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The Illusion of Inclusion

By Rebecca Thomas

First off, a huge thanks to Dr. Nina Hood and her team for continuing to share such vital resources and knowledge through freely accessible webinars. Openly exchanging wisdom is key to strengthening our collective efficacy and unity as educators.

I tuned in live for their latest webinar exploring this important research paper. As the brave speakers shared candid narratives of their experiences navigating the education system as neurodivergent individuals, mums and professionals, I listened intently. Particular kudos to Annabelle March for her openness in recounting her own journey and commending the teachers who championed her along the way.

While the systemic issues illuminated are deeply concerning, the overriding message for me was focused on the "low-hanging fruit" - the small but impactful actions we can all take to better support neurodivergent students and whānau right now as we work toward larger reform.

For instance, Annabelle championed the power of picture books as a rich teaching resource, reminding us that nobody is ever too old to benefit from their lessons. Can you imagine creating a virtual staff library celebrating key picture books and the critical themes around neurodivergence they explore? Author and illustrator Eliza Fricker's work immediately sprang to mind.

Fricker offers an insightful window into the experience of having a child who dreads going to school through books like, "When the Naughty Step Makes Things Worse." For those of us lacking time or funds for courses, her empathetic narratives provide an accessible entry point. She also has podcasts delving deeper into these topics.

Another inspiring "quick win"? Activating our spirit of agentic problem-solving rather than deflection. The panel contrasted leadership teams boldly saying "We don't have all the answers yet, but let's figure this out together" with the all-too-familiar phone call requesting a struggling student get picked up due to insufficient classroom support that day. 

The "good old days" of a community collectively embracing the care and empowerment of every child seems to have faded. We were challenged to recapture that ethos where if you were part of the local school community, that school would look after you, not 'pass you on' - looking to the immense wisdom of te ao Māori as a guiding light where neurodivergence is celebrated as an asset, not problematised (I think that's a word?).

There was tremendous appreciation expressed for the heroic efforts of those teachers and leaders who tirelessly advocate for their neurodivergent students despite lacking sufficient resources and staffing. Their dedication shone through, although it's unsustainable without broader systemic change, to avoid our teachers burning out.

As the sibling of an autistic person, so much of the webinar's content resonated deeply. But one echo rang out most powerfully - Eliza Fricker's honest but harsh insights into how the words and actions of a young person's support system shape a family's sense of empowerment versus feeling overwhelmed.

Eliza's experiences capture the vulnerability of parents too, parents who desperately search for answers or assistance for their struggling child. Too often, however, she warns that the system (when it works) can respond with phrasing and processes that can breed alienation, marginalisation, and internalised deficiency rather than affirmation. This then turns to a person or whānau choosing not to seek diagnosis; fear of being stigmatised.

So as we reflect on supporting our neurodivergent students' empowered sense of belonging, perhaps we could pause to consider:

How might the experience feel if this were your own child being "passed around" or underserved?

Could that shift in perspective help us become more attuned to the unspoken anxieties families carry?

Changing a system is immense work. But meaningful inclusion starts with the simple yet profound act of opening our minds and hearts to truly hear those we serve. One thoughtful step at a time, one empowered voice after another - that's how we'll weave a tapestry of affirmation for every student's potential.

Let's begin by listening, listening hard, so we can hear what isn't being said.

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