Part #1: what is neurodiversity?

You’ll hear us say this a lot… We all think and learn differently.

Neurodiversity is a term, originally coined by Australian sociologist Judy Singer, that acknowledges everyone’s mind is different.

Not only do we process information differently, but our brains are physically different too.

As you can see in the handful of images below, our brains come in all shapes and sizes.

This supercomputer in our heads processes new information every day of our lives, and its complex structure of synaptic connections is unique to each of us.

Meaning our experience of the world is also unique.

But it’s not easy to really connect with this idea. Especially when we only have our own experience to draw on as a frame of reference.

What does it actually mean to experience the world differently?

Well, does anyone remember The Dress?

An innocent enough image, you’d think.

But this social media storm perfectly captured how people can perceive the same visual information in fundamentally different ways.

Some people see the dress as blue and black, and some see it as white and gold.

What was so interesting about this event was not that people saw different colours, but that people were seemingly incapable of understanding how someone could see a different colour at all.

People were pretty heated on both sides about who was right and who was wrong.

Almost as if their entire reality was being questioned, which it kind of was – and that’s no bad thing!

It exposed how little we understand about cognitive diversity because people were utterly unable to see a simple image from another’s perspective.

How neurodiversity affects cognition

The mind is a nuanced machine.

It makes shortcuts and, believe it or not, makes guesses about the information it continuously receives.

For example, you might think you recognise a friend on the street and then realise it’s not actually them.

Your brain has made a perceptual shortcut, but on processing that visual information, you can see you made a mistake.

But imagine someone who has difficulties processing visual information.

They might not realise the person walking down the street isn’t their friend. And it takes walking up to them and starting a conversation with them to realise this because they have slower visual processing speed.

We can all have moments like this. Everyone makes mistakes; it’s part of being human.

But for someone with lower visual information processing speed, it can create consistent difficulties throughout their life, which they may not even realise they have.

If you were to give this person a cognitive assessment that identifies their visual difficulties, be prepared for a big “ah-ha!” moment.

Suddenly, it makes sense. There’s a reason why these things seem more difficult to them. With this knowledge, they can create new coping strategies that mitigate the negative effects of their visual abilities. And they can rely on other cognitive abilities that they are stronger in.

This understanding of the brain is beginning to change education.

Hopefully, you’re starting to see how this can benefit people at all levels of education. So, let’s look at the relationship between cognition and education.