and engaging learning environment can benefit your entire student body.

Karen Blacher, a New York-based teacher, recently went viral on Facebook for sharing her neurodiverse classroom even though she only has neurotypical students.

“When we treat autistic children the way the world tells us to treat neurotypical children, they suffer,” says Blacher. “But I have never encountered a single human being, of any age or neurotype, who doesn’t thrive when treated like an autistic person. (I mean, of course, treated the way an autistic person ought to be treated. With open communication, adaptive expectations, and respect for self-advocacy and self-regulation).”

Any student can thrive when they are taught mindfulness and emotional literacy. Any student can succeed if they are approached as an individual learner. This classroom setup also promotes inclusivity, as neurodiversity is seen as a normal part of learning, rather than accommodations for “other” students.

Your efforts to support neurodiverse students in your lesson plans and classroom structures can help all of your students, each of whom faces stress and social uncertainty as they return to school.

Many parents still feel like there is a stigma attached to the term ADHD or autism. They fight tirelessly as advocates for their kids. As an educator, you can welcome your neurodiverse students and create an engaging environment for them. Safety and inclusion can be a default setting in your classroom, not an exception made for a few learners.

Images by: highwaystarz/©, comebackimages/©, josephredfield, Victoria_Borodinova