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The Spices of Life: Student-led neurodiversity club


iStock.com/DaniloAndjus

By Natalie Raedwulf Pogue (she/they), learning support teacher, Campbell River

 

Knowing about neurodiversity is the first step to being inclusive. I want people to know that even if [someone] has a spicy brain, they are still human, and neuro-spicy does not equal weird or stupid. – Grade 10 student

 

Neurodiversity is a paradigm that asserts that human brains are naturally different and that there is no “normal” or “ideal” brain. Like biodiversity, neurodiversity offers a net positive to society when different brains are recognized for their value. The neurodiversity movement is a social justice movement that calls for the equity and inclusion of neurodivergent people who currently and historically have faced marginalization and oppression. Neurodivergent people can include those who are autistic, have ADHD, Down syndrome, and many more neurological and neurodevelopmental conditions. This year at our high school, a collective of neurodivergent students, teachers, and allies came together to make a neurodiversity club that aimed to bring together and amplify neurodivergent voices, and it has had a profound impact.

 

I was motivated to facilitate a neuro(diversity)-affirming club for students after my own experience as an autistic and disabled teacher connecting with other neurodivergent teachers. I learned just how validating it was to connect with others who shared similar lived experiences. Neurodivergent people are more likely to struggle with school, social isolation, and mental health. This, in part, may be due to harmful stigma and stereotypes, lack of support, and lack of understanding. Neutral or strength-based narratives of neurodivergent folks are lacking, and many have a hard time disclosing that they are neurodivergent out of fear of judgment.

 

Traditionally social groups geared toward neurodivergent students have involved prioritizing neurotypical social skills (1) in an effort to enhance peer interactions and relationships. Although social-skills training equips neurodivergent youth with an understanding of the conventions and mechanics of neurotypical communication, these interventions inherently reinforce the notion that neurotypical social norms represent the “right” approach to interpersonal interaction. This can encourage neurodivergent people to mask or camouflage their neurodivergent traits, which research links to exhaustion, poor self-identity, and struggles with mental health. Conversely, neurodivergent people report a greater sense of well-being, self-identity, and increased feelings of belonging when they can build authentic and meaningful connections with other neurodivergent folks.

 

I appreciate that I can talk to people about my experiences, and they understand. – Grade 10 student

Neurodivergent people have distinct social and communication styles. This has been explained through theories such as the “double-empathy problem.” It asserts that communication and socializing can be more challenging when interacting with someone of a different neurotype than yourself and more effective with someone of a similar neurotype. This also moves away from the narrative that neurodivergent people have inherent communication and social deficits and shifts the focus toward all parties needing to work to understand one another’s communication style.

 

When we first designed the club, we knew it was essential that it be student-led, neuro(diversity)-affirming, and intersectional. Neuro-affirming is the belief and practice that neurodivergent ways of being are to be validated and supported. We had no template to go off; I am not aware of a neurodivergent-led neurodiversity club in any other school, and thus we had to make it up as we went. We use the social model of disability and the neurodiversity paradigm to shift the focus of disability away from the individual and toward identifying environmental, attitudinal, and social barriers that affect access to meaningful learning and social opportunities. The students renamed the club The Spices of Life, a play on the neurodivergent community’s assertion that we can be “neuro-spicy.” Students wanted time to connect with peers, opportunities to validate their experiences, and learn more about issues that affect neurodivergent people. We decided to break the club up into two parts: social time and workshops. Social time is once a week at lunch. It is a time for neurodivergent students to connect, eat together, share common interests, and socialize with each other.


The workshops are held monthly during class time and focus on teaching students about issues affecting neurodivergent people and neuro-affirming skills and strategies to support their learning, well-being, and positive self-identity. Attendance is voluntary and based on student interest.


I really like it when we share our recent interests and projects. – Grade 10 student 

 

The workshops are held during class time to ensure students have a break over lunch and to emphasize that this learning is important and should happen at a time accessible to all. Students select the topics and we highlight research, perspectives, and resources from neurodivergent people such as self-advocates, authors, social media influencers, and scholars. Topics we have covered include masking and camouflaging, sensory sensitivities, accessibility tools, and the lived experiences of neurodivergent people. Recently the students proposed an ASL workshop to explore sign language as a form of non-verbal communication.

 

I am continually reminded about how diverse and intersectional our group is, and that by coming together we create opportunities to build empathy and support for the various facets of neurodivergent and disabled experience. The club acknowledges and actively explores the role of intersectionality in individual experiences of navigating the world and accessing supports. A neurodivergent Indigenous or Black student’s experience will be different than a neurodivergent white student’s experience. A cis-het neurodivergent student’s experience will be different than a neurodivergent student identifying as 2SLGBTQIA+.(2) Someone with an intellectual disability will have different barriers to receiving support than an honours student who struggles to get their support needs recognized.

 

It’s a great place to learn about how to work around sensory issues and meet other folks like yourself! – Grade 10 student

To keep the club safe, we came up with the following community agreements:

 

People can divulge as much or as little as they like about their diagnosis or identity, lived experience, or any other personal aspects about themselves.


Neurodivergence is nuanced. Some may identify as neuro-divergent, some may have a diagnosis, and some may have both or have one and not the other. We do not gatekeep who can join based on whether they have a diagnosis or not. Diagnosis is a privilege many do not have, and some families and cultures may reject medical-model, deficit-based language and labels. No one has to “prove” they are neurodivergent. If you identify as neurodivergent or an ally, you are welcome.

 

We respect each individual’s right in how they identify. Some may use person-first language (person with autism), and some may use identity-first language (autistic person). We do not accept ableist language or deficit-based labelling as per the tenets of the neurodiversity paradigm.

 

What we share is confidential. We respect that what we share in our clubs and workshops is intended for that space, and we do not have the right to share what other people may have disclosed.

 

Although still in its first year (and constantly evolving as we go), The Spices of Life has seen a lot of success. With strength in numbers, the students have become strong advocates for neurodiversity, for themselves, and for one another. Collectively we have created a space where neurodivergent people can celebrate identity and share their unique and different ways of being on their own terms. I look forward to our weekly visits when students bring in their latest passion projects or share each other’s joys or frustrations of living in a neurotypical world.

 

Neurodivergent and disabled people have long had other people speak for them, but centring neurodivergent voices and fostering positive neurodivergent identity is a worthy and necessary endeavour if we want to create school communities and societies that truly foster inclusion and diversity.

 

1 Socializing in the way of people whose neurocognitive patterns are within the range of society’s standards of normal.

2 To learn more about intersectionality, I recommend referring to Talila Lewis’s (2022) conceptualization of ableism in relation to racism, capitalism, colonialism, and other interconnected systems of oppression: www.talilalewis.com/blog/working-definition-of-ableism-january-2022-update

 

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