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How to support neurodiversity in the early years

date September 3, 2021Suzy Rowland

As an early years educator, you require an extraordinary suite of skills to manage the high energy atmosphere of your setting: listening, teaching, playing, nurture, conflict management, behaviour management, forward-planning, safeguarding, cultural awareness… and also an understanding of neurodiversity.

What is neurodiversity?

The term neurodiversity was coined in 1998 by an autistic Australian sociologist, Judy Singer and was quickly adopted by the autistic activist community. The word neurodiversity is derived from the root words “neuro” (Greek for nerves) and the Latin root of diversity means “facing both ways.” It’s an umbrella term that summarises the deeply complex area of human neurological difference, which presents as divergent thinking and learning styles, social interaction, communication and a wide range of behaviours.  It’s a vast field of study, that zig-zags from brain chemistry, hormones and chemical messengers in the central nervous system, into every area of human-being-ness. In terms of understanding the field of neurodiversity which encompasses such a wide range of neuro-types, we are barely touching the surface.

Recognising neurodiversity  

Infants change so much between 0-5 years  and it’s miraculous to watch. There are so many variations in individual children though – so how are you supposed to recognise a neurodiverse child? It can be difficult to isolate common pre-school behaviours from those that may be pointing to a longer-term developmental difference. Toddler tantrums, ‘attachment’ issues and early language delay, may be dyslexia or attention deficit in disguise.  Whilst it isn’t the role of the early years’ practitioner to diagnose, your skills as early years specialists can be helpful in observing and recording specific behaviours which may provide valuable information as part of the diagnostic process.

autistic boy playing with fidget

Your eagle eye

A key aspect of supporting neurodiverse young children is to remember that they’re not broken or ill – but they do need additional tools or adult support to make certain tasks more manageable in line with their specific neurological difference.  Some youngsters have more than one neurodiverse condition at the same time, for example, autism and dyspraxia. Instead of trying to solve the neurodiversity puzzle, here are some tips to help with your observation and interventions:

  • Try observations when children are at play to see how they interact, problem solve, do they prefer solitary play? Do they initiate play etc? How long does it take to soothe the child after an emotional episode?
  • Do your observations over a set period of time to see if any patterns emerge.
  • Don’t assume ‘bad behaviour’ is deliberately challenging – try to figure out what happened before the outburst (the antecedent).
  • Avoid idioms or shaming.
  • Reframe ‘challenging’ behaviour as an unmet need; neurodiverse children may have difficulty in expressing exactly what their need is, you need to be patient.

childminder with kids

Some practical ideas for low-cost interventions

  • Use social stories to explain scenarios without ‘blame.’
  • Use simple language and sentence structures: a child’s understanding of language may be literal, requiring more thinking time.
  • Continue with interventions, use a rolling programme of sensory, assistive technology or visuals and see how individual children respond.
  • Introduce a quiet zone or even quiet days.
  • Pin the pathway – having a visual reminder will give you confidence, especially when parents ask for your help.

The diagnostic pathway can depend on where you are in the country and which health agency is doing the assessment. As a general rule, if a young person is struggling in a certain area, it is good practice to try suitable interventions which may assist their learning or comfort level, without waiting for a formal diagnosis.

There are many adaptations you can put in place with use of additional advice and input from associated health practitioners, such as occupational therapists or speech and language therapists. Learn to accept neurodiversity in your setting: being strict, shouting or telling off will not help a child who isn’t able to meet your expectation of how well they can read, talk, play or self-regulate.  Keep learning and remember to celebrate when things are going well.

Suzy Rowland headshot
About the author

Suzy Rowland is a cognitive behavioural therapist, founder of #happyinschool project and author of  S.E.N.D. in the Clowns.