How to Support Neurodivergent Communication in the Classroom

You know that you have a variety of learners in your classroom. You have neurodivergent individuals as well as neurotypical individuals. As a special education teacher, you understand that their specialized learning works best for all students. However, have you ever considered how communication can be impacted for neurodivergent people? We will break down the differences in communication needs and different ways that you can support learners in your own classroom!

It is important to remember that neurodivergent communication can be a spectrum of unique skills and abilities in conveying and understanding thoughts, feelings, and ideas.

People who consider themselves neurodivergent may be diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, and various other neurological differences. By understanding and supporting neurodivergent communication you will be promoting inclusivity in your classroom.

Understanding Neurodivergent Communication

What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity celebrates the natural variation or differences in human brain function. It acknowledges that neurological differences are not inherently negative but rather a celebration of strengths. In the context of communication, neurodiversity recognizes that there is no one “normal” way to communicate, and instead, embraces the diverse ways in which individuals express themselves.  It celebrates our brain differences!

It is important to note that neurodiversity is not a medical term, although many have a diagnosis the term itself is not a medical one. 

How does it impact communication?

People who are neurodivergent may have trouble with traditional communication skills.  This can include difficulties with verbal and non-verbal cues (like facial expressions), processing language, understanding social nuances (like small talk), and managing sensory sensitivities. For example, a student with Autism may struggle with maintaining eye contact or interpreting sarcasm, while a student with ADHD may have difficulty focusing on verbal instructions amidst distractions.

This can make living in a neurotypical world challenging for day to day tasks.  However, it is important to remember that every neurodivergent person will have different communication challenges. Again, it is not a one size fits all. However- there are steps you can take to support students in your classroom even if there is a variety of different skills.

Strategies for Supporting Neurodivergent Communication

Many of these supports can help neurodiverse people, but can also support students who are neurotypical. You do not have to feel as though you are making accommodations for one or two children when you think these strategies can support all of your students.  These strategies can help in social settings as well as academic ones. They can support a young person or old- so these strategies are good for our everyday life!

Provide Clear and Concise Directions 

Many times we, as teachers, can be wordy. It happens. We enjoy talking- but using oral language and lots of it is not the most helpful to neurodivergent children. But what is helpful? Clear, concise, short directions. 

If you have students doing three, four, five step directions these steps can get lost due to communication differences. You may give the directions and watch students do only one or two of the steps. This can be incredibly frustrating and you may think “I just told you what to do!” However, in reality it is too difficult to process all of that oral language, store it in their working memory and then complete the steps.

So what can you do instead?

Break the steps down. Instead, give one or two at a time. Then stop the class again and give them a few more steps. This is going to help all of your students, not just neuodivergent ones. 

But what if you need to give all five steps at one time? Or you don’t want to have to wait until everyone is done to move on to the next step… well then pair your directions with visual supports!

Visual Supports 

Visual supports are one example of nonverbal communication that help neurodivergent and neurotypical people. How can you use them in your classroom?

When giving directions of materials needed for the activity, put pictures of them up on the board. Do this often so students know if they forgot what is needed they can always look at the board instead of asking you for the hundredth time what they need to bring to the carpet. Grab some for free here!

Use this for expectations. Place pictures of what you expect at specific areas of the room. For example, you can put pictures at the carpet and at the cubby or locker for a few examples.  These visual aids can remind students what you expect and how they should act in certain areas.

Use visual supports during instruction too. Use fringe boards, core boards, mini anchor charts and more to support learning and the communication that happens during instruction.

Limit Oral Language 

Say what you mean. Some teachers are the best story tellers. They go into detail and even use their body language to convey different meanings when they are teaching. However, much of this is lost upon neurodivergent learners. So instead of adding more verbiage- get to the point of what you have to say.

This can be challenging. Even with neurotypical children, direct communication is best. Why is this the best approach for all? Students (especially our young ones) have short attention spans. If the most important thing you have to say is at the end of a long winded story, they probably won’t pay attention long enough to hear it out. 

It can be difficult for a neurodiverse individual to process information, especially when it is presented orally so it is important to be mindful to limit how much oral language we are delivering. 

Be direct

Social situations and social communication are some of the most challenging things when a student is neurodivergent. This is made even more difficult when there are things such as sarcasm and nonverbal cues being used throughout their day.  It is most important to be direct and say what you mean (see a theme here).

However, is can also be helpful to teach these social cues explicitly. Teach what sarcasm may look and sound like so students can pick up on it, because this is going to be apart of their life. It is just not something you, as a teacher, want to be using often with your students.

It is important to note that students may also not realize what you mean simply by your tone of voice. This goes hand in hand with sarcasm. Try to use direct language to say what you mean while also teaching how the tone of your voice may convey a different meaning. You can practice sarcasm with task boxes- these are a great tool to have in your classroom to work on social skills!

Use more pauses 

We keep saying how difficult it is for autistic children to understand oral communication. One way to support them during a conversation or when providing instruction is to use more pauses.

How does this help?

Giving more pauses or think time allows someone time to process what has just been said to them. Instead of trying to process what was said a sentence before and missing the sentence after. This can be challenging for teachers and requires practice. However, with practice this becomes much easier. And again this strategy helps not only neurodiverse students but also a neurotypical person.

Presume competence

It is easy to say presume competence, it is another thing all together to truly presume competence. So many times I see and hear teachers saying that they presume competence. However, then they talk about their student right in front of them- like they are not even there. Sometimes they are trying to fill me in on a behavior that just happened. 

Maybe the student is doing something near them and seems to be not listening, but they most likely are. Just imagine how it would feel if someone started talking about you like you weren’t even there and mentioning things you struggle with! I know I would have some hurt feelings.

Or the students are not given the chance to even attempt an activity or problem because it may bee ‘too hard.’ 

It is important that we truly presume competence. This is something we need to ask ourselves daily- Am I truly doing this? Could I be unintentionally not doing this? This is an important discussion to have with your entire team so the educational setting is inclusive and supportive of all.

Learn more about Neurodiversity with these resources:

1. Neurodiversity vs Neurotypical: Which do you identify with? Let’s chat about the neurodivergent spectrum.

2. Effective Calming Strategies for Students with ADHD: Learn specific ways to support learners in your classroom who have ADHD.

3. Autism Academy 360: Episode 1: Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Basics and Myths: Listen on your way to work as we bust some myths people have about autistic individuals.

In embracing neurodiversity and understanding the complexities of neurodivergent communication, we can make our classrooms more  inclusive and equitable for all students. By recognizing the diverse ways in which students communicate and tailoring support to individual needs, educators can empower neurodivergent students to thrive academically, socially, and emotionally. Remember that many of these supports not only help neurodivergent people, it also helps neurotypical students- so it is a win win for all!

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