Other people are different on the inside

This article is the third article in a series of six from Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, Joanna Grace, the activities described in each article build up to form a toolkit for celebrating difference and neurodivergence within your setting in a way that will benefit both the children and the adults. Joanna runs online training courses focused on strategies for supporting differently-abled children and promoting inclusive practice. Read on to explore the topic of sensory differences and how to promote neurodivergence in your early years setting. 

In articles one and two, we explored simple activities to get children thinking about their internal and external differences and we have repeatedly challenged ourselves to discuss neurodivergence with children using non-judgemental language. A challenge, those of you who have taken it, I am sure will have discovered is harder that it first appears! The activity associated with this article is going to extend that thinking for the children even further, as they consider not just their own differences but the differences of others. But before we move on to that, it’s worth stopping to ask why we are doing this. 

Recognising and accepting neurodivergence allows everyone to be more authentically themselves. In addition to this, there are two big reasons why it is especially valuable for neurodivergent people, and especially so in the early years.

First Steps For Recognising Neurodivergence

When we publicly acknowledge that the internal workings of people’s brains are different, and we do this in an open and pragmatic manner, we protect against the misunderstandings that occur when people presume all brains work in the same way. I always like to draw the analogy between different types of computer software and hardware. Imagine you have two different computers: one Apple machine, one Windows. Both work. But they do so in different ways. When you try to run a Windows programme on the Apple computer, it doesn’t work. Not because the computer is broken, or the programme is wrong, but simply because of the mismatch. 

A lot of neurodivergent people grow up in environments set up for neurotypical people, receiving instructions that work for neurotypical people. When those environments and teaching strategies do not work for them, they are labelled as broken or disabled, when in fact, what they are, is different. Think about how careful you have been being about talking about difference using non-judgemental language. As you reflect on the impact of the misunderstanding described above you can appreciate the value in your carefully chosen words.


Tremendous damage is caused by the narratives that develop around neurodivergence. I am a big research geek, if you follow me on Twitter (@Jo3Grace) you will know how much I value researched-based practice and how much research I consume. When you explore the long term outcomes for neurodivergent people, so many of the struggles they face in later life are not a consequence of their difference but a consequence of the narratives that surround their differences. 

Here is an example. A child is born with a neurodivergent condition. One aspect of this condition is that they have different sleep patterns (this is a common feature of many neurodivergent conditions). Of course they look externally like any other baby, and no one knows as yet that they are different on the inside. They struggle to sleep, they are described as a “fussy” baby. They get older, in their toddler years the way they process language is different to their neurotypical peers (again this is common for those with neurodivergence) receiving instructions they struggle to follow they often do not do as they are told. The adults around them refer to them as “naughty” and they receive various punishments. They move on to primary school where their sensory processing differences (again common in neurodivergent communities) make it difficult for them to sit still and focus on their work. The adults around them refer to them as “difficult”. All the while the story is developing that the problem is them. “Of course he is a naughty child, he was such a fussy baby what did you expect?” “He’s being difficult again, he’s always been like this, even as a baby he was so fussy.”

When they hit their teenage years, their understanding of self is made up out of these stories. They believe themselves to be wrong in some way, to be lesser, to be bad. Their self-esteem is low. They notice their difference from their peers and interpret it in the same way that the adults they have experienced in their life have taught them to do so. They witness their peers achieving and themselves failing, and they blame themselves.

It is no surprise that when I read the research surrounding these populations, I find increased rates of mental ill health, greater likelihood of self-harm or substance abuse, greater risk of dying by suicide, lower rates of employment, and so on. It starts small but the language we use around neurodivergence and difference is the beginnings of these stories. It is the stories, not the conditions, that cause the low self esteem and the mental health difficulties; these stories are dangerous.

For a wonderfully positive example, I remember a young man who showed me around the special school that I worked at when I was a newly qualified teacher. He was about 14 when I started at the school and as a member of the school council, he had been tasked with giving me, the new teacher, a tour of the school. He started out by smartly introducing himself, clearly proud of the responsibility he had been given. He then immediately said “I have a learning disability, it can take me longer to understand things, and it helps me if you show me anything you want to explain as well as tell me about it.” And in his next breath he went on to talk about how good he was at swimming. 

I was so impressed. Here was a child who had been openly talked to about their difference, in his first utterances to me, he had already given me strategies I could use to support his understanding, and he had celebrated his abilities. That young man will have faced struggles in his life as he attempted to learn new skills, but the confidence he had in himself, knowing who he was and how his brain worked will, I’m sure, have equipped him to meet those struggles and overcome them. Imagine who he would be if he had felt that his difficulties in learning were in some way his fault? Which leads me on to why this is so important in the early years:

Neurodivergence In Early years

Often times, in early years settings you are supporting children who may be diagnosed with a neurodivergent condition later on in their lives. The differences between children become more apparent with age. But the impression we make and the stories we tell when children are small are the foundations for the stories other people will tell. Do you describe the child as “bossy” or as having “leadership skills”? Do you say “Peter always fidgets” or “Peter’s body likes to move”? The differences are subtle but they set a direction now that points to where that child might end up. The nuances matter. 

Imagine a start point, and an arrow pointing out from that start point. We direct this arrow with our utterances. It points to where that child ends up. The difference between “Peter always fidgets” and “Peter’s body likes to move” is small but the nuance matters. “Peter always fidgets” blames Peter, it is something he does, and it always has a notion of value judgement. Add to that the tone in which it is said and the arrow points very definitely in one direction. “Peter’s body likes to move” is very different, it’s now not Peter himself, but his body, and the “likes to move” could be used positively in a different context; “Let’s choose Peter for this game because his body likes to move.” The arrow points in a different way. Your words set the direction. The child grows and moves in that direct, a difference of a few degrees now can make a huge difference between where that child ends up.

So set yourself that challenge again, that I have set you in all three of these articles: How can you tweak how you talk about difference and neurodivergence to remove the judgement? Explore different turns of phrase, which would be best? Where do they lead?

The task for the children is to make a reveal picture as before, but this time, not of themselves but of someone else. It could be fun to do one for a child in a book so that everyone is thinking about the same child. The question the children are answering is “What do you think they are thinking?” It is a very hard question, and you can offer support by giving possible answers. You could pair them up with friends and ask them to draw their friend thinking about their favourite food. The children could then find out what each other’s favourite food is and draw that. What we are aiming for them to appreciate, is that the other person maybe thinking differently to themselves. And whilst they are doing that, we are going to support them by talking about difference using non-judgemental language: good luck!

Jo provides in person and online training to settings looking to enhance their inclusive practice for more information visit www.TheSensoryProjects.co.uk where you can also find resources to help you include children of all abilities. Jo is active on social media and welcomes connection requests from people curious about inclusive practice.

Visit the other articles in this series on celebrating difference and neurodivergence in early years!

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

About the author:

Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects.

Consistently rated as “outstanding” by Ofsted, Joanna has taught in mainstream and special-school settings, connecting with pupils of all ages and abilities. To inform her work, Joanna draws on her own experience from her private and professional life as well as taking in all the information she can from the research archives. Joanna’s private life includes family members with disabilities and neurodivergent conditions and time spent as a registered foster carer for children with profound disabilities.

Joanna has published four practitioner books: “Multiple Multisensory Rooms: Myth Busting the Magic”“Sensory Stories for Children and Teens”“Sensory-Being for Sensory Beings” and “Sharing Sensory Stories and Conversations with People with Dementia”. and two inclusive sensory story children’s books: “Voyage to Arghan” and “Ernest and I”There is new book coming out soon called ‘”The Subtle Spectrum” and her son has recently become the UK’s youngest published author with his book, My Mummy is Autistic.

Joanna is a big fan of social media and is always happy to connect with people via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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