STEM education is a vital part of any child’s development. STEM classes teach students to think critically, experiment effectively, and engage with the world with curiosity and an open mind.
However, many neurodivergent children face significant barriers to STEM programming. This is a major issue, as nearly 15% of the world’s population are neurodivergent or exhibit some form of neurodiversity.
If your child exhibits some neurodiversity traits or has been diagnosed as neurodivergent, you can help them receive an equitable, personalized experience in STEM to ensure that they don’t fall behind their neurotypical peers.
Neurodiversity is an umbrella term that accounts for all the neurological differences between people. At its core, the neurodiversity movement helps folks who have been diagnosed with people with autism, dyslexia, Tourette’s syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and other conditions receive the help they need to navigate life’s challenges.
In an article concerning what it means to be neurodivergent, Adrian Kunemund, Ph.D., a psychologist in private practice in Atlanta, Georgia explains that “there is no one single correct way for a brain to be,” but that neurodiverse individuals may experience a range of neurological differences.
Unfortunately, living with neurodiversity can be a challenge. Oftentimes, these challenges have nothing to do with neurological differences but are due to social barriers and stigmas that have been built up due to misunderstandings and a lack of awareness.
Writing for the AMA Journal of Ethics, Dr. Christina Nicolaidis explains the fear she felt when her son was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3. Dr. Nicolaidis says that the diagnosis conjured images of Rain Man and “security officers trying to restrain my beloved 350-pound adult autistic patient during a violent meltdown.” Through research and personal experience, Dr. Nicolaidis has overcome her initial concerns and now advocates for greater neurodivergent diversity in research-based STEM fields.
Today, Dr. Nicolaidis is co-director of the Academic Autistic Spectrum Partnership in Research and Education. As a researcher, physician, and parent, she promotes a strengths-based approach to neurodiversity, wherein we recognize the social context of neurodiversity and cherish “individual’s complex combinations of strengths and challenges.”
You can follow Dr. Nicolaidis’ example by advocating for your neurodivergent child to ensure they receive the STEM education they deserve.
The strengths and challenges that come with neurodiversity can only be fully embraced if reasonable accommodations are made for children who are neurodivergent.
As an educator or a parent, you can do your bit to promote accessibility in STEM and ensure your child receives the accommodations they need. Remote learning programs and increased technology mean that classrooms can be easily modified to suit the needs of students who live with some form of neurodiversity.
Start your search at the educational institute that your child attends. Most schools and districts offer additional support for folks with autism, ADD/ADHD, dyslexia, and other conditions. At a minimum, you’ll want to ensure that your child receives accommodations during tests and has at least one point of contact in their school. Usually, this point of contact will carry a title like an “accessibility officer” or “disability coordinator.”
If you find that you’re underwhelmed by the support services that your school offers, you can raise the issue with school administrators or seek extra outside help. Online resources like those offered by neurodiversityhub can put you in touch with educators who are specially trained to help your child and give you access to learning materials that best suit their needs.
Extra Curricular Activities
During your search for accommodations and extra learning opportunities, you may find some exciting extracurricular activities. Most extracurricular activities revolve around sports teams. However, extracurricular STEM activities can be a great way to bolster STEM participation for your child.
Afterschool STEM programs provide students with high-quality, engaging learning environments that complement in-class learning. Studies also show that afterschool programs teach transferable skills, and can improve your child’s communication and teamwork ability.
If you’re an educator, you can design an afterschool STEM program by creating a safe space for all students to learn. You may be an expert in your child’s needs, but try to account for other children who may have neurodiverse traits. This ensures that everyone feels welcome at your club, and can promote greater STEM interest in your child’s school.
When designing an afterschool program, try to expose children to cross-curricular projects. The children who attend will have different interests and naturally come to some subjects quicker than others. Robotics competitions and coding classes might appeal to some students, while others will benefit more from community engagement projects and trips to the museum.
If you do run an afterschool STEM program, remember that you may be eligible for extra funding. Your school board may have funds reserved for engagement opportunities, and many science fairs have a stipend for communities in need.
You don’t need to run an afterschool program alone, either. While teachers at your school may have a hard time scheduling extra time, parents and community members may be able to step up and help out with things like travel and logistical barriers. This can also help you spread information about neurodiversity and help build a community that cherishes diversity.
Advocating for your neurodivergent child to help them excel in STEM requires extra time and effort. You may run up against folks who don’t understand neurodiversity, and it’s easy to feel despondent if your child isn’t getting the help they need.
During trying times, remember that diversity is cherished in STEM at large. Research teams are more effective when they are made up of folks from different backgrounds and with different ways of processing information. STEM education is being reformed to reflect this reality, and your child may be able to help promote a more equitable, inclusive future in STEM.
Every child deserves equitable access to STEM education. As a parent or educator, you can advocate for neurodivergent children by finding out about accommodations and promoting extracurricular activities that cater to neurodiversity. This can help spark an interest in STEM education and ensure that future generations of neurodivergent children can contribute to research.