Don’t Make Greta to be an exception: why neurodiverse learners should be ‘taught’ differently
16 year old climate activist Greta Thunberg can do no wrong. She speaks her truth without violence or disrespect, she seems unfazed by the spotlight, and her example is inspiring millions worldwide to engage more responsibly in addressing our planet’s climate emergency. But the phenomena of her impact needs to be examined closely by educators, because there are many thousands or even millions of young people who are as capable as Greta, in their own way, of living and contributing meaningfully to the world. Greta has Aspergers Syndrome, and as she herself has said, it is part of the reason why and how she does what she does.
‘In many circumstances, it [Aspergers] can definitely be an advantage,’ she said in a recent interview on CBS News. ‘To be neurodiverse makes you different, makes you think differently, and especially in such a big crisis as this, when we need to think outside the box. We need people who think outside our current system, and who aren’t like everyone else.’
People on the Autistic Spectrum often have heightened sensory awareness and think in a way that is radically different to how the majority of institutions do – be that governments, bureaucracies, schools, hospitals, universities etc. This is a moment in our human history where we have to recognise that Greta is not the exception and should not be allowed to be. I am (like most of us I assume) a supporter and champion of Greta Thunberg and all that she is doing. But I do not, and will not, do her a disservice by falling into the trap of hero-worship. Yes, she is remarkable, but what makes her remarkable isn’t actually that she thinks and communicates in such an inspiring way. She is not a prophet or a guru or a rare, enlightened being. She is a young person like millions of others. What IS remarkable about her and her impact is a combination of two things:
She has the courage to be herself, without apology.
She appears to have family/guardians around her who are allowing her to express herself, are not shaming her for her beliefs and actions, such as missing school, or exploiting her sudden fame for their own ends.
How many other young people have the same kind of awareness as she does, but who are unsupported to such a degree that it feels too dangerous to be themselves?
Here’s a question to you the reader – was there ever a time in your youth, or indeed, even in your career, when you took the initiative in something or spoke your truth only for it to be ignored, laughed at, shamed, when your talents and gifts were not recognised? If not, then you are in the minority, and you are very very lucky. I would wager anything that if you are a neurodiverse learner, you will have experienced shaming, ignorance and misunderstanding in your life. Most probably from those in position of responsibility or care for you, such as your parents, teachers, colleagues and bosses. at a profound level. Even Greta has said that until the last year, she felt all alone in the world, and didn’t think anyone else thought and felt about the world in the way she did.
In 2015, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation conducted a worldwide survey that estimated there are 37.2 million people with Aspergers Syndrome worldwide. Many of these millions will be undiagnosed, and even fewer will have any constructive learning support or respect for their own way of experiencing the world. Everyone is unique, and it doesn’t mean that every neurodiverse person will be like Greta. But in my experience as an educator, every neurodiverse learner has unexpressed potential – not necessarily always in terms of academic grades, but potential to innovate, to inspire, to learn, to contribute, and to be the ones who can, indirectly teach us - the teachers and educators.
So, for all of you reading this who work as educators or in the field of education, take the opportunity to apply Greta Thunberg’s example as inspiration of what is possible, if you are open and adaptable enough to give space for every student to ‘be their own teacher’. And here’s a few pointers from me to get you started:
Never let yourself down by thinking your student has ‘an attitude problem’: be open to learning what motivates your student, rather than trying to get them to follow your own way of doing this. Even if you have targets to meet, and a head of department on your back, you are in education because you care about helping people learn to their potential. So always, even with the necessary boundaries and discipline that you need to do your job, keep an open mind and an open heart to what your student might actually be trying to communicate to you, through their so-called ‘bad attitude.’
Never tell your students ‘ that’s just the way it is.’ Our climate emergency, and Greta’s leadership, shows us the danger of people in power getting fixed in mindsets and positions regarding how to do things. Albert Einstein famously failed at school exams, because his teachers were trying to get him to do things their way. I don’t believe much has changed. Einstein has been retrospectively diagnosed as autistic, and even during his lifetime was recognised as being dyslexic. Without doubt he was remarkable, but how many more Einsteins are there in the world? Maybe they are not the ones excelling in exams, but are the ones throwing tantrums or staring out the window all day. Be humble enough to let your students ‘teach you’ about a different way of doing things. Easier said than done, I know. But the truth is, if we as educators don’t take this attitude, then we are failing not only our students but ourselves (regardless of whether we’ve won awards or climbed the career ladder).
Give your students clear options within a safe boundaried framework: One person’s helpful guidelines is another person’s strait-jacket. One person’s space to express themselves freely is another’ person’s unsafe or confusing space. Every one of us – regardless of whether we are more neurodiverse or more neurotypical – learns uniquely. That’s what should make education, and being an educator, so creative and generative. The key always though is to be present to each individual as much as possible, and to find that balance between guided structure and autonomous responsibility. Most neurodiverse learners will require some kind of container through which to navigate their learning. And most standardised textbooks and learning resources will not be suitable. In fact I’ve witnessed the most incredible progress – within in a group class setting – when I’ve been able to provide clear options for students. The work has be to done, no exceptions, but the route to getting there doesn’t have to be the same for everyone. In the end, those students previously identified by the school as ‘problem students’ responded immediately to my re-framing. Not only that, but of their own will many of them did extra homework devising their own toolkit for solving a problem in class ( in the scenario to mind, I was at the time a secondary school History teacher, and we were doing historical sourcework to uncover a medieval mystery).
I’m not saying any of this is easy, but regardless of our situation none of us in education have excuses. At the very least, we need to be mindful that if a student is not engaged, or acting up, or not responding to our teaching methods, then there is an opportunity for us to ‘think outside the box’ like Greta does. The wellbeing and learning needs of our students matters more than anything, and if it doesn’t, then we need to seriously consider a career-change.
For any of you reading this who might think I am an idealistic hippy teacher who doesn’t know what it’s really like, think again. I know that some young people can be challenging, and demonstrative of behaviour that really does seem to deserve to be labelled a ‘ bad attitude.’ But behind every bad attitude is someone who feels confused, disconnected, unrecognised and most probably scared. Perhaps they are an undiagnosed neurodiverse learner, perhaps they have some kind of traumatic stress response affecting their behaviour. Whatever the reason, it is your golden opportunity as their teacher (within your resources and boundaries of course) to be open to why that is, and how to transform that situation. You might not succeed, but you can try – and the best way to try is to let go of all your assumptions. Greta has said that she felt disconnected and isolated from the world. It is a one in 37.2 million chance that Greta was seen and heard by the world in the way that she has. I suspect that she is so committed to her calling that even if tomorrow she was once again all on her own school-striking outside Parliament, she would still carry on unwaveringly and have confidence in who she is and what she has to do. But now, she knows beyond doubt that she is not alone, that she is not thinking exceptionally, that she can contribute vitally to the world, that people can and will listen to her, that she has like-minded friends and allies. What a gift that must be for her. Wouldn’t it be great if we can play our part in giving that gift to other young people like her, neurodiverse or otherwise. Don’t make Greta the exception – instead, stay open to every learner as offering something exceptional. Because in our crazy dysfunctional education systems, is in fact the only truth that we, as educators, can rely on.