Schooling and its Effects on Neurodiverse Authority

by Gavin Pereira ScocciaPhoto of Gavin Pereira Scoccia

Gavin Pereira Scoccia is a biology major and anthropology minor from Brookline, MA. While writing this essay Gavin says, “I was so upset at the education system for not giving me, or my neurodivergent peers, a chance.” Gavin shares that he was diagnosed with ADHD at a young age but “never got accommodations despite needing them, leading me to fail in school.” Gavin often believed that he was lazy, did not try hard, and was simply not good enough, and he believes that schools often let students down because they have preconceived notions about what makes a “good student.” He was lucky enough to find teachers who took the time to “work with me and taught me skills that came naturally to other students. I thrived under those teachers’ care.” Gavin says that this essay “is a manifestation of my rage as a neurodivergent person.” Gavin has also been advocating for animal rights since elementary school. He works in the veterinary field and sees the joys that animals bring to everyone in their lives. He strives to make those animals’ lives just as joyful and healthy as possible.

The ability to have confidence in our own ideas is a skill that becomes increasingly important as we progress through our lives. It allows us to communicate our thoughts effectively and gain confidence, which is valued in academia and the workforce. Generally, this skill is called authority. We start cultivating it at a young age, and it grows with us. Yet some are encouraged more than others to express their thoughts, causing a societal discrepancy. This is a never-ending cycle where the favored group remains the most vocal while the minorities have their thoughts dismissed. This phenomenon occurs at nearly every intersection of power in our lives. It is well documented how the effects of racism and sexism can affect the authority. But the exploration of this topic for several minority groups still remains underexplored. One such example is the effects of ableism on authority in the case of neurodivergent students.

If you were to present an idea to a class of students and ask them what they thought, you would find that each of their answers would be unique. That is, only if all the students had a well-developed sense of authority. In reality, it is much more likely that the students would remain quiet, or let a few people speak for the class. The confidence to interpret an idea and speak is something that is “related to factors such as age and gender. Confidence in one’s own authority is assumed to increase generally with age, but gender may also influence this development” (Penrose and Geisler 506-507). But in situations where a group has been systematically oppressed for their identity, it becomes harder to gain authority. This is, in part, due to systematic oppression which continues to tell the group that their lack of authority is their own fault.

We can see a clear difference between how a lack of authority due to inexperience and a lack of authority due to oppression present themselves. Sexism can also affect how women express their thoughts and their confidence in their ideas and interpretations. For example, in “Reading and Writing Without Authority” Ann M. Penrose and Cheryl Geisler explore the differences in authority between a man with a Ph.D. named Roger and an undergraduate woman named Janet. Their findings showed that Janet’s “process differences could not be explained simply by pointing to differences in topic knowledge” but were, in part, attributed to her gender (Penrose and Geisler 507). But a lack of authority caused by oppression is not just present in the case of sexism; it is a universal experience among other minorities.

If the oppression has ties to the way the minority speaks or writes, we can also see that group’s authority, in an educational setting, is increasingly shunned. For example, Black Language is deeply tied to African Americans due to the history of the African diaspora in the United States. Despite deserving the respect that is afforded to many other languages, it is often discriminated against. In the academic setting, this is extremely detrimental to authority.

When Black students’ language practices are suppressed in classrooms or they begin to absorb messages that imply that BL [Black Language] is deficient, wrong, and unintelligent, this could cause them to internalize anti-blackness and develop negative attitudes about their linguistic, racial, cultural, and intellectual identities and about themselves. (qtd. in Baker-Bell 10)

Students who speak a second language experience a similar type of discrimination often in the form of the ESL classroom. If a student is an immigrant or comes from a household where more than one language is spoken, they will most likely be evaluated or automatically placed in an ESL classroom where they are expected to improve their English. This label often sticks with them for their entire school career, impacting the classes they take and the connections they make with non-ESL students.

Despite sounding like a good opportunity for those who aren’t native in English, “Chiang and Schmida found that the label ‘linguistic minority’ often hindered these students because they ‘are expected to stumble over the English language for it is not their native tongue’ and that students then internalized these expectations and were led by them to ‘see themselves as incapable of owning the language’” (qtd. in Ortmeier-Hooper 393). In both cases, we see clear academic discrimination based on language in which “students who absorb negative ideologies about their native language… develop a sense of linguistic inferiority and ‘lose confidence in the learning process, their own abilities, their educators, and school in general’ (Charity Hudley & Mallinson, 2014, p. 33)” (Baker-Bell 10). Knowing that authority is deeply tied to language discrimination allows us to look further into the authority of neurodivergent students, whose disabilities often directly affect their ability to speak and write in an “appropriate” way.

Neurodivergence (ND) refers to a group of disorders that affects neurological development, most existing on a spectrum of severity. The most common diagnostic categories of neurodivergence include:

(a) intellectual disabilities; (b) communication disorders; (c) autism spectrum disorders; (d) attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder; (e) specific learning disorders (e.g., dyslexia and dyscalculia); and (f) motor disorders (including developmental coordination and movements disorders, Tourette’s, and tic disorders). (Filipe 160)

Despite the label including a large array of unique disorders, most have overlapping symptoms that make an academic setting difficult. Symptoms that affect executive function, social interactions, and reading make writing specifically one of the most challenging subjects for these students. One of the most well-studied ND disorders in the realm of academics is ADHD. In these students, we are able to see a clear linguistic difference from their neurotypical (NT) peers. Students with ADHD tend to use less “complex sentences, clause per sentence, morpheme per sentence, and numeral pronouns, whereas they showed a higher frequency of using sentences and adjectives in their writing” (Kim et al. 691). This pattern of speech is not specific to ADHD and is often seen in certain other ND disorders such as Asperger’s Syndrome (Jackson et al.). It should be noted that these linguistic differences are not due to a lack of understanding of writing conventions, but rather a stylistic trend due to a difference in processing.

These differences don’t just affect word use and sentence structure, but they also affect the process of writing itself. The very nature of neurodivergence creates a thought process different from the majority; these differences are rarely accepted despite often being surface level. ND students may struggle with planning, understanding directions, and choosing an assignment topic. Walters states that “it is possible that [ND] students…may not experience the same stages of writing that structure neurotypical process approaches to writing (Walters 349). Walters shares that ND and NT students experience a number of the same difficulties with the writing process. All students can struggle with “time management, starting an essay, choosing a topic, understanding directions, and completing revisions” but the ND student faces challenges that are different “not in kind, but in degree” from NT students (Walters 349). Students do not necessarily struggle because they are ND but because of the ways they are supported, or not, in their writing approaches.

In an unstructured learning environment, these problems become exacerbated, making what could have been an easy assignment very difficult. While Walters never says that the struggles that students with neurodivergence face are not related to the symptomatology, I believe she underplays the fact that the students’ struggles can be direct symptoms of neurodivergence, which are worsened by unsupportive classroom environments. To add to this, ND students often have significant syntactic differences which, while grammatically correct, are considered lower quality writing (Kim et al.691). Some of these significant differences in ND’s language style may be a potential cause for lower grades on writing and writing assignments. The expectation for classrooms and writing conventions are built around NT people. ND people naturally do not fit these conventions, putting them at a disadvantage in the classroom.

The combination of being in an unsupportive learning environment and having their language overly critiqued is exactly the same situation that other minority students face. As previously mentioned, this combination of factors leads to a lack of authority. Neurodivergent students overwhelmingly feel a lack of support which leads them to dismiss their ideas. Co-existing disorders are extremely common in the ND population, specifically depression and anxiety, but “above all, people with ADHD conditions have very poor self-esteem” (Kim et al. 687). These are trends seen in all ND conditions. Having poor self-esteem is undoubtedly tied to poor authority. It is therefore no surprise that ND students have lower GPAs and are often in worse academic standing than their NT peers (Kim et al. 691). If classrooms were better equipped to handle “neurodiverse approaches to writing” and schools more effective at providing support, an improvement in the performance, authority, and mental health of ND students would be expected (Walters 349).

As social awareness increases and stigma decreases, we are beginning to see a rise in the number of children and adults diagnosed with neurodivergent disorders (Zablotsky et al.). The current education system has already been failing the previous number of ND students it had. A change has to happen in order to properly support the growth and education of neurodiverse students. Authority is so fundamental to life outside of school; it allows for self-advocacy, job opportunities, and continued education. These skills are especially important for students with disabilities who will no doubt face discrimination in other aspects of their lives. Creating an environment that actively dismisses the authority of these students is a perpetuation of ableism. In almost all cases, it is not the neurodivergence of the student that contributes to their academic failure, but rather the academy itself.

Creating a classroom that is accommodating to neurodivergence won’t just help ND students. NT students often face similar challenges in classrooms, and allowing differences in writing helps everyone because no human is the same. Writing classrooms should focus less on word choice and sentence structure and more on effective communication. The complexity of sentences has no impact on the ability to get a point across. This change would also accommodate those who speak Black Language or those who aren’t native in English. Idiolectic diversity should be cultivated instead of being seen as “unacademic”.

Courses should also be designed for flexibility in assignments, with opportunities for different genres, topics, and project lengths (Tomlinson and Newman 106). Current schooling and grading revolve around satisfying the teacher’s expectations; this can be socially complicated and difficult for ND students to navigate. Teacher-focused assignments don’t promote authority or growth and are often boring for all students. Giving students freedom over their assignments allows them to get excited and invested in their work. Rules and expectations are still important but should be applied in other areas.

Communication about grading criteria and assignment expectations should be specific and clear to allow students to understand what a teacher actually wants to see. There should be little room for interpretation so that students don’t get confused but should still allow for assignment freedom. Instructors can break down long assignments into smaller steps to keep students on track, and mandatory check-ins can be a useful tool in this process. ND students may feel uncomfortable coming to office hours or seeking help; building these check-ins into the course sets clear social expectations that help the student. Alternatives to assignments and expectations should always be welcome as they often mean the student is able to learn better. For example, instead of writing an outline for an essay, allowing for a graphic organizer fulfills the same role and may work better for the student. The goal in education should always be to do what is best for the student.

The current state of education is one where flexibility isn’t given, and accommodations are often fought against. Unfortunately, this means that ND students are left behind and consequently made to feel like their opinions are worthless. Allowing ND students to express their divergence through their writing fosters authority by giving them confidence in their intellect. The classroom should be a space to flex authoritative muscles, giving students the skills they’ll need later in life. In order to allow ND students to thrive we must dismantle the view that accommodations are only for the disabled. Widespread flexibility in writing promotes the authority of all students, regardless of their neurological status.

Works Cited
Baker-Bell, April. “Dismantling Anti-Black Linguistic Racism in English Language Arts Classrooms: Toward an Anti-Racist Black Language Pedagogy.” Theory Into Practice, vol. 59, no. 1, 14 Nov. 2019, pp. 8–21.

Filipe, Marisa. “How Do Executive Functions Issues Affect Writing in Students with Neurodevelopmental Disorders?Executive Functions and Writing, Oxford University Press, 2021, pp. 160–180.

Jackson, Lynn G., et al. “Effects of Learning Strategy Training on the Writing Performance of College Students with Asperger’s Syndrome.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, vol. 48, no. 3, 30 Mar. 2017, pp. 708–721.

Kim, Kyungil, et al. “College Students with ADHD Traits and Their Language Styles.” Journal of Attention Disorders, vol. 19, no. 8, 2015, pp. 687–693.

Ortmeier-Hooper, Christina. ““English May Be My Second Language, but I’m Not ‘ESL.’”.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 59, no. 3, 2008, pp. 389–419. JSTOR.

Penrose, Ann M., and Cheryl Geisler. “Reading and Writing without Authority.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 45, no. 4, 1994, pp. 505-20.

Tomlinson, Elizabeth, and Sara Newman. “Valuing Writers from a Neurodiversity Perspective: Integrating New Research on Autism Spectrum Disorder into Composition Pedagogy.” Composition Studies, vol. 45, no. 2,2017, pp. 91-112.

Walters, Shannon. “Toward a Critical ASD Pedagogy of Insight: Teaching, Researching, and Valuing the Social Literacies of Neurodiverse Students.” Research in the Teaching of English, vol. 49, no. 4, 2015, pp. 340–60.

Zablotsky, Benjamin, et al. “Prevalence and Trends of Developmental Disabilities among Children in the United States: 2009–2017.” Pediatrics (Evanston), vol. 144, no. 4, 2019.