Five questions for... ASL’s Neurodiversity Club members

Artwork by Jad ’21

The term “neurodiversity,” a diverse selection of neurocognitive styles, refers to atypical brain function that causes Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, autism and other neurodevelopmental conditions. At ASL, students’ different learning needs are supported through the Student Support Services Team, in which specialized teachers use individualized approaches to learning that help kids reach their full potential as confident, productive and self-advocating scholars. This past year, two friends who have been part of the Specific Learning Difference (SLD) program co-founded a HS club to raise awareness and recognition for ASL’s neurodiverse community. Here, they discuss what it was like to get the club off the ground and host ASL’s first-ever Neurodiversity Week, held in March, with the help of another friend.

  1. Tell me about the genesis of the Neurodiversity Club. How did it all start?

    (Max ’21): Sara and I have been friends for two years and met through ASL’s SLD program. We often talk about the issues we face from being neurodivergent: the challenges that can come from learning in a mainstream classroom, for example, or peers who don’t understand the different ways neurodivergent students process information. So when Sara texted me over the summer and suggested we start a club, I was instantly sold. We wanted to advocate for neurodivergent students like us and educate the neurotypical community about neurodiversity.

    (Sara ’22): It was a chaotic process, I’m not going to lie. We created plans over the summer for assemblies and presentations without realizing what school would look like when we returned, with all the new COVID rules in place. It was hard to plan activities, and people don’t want to attend Zoom meetings because they can be frustrating. One of our main goals for the club is to reach beyond the neurodivergent students at ASL, so we transferred our presentation ideas to social media platforms. Some 12-15 people signed up for the Neurodiversity Club, but we have 81 followers on our Instagram account.

    (Max): We noticed how effective pulled-together Instagram posts could be in spreading messages, encouraging people to listen and learn from marginalized communities, and addressing ableism and other concerns at ASL. We continue to use this format and try to make it the most digestible to the greatest number of people as possible. Creating content to raise awareness and helping to organize Neurodiversity Week have been our biggest projects so far.
  2. One of the initiatives the Neurodiversity Club introduced on social media was “Misconception Monday,” where members debunk some of the false impressions others may have about ASL’s SLD program. What do you consider to be the most common misconception about neurodivergent students who use ASL’s support services?

    (Tyler ’24): Personally, I have noticed very few misconceptions, but I think a lot of people believe that the testing accommodations afford some SLD students unfair advantages. (Accommodations are formal classroom and testing adaptations that allow individual students to access the curriculum. Accommodations include timing, scheduling, presentation of material, response and/or setting). In fact, they help bring SLD students closer to the starting line, so to speak.

    (Sara): There’s a big belief that having an accommodation is cheating. A student with ADHD, for example, may have extended time to take a test. But there’s a lack of awareness that extended time can be a burden for an ADHD learner because they need to sit through a longer test and focus for longer, which can make the assessment harder. We’re lucky that ASL can help students with learning differences, but some people think the School just hands out accommodations, and that isn’t the case. A thorough evaluation process is conducted within the SLD program.

    (Max): There can be a sense of subtle ableism in our community, where people don’t see conditions like autism, ADHD or dysgraphia as problematic anymore and don’t think they need to be corrected. But someone might still say, “X doesn’t look autistic, or that person has friends and doesn’t act autistic.” They’re trying to work their way out of this old ableist mindset. At ASL, I have learning specialists who would advocate for me if I got in trouble with a teacher for moving around too much in class...

    (Sara): ...Or sent out of a classroom for shouting out in class. I came to ASL because of the SLD program. The SLD teachers are seriously the most amazing people I have ever met in my life. They go out of their way to care about their students. My SLD teacher knows my friends. One of the benefits of Neurodiversity Week was to help highlight the SLD program at ASL.

3. What was it like to launch ASL’s first-ever Neurodiversity Week? 

(Tyler): The idea of Neurodiversity Week was conceived in 2018 by a teenager in London who went to Sara’s old school. I have always wanted to do something like this—to bring awareness and understanding of neurodiversity to ASL. Neurodiversity Week was a proven template. So I submitted a form through the Social Justice Council in February about launching this project, and it really gained momentum when Sara got involved. We got Zoom speakers, made posters, put ourselves on the agenda for morning announcements and, most notably, organized activities for the MS and HS advisories. It’s been a big effort. 

(Sara): Our target audience was students, parents and faculty. Because most of the programming was virtual, we found it was most successful with parents and faculty. We have heard from teachers who said the webinars we hosted helped them understand what it means to be neurodivergent and how neurodivergent brains work. Their recognition of some of these issues, such as why a student with processing issues or dyslexia might write or read slower in class, is the best feedback I have received.

4. Piloting Neurodiversity Week was a wonderful way to recognize and celebrate neurodivergent individuals within our school. How else can neurodiversity be celebrated at ASL, and how can the neurotypical community support those efforts?

(Tyler): ASL is a mainstream school with a fabulous SLD program. I would like to see the SLD experience as normalized as possible and understood within the student, parent and teacher population. That’s the foundation of acceptance and inclusion. 

(Max): In the SLD program, we are taught how to function in a world of systems that aren’t built for us, but the burden shouldn’t only be on us to conform. We need to build sympathy and empathy in the neurotypical world. This can be done with actions as simple as asking a neurodivergent student, “How can I help?” This shows that you care. My message to neurotypical people is that it never hurts to listen. We’re all trying to find the best way to live our lives, and for some of us that’s a bit harder. Giving people a bit more time to answer questions, or to process things, can make a huge difference. Listening to the stories and advice of neurodivergent peers can also help others to self-diagnose so they can get the help they may not know they needed.

(Sara): For those of us with learning differences, we don’t want to feel “other” compared to neurotypical people. Our SLD teachers give us the tools to advocate for ourselves, and this is important for our growth and our learning success. But it means a lot when teachers and classmates make an effort too, and initiate those conversations in a respectful way. 

5. How has ASL’s SLD program impacted your neurodivergent experience?

(Max): Before I came to ASL, I was in four different schools in the British system. My teachers’ comments about my behavior were all the same: “Max is too energetic. Max can’t sit still.” In some schools, I was politely asked to leave. Things got exponentially better for me when I started at ASL. It is such a privilege to be at a school that works so hard to try and do what is best for learners like me. I graduated out of the SLD program this semester, and I am privileged to have had the opportunity to learn the skills needed to prevent my world from falling apart. What’s more, even though I am now an accomodations-only student, my teachers continue to listen to me and address my academic needs. That is key.

(Tyler): I have been part of the SLD program since Grade 2, and the support has been so vital for me and my family to figure all of this out. Director of Student Support Services Ms. Nicholson (ASL 2019-present) has been such a welcome addition too. I think she has helped bring about a culture shift, where discussions about students’ neurodivergent needs don’t have to be shrouded in secrecy or held behind closed doors. That is a beautiful thing.

(Sara): I came from the British system and was diagnosed with dyslexia when I was young. I had reading and spelling issues as a kid but they were brushed off. Now, at ASL, I have advocates. Over the past seven years, it hasn’t been taboo for me to admit when I struggle. I have relationships with teachers and can explain when I don’t know what’s going on in class. There’s such an openness at ASL, and I know that I can talk to my teachers without feeling like I will be treated differently. It makes me so happy.

Follow @neurodiversityatasl to learn more about this courageous club!