A Unique Child

Neurodiversity-affirming practice in early years

  • Neurodiversity-affirming practice in early years

Embracing neurodiversity allows us to truly help children to thrive, explains Kerry Murphy…

The term neurodiversity is gaining popularity within the early years sector as practitioners navigate their ever-growing understanding of inclusion and anti-bias practice.

Neurodiversity refers to the unique neurological variations within the human mind (Walker, 2014) and was initially coined by autistic sociologist Judy Singer in the 1990s. 

Put simply, neurodiversity embraces the fact that not all brains take the same developmental pathway, and while many children have neurotypical minds and bodies, others have development that diverges from this.

This is referred to as neurodivergence, and this umbrella term includes autism, ADHD and dyslexia, to name a few. 

Being neurodiversity-affirming

A fundamental principle of neurodiversity, and those who believe in this idea, is that difference is not a bad thing, and so-called special educational needs (SEN) should not be viewed wholly through the lens of delays, deficits, and impairments.

Unfortunately, this remains the dominant view in the early years and can lead to children being labelled negatively – considered problems to be fixed – and reinforcing stereotypes.

However, when practitioners take a neurodiversity-affirming approach, they acknowledge that all children’s development is holistic and consists of strengths, interests, differences, and areas of need. 

Furthermore, practitioners recognise that neurodivergence itself, such as being autistic, is not just a set of symptoms but is a valid lived identity for a child that should be celebrated and supported.

To be neurodiversity-affirming means that you believe in a strengths and rights-based approach to developmental differences and aim to provide support and adaptations that affirm the child’s neurodivergent identity, rather than thinking that the child needs to be fixed or cured of their neurotype. 

Dispelling myths

Early childhood is a critical phase of development, and what happens during these years can have a lasting impact on how the child comes to view themselves and their place within the world. 

It is up to us as practitioners to remain up to date when it comes to child development, and this includes challenging outdated narratives and beliefs about SEN. 

For so long, we have been conditioned to view developmental differences as delays, concerns and “red flags”, and then we often wonder why the parent may seem in-denial or reluctant to engage. 

We are often supporting children and families at the early stages of identification, assessment and diagnosis, and it is here that we can utilise a neurodiversity-affirming stance to ensure that a child’s neurotype is understood from a strengths viewpoint. 

One way to do this is to challenge the neurodivergent myths that can exist and offer new perspectives for families. For example, I have often heard practitioners talk about the absence of empathy being a “symptom” of autism. 

The reason for this is that the now-debunked research (Gernsbacher & Yergeau, 2019) from Simon Baron-Cohen argued that autistic children and children with Down Syndrome appeared to lack the ability to perceive the world from another person’s point of view, often referred to as Theory of Mind. This became tangled up with empathy, leading to a common misconception becoming a popular belief.

A counter to this “no empathy” research comes from autistic scholar Damien Milton (2012), who explains that empathy is a two-way street, and rather than a lack of empathy, autistic children just express empathy in different ways, leading to a breakdown in shared and mutual understanding with neurotypicals (National Autistic Society, 2018). 

Many autistic people report having lots of empathy and, in some cases, this can feel overwhelming. Research also suggests that neurodivergent people often grow deep emotional connections to objects and animals, which can form part of their special interests and be a place to situate their empathy (White & Remington, 2019).

This example illustrates why we must engage with research, training and support from people who themselves are neurodivergent, and who continue to challenge stereotypes that are simply not true.

To explore this further, visit Autistic Speech & Language Therapist Emily Lee’s website autisticslt.com and access her FAQ section where she uncovers lots of myths about autism. 

Neurodiversity and play

Historically children with special educational needs have been viewed as problems to fix, and so the usual approach is to use play-based intervention programmes to train the child to behave more “normally”.

This usually involves taking a child away from their everyday play and offering structured programmes with a measurable outcome. The rationale for this is that play does not come naturally to all children. This emerges from the belief that there is a ‘right’ or ‘appropriate’ way to play. 

Unfortunately, lots of neurodivergent styles of play are undermined or considered non-functional. Research by Sidhu et al. (2021) states that play is diverse and by narrowing it down by how functional it is, we miss lots of opportunities to fully understand the child’s unique identity. 

The reality is that play is defined by the child and we, as adults, don’t get to say what is right and wrong when it comes to playing. For example, many neurodivergent children have diverse play skills involving special and intense interests. 

Practitioners will often report being concerned when a child appears fascinated by one type of play. For example, a child who loves vehicles or another who engages in the same repetitive play sequences. 

Instead of viewing this as inappropriate play, or something to be concerned about, we have an opportunity to use this special interest as a springboard for their learning. It isn’t about taking the child away from the vehicles. Rather, it is about including those vehicles as much as possible as hooks for extending learning. 

A neurodiversity-affirming practitioner recognises that play doesn’t need to make sense to them if it makes sense to the child.

Neurodiversity is a complex and exciting concept in the early years.  It has given us an opportunity to question our current practice, and to think about how we might become more inclusive.

At its core, neurodiversity empowers us to think differently about difference and it’s only when we embrace this, that we can truly help our children to thrive and learn positive self-identity. 

Watch Famly’s free webinar session with Kerry Murphy on Neurodiversity-affirming practice.

Kerry Murphy is a lecturer in early years and SEND at Goldsmiths University. Author of A Guide to SEND in the Early Years and Little Minds Matter: Supporting the Wellbeing of Children with SEND.

Follow Kerry on Twitter @EYFS4M or Instagram @EYFS4Me




National Autistic Society, The double empathy problem

Gernsbacher, M.A. and Yergeau, M., 2019. Empirical Failures of the Claim That Autistic People Lack a Theory of Mind. Archives of scientific psychology, 7(1), p.102.

White, R.C. and Remington, A., 2019. Object personification in autism: This paper will be very sad if you don’t read it. Autism, 23(4), pp.1042-1045.