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Neurodiversity in the 21st Century and why it matters for apprenticeships

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All learners have different needs. This is a statement with which few educators in the 21st Century would disagree. For the vocational training sector, this can mean differences in capability, homelife situation, workplace demands, learning preferences or, importantly, learning support needs. Without a base-level understanding of neurodiversity, curriculum teams, tutors and employers risk alienating a significant proportion of learners or would-be learners. In our industry, the engagement and progress of every learner matters. Embracing and supporting neurodiversity is a critical part of this. 

What is neurodiversity?

The term neurodiversity was coined in 1997 by Australian sociologist Judy Singer. Neurodiversity is the recognition that everyone’s brain is different, and that we all experience and interact with the world around us in different ways. There are many ways to learn, think and behave, and no one way is the “right” way. Neurodiversity highlights the value in this difference.

Neurodiversity places people into two groups: those who are neurotypical, and those who are neurodivergent. If someone is neurotypical, their brain works in the way that is considered usual. It’s likely they’ve never thought about whether they see or experience things differently to those around them. When someone is neurodivergent, their brain functions differently to those who are considered neurotypical.

How many people are neurodivergent?

Neurodivergence is caused by a variety of conditions including Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), dyslexia, dyspraxia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Down syndrome, Tourette’s and others that impact how someone experiences the world around them. For example, dyspraxia is a common disorder that affects movement and coordination; dyslexia involves difficulty in learning to read or interpreting words, letters, and other symbols; ASD is characterised by difficulties in social interaction, communication, and restricted or repetitive patterns of thought and behaviour; and people with ADHD can seem restless, may have trouble concentrating and may act on impulse.

It is estimated that around one in seven people (around 15% of people in the UK) are neurodivergent. More specifically, it is thought that 8% of people in the UK have ADHD, 10% have dyslexia, 8% have dyspraxia, 6% have dyscalculia, 1% have an autistic spectrum condition and 1% Tourette’s syndrome. What’s more, many people suffer from more than one condition that makes them neurodivergent. For example, approximately 1 in 2 people with ADHD have dyslexia, and 1 in 3 people with ADHD have autistic spectrum traits.

Neurodiversity is not always obvious. These conditions all exist on a scale, severity differs from person to person, and they are not typically visible. Depending on the individual, neurodivergence can easily go undetected.

Time for change

We live in a world designed for neurotypical people and neurodivergence is apparent in learner drop out numbers and unemployment statistics. Systems, including the education system, have historically excluded those with conditions that make them neurodivergent.

Thankfully, the movement to change that is gathering pace. Since the term was coined, awareness has shifted from a deficits-based understanding of neurodivergent conditions, towards a focus on strengths, and an emphasis on the idea of difference as normal and to be appreciated or celebrated. In 1998, Harvey Blume wrote in the Atlantic, “Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of wiring will be best at any given moment?” Finally, it feels like Blume’s sentiment is being taken seriously. The shift towards neurodiversity is part of the larger movement towards embracing and seeking to support all types of diversity, particularly in the workplace. But this work is not yet done, as Catherine Bean, a Fast Stream social researcher at the Office for National Statistics (ONS), explains: “The working world supports neurotypical people by default, and often neurodivergent people are left to advocate on our own behalf to get reasonable adjustments. Without good support, neurodivergent people like me may not progress in our organisations or may even leave jobs altogether. If you’re not sure what I mean, think about the modern office. Nearly everywhere I’ve worked, most teams hot desk. As an autistic person I find this stressful; not knowing where I’ll sit can put my whole day out of step. This might sound baffling to some, but changes in my environment impact me more than most. To counter this, I like to have a reserved seat. Without being mindful of neurodivergent colleagues’ needs, you may unknowingly add extra stress to their days.”

A wider societal issue

There is no one definition of what it feels like to be neurodivergent or even to be diagnosed with one of the associated conditions. Human brains are unique and diverse, which is why when thinking about adapting our systems to support and recognise the value in neurodivergent thinking, a one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate.

A recent study has revealed that there has been a ninefold increase in autism diagnoses over the past 20 years, as awareness and understanding of the condition has grown. Other conditions, however, have not benefited from the same increase in understanding. Consequently, many children are either undiagnosed or incorrectly diagnosed, with their specific needs going unrecognised and therefore not catered for. Over 20% of children with special educational needs are diagnosed as having “moderate learning difficulties”. According to developmental psychologist Penelope Hannant: “The label ‘moderate learning difficulties’ is often used in an overgeneralised way in schools as well. When teachers assess children without the involvement of a specialist, there is no reliable way of distinguishing between moderate learning difficulties and specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia. This suggests that a large proportion of children in England could have a neurodiversity that remains undiagnosed.”

When children pass through the education system without a correct diagnosis or any diagnosis at all, they are less likely to understand their difference as neurodivergence, or see the adjustments they need to be comfortable in work and further education as reasonable. They may feel like failures for falling short of society’s expectations which, like the structures that exist around them, have been created for neurotypical people. They may blame themselves for finding certain things difficult that come easily to those around them, leading to anxiety, depression or other mental health conditions. As such, more opportunities to help people identify their neurodivergence in further education and employment are needed, alongside support and adjustments to facilitate their success.

The need for personalised support

For those who are diagnosed as neurodivergent at school, support is inconsistent. While some may benefit from individualised learning plans, they could then be left to fend for themselves when it comes to moving into work. Others may receive no support at all. And some, having gone undiagnosed, may go on to build successful careers by concealing their differences from employers and others and struggling to fit into a world designed for neurotypicality.

What’s more, the definitions for the conditions that fall under the umbrella term of neurodiversity are only helpful to an extent. There are many crossovers between them, with attention being a challenge for people with dyslexia as well as with ADHD, for example. And as we have seen, people frequently have more than one neurodivergent condition. For effective support to be given, teachers and the health practitioners who diagnose children need to have a deep understanding of neurodivergence, and be ready to create completely individualised learning plans based on the unique needs of each child.

Successful policies for inclusion

Things are improving. In the Civil Service, Catherine Bean points out the benefits of Workplace Adjustment Passports that allow neurodivergent people and others with specific needs to move between positions with greater ease. An article in Harvard Business Review highlights how companies making the effort to change their hiring practices are benefiting from finding the neurodiverse candidates they need. Microsoft, for example, has a neurodiversity hiring programme because, as they state on their website, “Diverse teams positively impact our company culture, working environment and how we serve our customers.” Similarly, in July 2021, Ernst and Young launched the first Neuro-Diverse Centre of Excellence in the UK to offer their clients a new dimension of creativity and innovation. And in January 2022, JPMorgan Chase named a Global Head of Neurodiversity.

UK surveillance company GCHQ says they’ve long valued the skills of neurodivergent people, and actively seek to hire candidates with conditions such as dyslexia, who offer particular skills that they need. According to the agency, apprentices on GCHQ’s scheme are four times more likely to have dyslexia than those on other organisations’ programmes. As the Guardian reported: “To encourage dyslexic people to apply, GCHQ actively promotes itself as a neurodiverse employer and offers adjustments to its recruitment process, such as allowing people to bring mind maps or have extra time, as well as introducing awareness training for managers and peer support groups.” Jo Cavan, the director of strategy, policy and engagement at GCHQ, highlighted the popularity of the apprenticeship scheme with neurodivergent candidates as many people, “don’t feel they can thrive in a traditional education environment”.

Change is also taking hold in education. The Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology opened in September 2017. They are a values-led organisation and determined to be student centric. From day one, the Dyson Institute offered every student the opportunity to undertake neurodiversity screening. Carried out by an external specialist, the screening produces an in-depth learning profile of the individual, highlighting neurodivergent traits. What’s more, alongside providing staff with neurodiversity training, the Dyson Institute also offers students assistive software, ensures that lecture notes are available in advance, and provides transcripts of all lectures.

Why is understanding neurodivergence important for apprenticeships?

The UK government’s recently published white paper on the levelling up agenda places emphasis on the need to boost social mobility, widen participation and offer better opportunities across the UK. Apprenticeships play a significant role in supporting social mobility, both at entry-level and as adult learning opportunities. Equal access to these opportunities means access to those who are neurodivergent as well as other marginalised socio-economic and ethnic groups.

Furthermore, the combination of practical, hands-on and classroom-based learning is ideal for many people with neurodivergence. But current entry requirements are impacting the ability of neurodivergent people to get on to apprenticeship programmes. In their Accessible Apprenticeships report published in October 2021, Mencap made the case for changes to these requirements. The Head of Development in the Lifestyles & Work team, Mark Capper, said: “People with a learning disability can work and want to work and with the right support they can also make fantastic employees. Many have proved their worth during the pandemic – with some working as key workers. Now is the time to finally remove barriers and support people with a learning disability through inclusive employment programmes so they can apply their dedication and skills.”

But neurodivergence needs to be better understood and accommodated throughout the apprenticeship journey, from recruitment through to end-point assessments. Current systems have been designed to teach, assess and employ the neurotypical majority to the detriment of neurodiverse people. And as with all forms of learning, learner drop out is a significant problem for apprenticeship programmes, costing time and money as well as negatively impacting results. Making sure that learning approaches are inclusive, and that individual needs are considered and accommodated, is part of the solution. 

Personalisation is (and should be) the norm

Learners increasingly expect individualised learning journeys. A positive fall-out from the accelerated move to blended and digital-first learning during the pandemic, was the sharp uptake in educational technology platforms enabling learners to experience efficient and effective personalisation. Personalisation has now become the norm in education, just as it’s also expected in other areas such as marketing and customer support. 

Drawing on both the expectation of personalisation and the momentum behind drives to increase diversity, equity and inclusion in learning and at work, it is increasingly important to be able to incorporate Additional Learning Support (ALS) into learner journeys. Educational institutions and employers alike need to be able to demonstrate to funders, partners, learners, future and current employees, that they are making considerable effort and placing value in increasing diversity and inclusion. Not only that but for educators, while testing and adjusting for neurodiversity is not a compliance issue, it is perceived extremely positively by Ofsted. Similarly, data will need to be held that proves the correct use of any funding drawn down to support ALS.

Understanding and supporting neurodiversity in apprenticeships is – and should be – essential for independent learning providers. It’s a subject that is incredibly important at Aptem, which is why we count Chartered Psychologists amongst our team. This is the first of a series of posts on the topic. Keep an eye out for more insights and information on supporting neurodivergence in education and employment.

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