Learning About Neurodiversity at School: Key concepts for communicating neurodiversity to primary school children, from the LEANS project participatory design process

Alyssa Alcorn*, S. McGeown, D. Aitken, W. Mandy, F. Murray, Sue Fletcher-Watson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to conferencePosterpeer-review

Abstract / Description of output


Around the world, a large proportion of autistic children attend mainstream schools (i.e. schools that are not specialised provision for disabilities). Teachers and peers may have a poor understanding of neurodevelopmental differences in their learning and thinking, which can negatively impact children’s school experiences. Educating broadly about the concepts of neurodiversity and neurodivergence, just as curricula may already cover biodiversity and cultural differences, is an opportunity to teach about brain-based differences across diagnostic labels. Teaching separately about autism, dyslexia, ADHD etc. misses cross-condition commonalities, and may lack relevance to children without official diagnoses or supports--either due to school resourcing, or to race- and gender-related diagnostic disparities. The LEANS project proposes whole-class teaching about neurodiversity as an “umbrella” concept, in order to increase pupil and teacher understanding of differences in learning, interaction, and sensory experiences, and to promote inclusive actions and attitudes. Unlike programmes focusing on neurodivergent pupils only, LEANS is not an intervention for a classroom “problem”, but upskills all pupils and staff members, focusing on capacity for positive future changes.


Through participatory design with educators, identify strategies and concepts needed to teach about neurodiversity as an “umbrella concept” in a way that is accessible and engaging for mainstream primary pupils age 8-11, and their teachers. In this project, “teaching neurodiversity” includes addressing attitudes and actions in the school community, not increased factual knowledge alone.


Neurodiverse teams of researchers (n=7) and experienced educators (n=8) collaborated in seven 90-minute online design workshops to elicit content ideas. These were structured around five main discussion topics: introducing neurodiversity, the classroom, other school activities (e.g. sport, the arts), friendship and social interaction, and applying neurodiversity knowledge.


Across workshops and domains, the same concepts consistently re-appeared as essential to explaining neurodiversity and neurodivergence in school, and conveying their relevance to individuals. These included: learning to distinguish ‘needs’ from ‘wants’; understanding and adopting equity-based concepts of fairness, especially where these relate to additional supports/resources at school; and recognising the equal validity of different types of communication, sense-making, and engagement with learning. The team further identified the need to make neurodiversity education distinct from other widespread educational messaging on differences (i.e. “everyone is unique”). Neurodivergence is a different type of difference, both in degree and in type, than those with which children may already be familiar.


Outputs from the neurodiverse design team emphasise that teaching neurodiversity in schools is not primarily about definitions or facts; it requires attention to a surrounding ‘family’ of concepts. Grasping needs, equity, and validity issues are the necessary groundwork to justify and motivate changes in people’s attitudes and actions. The design process also highlighted the challenge of making neurodiversity information distinct from other difference-based educational messages.

Resource development is ongoing, plus review by additional educators and community members. LEANS will be evaluated for efficacy in UK primary schools in 2021, focusing on changes in pupil and teachers’ neurodiversity-related knowledge and attitudes. The final resource pack will be available for free in late 2021
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 3 May 2021
EventInternational Society for Autism Research (INSAR) Virtual Meeting - Virtual
Duration: 3 May 20217 May 2021


ConferenceInternational Society for Autism Research (INSAR) Virtual Meeting
Internet address


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