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This article contains information that is for general information only and should not be used for the basis of making any decisions regarding education or anything else. It is solely the writer’s opinion of the writer’s experience of one open day at the school and the writer’s interactions with the people present on that day. The writer’s article is purely subjective. Facts and information may or may not be complete, accurate, reliable or valid reflection of the school in question.

I encourage you to personally tour the school and meet the educators and students, form your own opinion and leave a comment here.

Best of luck with your search for the perfect school!

After personal experience watching my child flounder within a school system that was definitely not Neurodiversity Affirming I have become a passionate advocate trying to improve the education system, and make it more inclusive for all students.

I recently collaborated with other members of Square Peg Round Whole (SPRW) to write a substantial submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry into the State Education System in Victoria. The focus of our submission was to advocate for the rights of neurodivergent students to access an equitable and inclusive education. 1

Neurodiversity is a biological fact that explains the natural variation of how human brains function. The neurodiversity paradigm states that neurodiversity is a natural and valuable form of human diversity, and there is not a ‘normal’ way for brains to function. Therefore, the difficulties experienced by Neurodivergent individuals are due to current societal beliefs and expectations, rather than any deficit within the individual.

Neurodiversity affirming practice acknowledges the unique strengths, interests, and support needs of all individuals and highlights the role of environmental and societal barriers in further exacerbating challenges faced by neurodivergent individuals.

The term neurodiversity encompasses conditions that fall into three categories:2 

Applied neurodiversity

Conditions with which an individual is born and refers to difficulties in the application of skills such as gross motor control, number concepts, and reading. Examples include Dyscalculia and Dyslexia.

Clinical neurodiversity 

Neurological differences with which an individual is born, and relates to difficulties in communication, social skills, behaviour, and impulse control. Examples include Autism, ADHD, and Intellectual Disability.

Acquired neurodiversity 

An Individual develops changes to their cognition and behaviour within their lifetime. These neurodivergent conditions may improve or deteriorate with time and incorporate a range of medical and mental health conditions including OCD, PTSD, Bipolar, Stroke and Acquired Brain Injuries (ABI).

Over the period of an individual’s life they may experience multiple conditions that result in an overlap between these three categories of Neurodiversity.

Within the education system it is mostly students with Applied & Clinical Neurodivergent Conditions that are identified and considered for additional support. SPELD Victoria provides information regarding Applied Neurodivergent Conditions including:

  • Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty regarding accurate and fluent word reading and/or poor spelling leading to problems with vocabulary and reading comprehension.
  • Dysgraphia is a specific learning disability that is characterised by persistent and unexpected difficulty with written language – its expression, handwriting and /or spelling. It is often undiagnosed, dysgraphia often co-occurs with dyslexia.
  • Dyscalculia is a specific learning disability where students have no intuitive sense of numbers. Including difficulty in learning number facts and procedures, as well as manipulating and calculating numbers.  Even if they do calculate something correctly, they won’t have an innate understanding of why the result is correct. 
Neurodiversity affirming

Clinical Neurodivergent Conditions that are most likely to impact students include:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is characterised by persistent patterns of inattentive, impulsive, and sometimes hyperactive behaviour, and is frequently accompanied by emotional regulation challenges. This is due to differences in executive functioning such as an impaired ability to inhibit and regulate attention, behaviour, and emotions; to reliably recall information in the moment; to plan and problem solve; to self-reflect and self-monitor; and to self-soothe.3 
  • Autism affects how a person interacts with and makes sense of the world around them including the way they communicate. Autistic people can experience differences with: Socialising, Sensations, Emotions & Behaviours. Autistic people often experience their senses more intensely than others meaning the world can feel overwhelming at times.4 
  • Intellectual disability refers to specific impairments of cognitive functioning and skills, including interpersonal skills and self-care. It leads to slower or different development and learning compared to typically developing individuals. Diagnosis requires an IQ below 70.
  • Tourette syndrome is a neurological condition that causes involuntary tics—sudden twitches, movements or sounds that individuals repeatedly perform. Motor tics involve body movements, while vocal tics are sounds produced by the voice. Tics tend to worsen in stressful or exciting situations but improve during calm activities or the ones requiring increased focus.5 

There are neurodivergent traits that are commonly experienced by neurodivergent individuals. Not all neurodivergent individuals will exhibit every trait mentioned and they will have a different experience of the traits they do demonstrate. These traits include:

  • Sensory distinctions: varied responses to sensory input 
  • Social differences: exhibiting unique patterns in social interactions 
  • Executive functioning challenges: difficulties with planning, organization, and behavior regulation.
  • Intense focus or special interests: ability to concentrate intensely on specific tasks.
  • Empathy and justice-oriented mindset: a strong sense of fairness and social justice.
  • Intense emotional experiences: powerful emotions in response to various stimuli.
  • Unique gender and sexual orientation experiences: differing relationships to gender identity and sexual orientation.
  • Thinking outside the box: possessing a propensity for innovative thinking.
  • Memory variations: demonstrating either superior memory capabilities or difficulties with working memory.
  • Pattern recognition and attention to detail.
  • Need for movement breaks: requiring breaks or physical movement to maintain focus and regulate energy levels.

What is neurodiversity affirming practice and why is it important within schools?

Sonny Jane Wise has assembled 12 core principles of Neurodiversity Affirming Practice which include: 

Respecting autonomy

An individual’s right to say no and the right to determine what is helpful for them as well as what is distressing for them. 

Presuming competence 

Recognising that an individual has capacity to understand, think, learn and do things. 

Rejecting neuronormativity 

The norms and expectations that centre a particular way of functioning including thinking, feeling, communicating, and behaving as the superior and right way.

Reframing expectations 

Regarding how individuals should develop, communicate, learn, think, play, socialise and function along with any neuronormative expectations that disadvantages anyone who functions differently.

Promoting self-advocacy 

Giving individuals the tools and information to advocate for themselves in all aspects of their lives including education, employment, healthcare and relationships.

Nurturing positive self-identity 

By unpacking shame, connecting with community, validating differences, identifying strengths and reframing both our language and expectations.

To understand the current drive for Neurodiversity Affirming practices within the education system, it is helpful to first understand the current systemic barriers that are impacting on neurodivergent students in Victoria.

“‘Ableism’ is the word most commonly used to describe the attitudes that motivate harmful behaviour directed at people with disability… In the context of education… ableism negatively influences the behaviour of teachers and other students towards children with disability”

Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability 2023

Ableism and the inaccessibility that arises because of assumptions and misconceptions about disability are at the heart of these barriers. It is only once the misconceptions of educators and administrators in Victorian schools are addressed that students will feel safe and secure, and better equipped to succeed at school.6 

Neurodiverse affirming

Despite the widespread controversy and criticism towards traditional behaviour management practices7 Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) is promoted within the Victorian school system as the best approach for responding to any behavioural issues. Behaviourism-based frameworks are known to diminish feelings of safety and trust which are vital for learning and can cause long-term mental harm especially for neurodivergent people.8 

Expulsion and suspension are used disproportionately against students with disability. This is in large part due to a lack of accommodations and support, as well as a fundamental lack of understanding of dysregulation and the needs of students with disability.9 Despite informal segregation being against department guidelines, these practices are still regularly experienced by students with disability and have a harmful impact on development and mental health. Informal segregation is when requests by the school, often under the guise of “what’s best for the child,” such as reduced attendance plans, and being refused attendance at school events, camps and excursions. 

Experiences of students with disability

  • In 2018, 24% of Autistic primary school students & 44% of Autistic secondary school students reporting having to change schools multiple times due to unmet needs10
  • In 2022-23, 70% of students with disability reported being excluded from events or activities at school11
  • Students with disability received between 14 and 73 per cent more suspensions than students without disability12
  • In 2022-23, 65% of students with disability reported experiencing bullying & only 27% of students with disability reported feeling supported to learn at school13

Emotional regulation is the process which allows us to register, analyse, assess, control, and express an emotional response that is considered socially appropriate in the context and circumstances.14 It is the external expression of that regulation, the action of the student, that is judged by school staff, often using an ableist view, as to whether it was an appropriate response. What this judgement often fails to consider are the triggers that occurred prior to any actions that activated the students stress responses. Rather than retrospective punishment for the action, it is more appropriate to support emotional regulation by proactively providing appropriate accommodations, sensory breaks, and sensory-friendly environments.15

Neurodivergent students and schools

The recent Disability Royal Commission found that teachers need skills in de-escalating challenging behaviour, managing their own behaviour, cultural competency, an ability to respect diverse backgrounds and experience, and finally communicating and collaborating with parents, teaching assistants and other specialist roles in the school. It also found that when principals and senior leaders were not supportive of including students with disability, this shaped the culture of an entire school and the experience of students with disability.16

In addition to improving the quality of teaching and learning, school leadership teams also have a powerful impact in shaping the wellbeing of all members of the school community.17


In understanding these barriers that are currently impacting neurodivergent students, it will be easier to recognise an appropriate education environment for neurodivergent students. A recent study found that a school’s ability to offer a positive learning experience for neurodivergent pupils was linked to the schools’ abilities to respond to a diverse population in general.18 

Given the influence that the principal and senior leaders have over the school culture and student wellbeing it is imperative that the attitudes of the leadership team regarding all types of diversity are understood. A school ethos that is already accepting of other diverse cultures is more likely to be adaptable when it comes to the needs of Neurodivergent students.

How to recognise a neurodiversity affirming school

One way to determine the school’s leadership team’s understanding of Neurodiversity is to consider the language they use, either in person or in information provided by the school. Neurodiversity affirming language aims to destigmatise and empower people, by not focusing on their deficits. Generally, the Autistic community’s preference is to use Autism (not ASD), Autistic (not ‘a person with Autism’), and to discuss specific support needs (not use functional labels like ‘low-functioning’). 

Schools that provide affirming education will focus on a student’s strengths and interests, rather than the student’s deficits. When students have an opportunity to use their strengths and succeed, they feel good about themselves and remain engaged with learning, which allows them to further develop their skills and knowledge.19

Reframing Autism explains that neurodiversity affirming education occurs when students feel that their neurotype is understood, and is grounded in safe, respectful relationships with teachers and peers alike. They recommend that adopting an ethics of care approach is the best way to frame teaching so that Autistic learner’s needs can be met, behaviours be understood, and they can experience welcome and inclusion in schools.20 Ethics of care is when teachers commit to validate, respect, and accept their students’ needs, insights, and feelings, and these are considered valid, relevant, and valued. 

A neurodiversity affirming school needs to cater to the natural variability of humanity, and therefore all of its students. This can be achieved using universal design which focuses on eliminating barriers at the initial design stage by considering the needs of diverse people, rather than overcoming barriers later through individual adaptation. A universal design approach to classroom design and support means that all students, no matter what their circumstances are, can benefit from those changes. 21

An example of one teacher implementing universal design into their classroom is a maths teacher who requested that all desktops be replaced with whiteboards and a supply of whiteboard markers and erasers. This allowed students to doodle on the desk, easily erase any mistakes, and it was acceptable for students to choose to stand and do their work on a window. Then, at the end of class students would wipe down whatever space they used ready for the next class. 

This approach did not negatively impact any student who prefers a more traditional approach of sitting at their desk, but it also meant attention was not drawn to those who worked differently.

How to find the best school for neurodivergent students

There is no one best school for all Neurodivergent students, instead it is best to find a school that’s culture aligns with the needs of the individual. While some Neurodivergent students thrive within a very structured environment others need to retain their autonomy to feel safe. For students with high sensory sensitivities, it may be important for their school to be flexible regarding uniform policies or attendance at the whole school assembly. 

For this reason, it is not practical to provide a list of the best Neurodiversity Affirming Schools, however there are examples of schools implementing practices that are neurodiversity affirming and where some neurodivergent students are succeeding.

Parents have shared how some neurodivergent children thrive in the environment that Lower Plenty Primary School has created. Lower Plenty is a small public primary school with a high proportion of neurodivergent students. They focus on education for life, which not only develops rigorous academic knowledge but emotional, social, and physical wellbeing as well. Their instructional model underpinned by the ‘whole-part-whole’ methodology aims to effectively ensure all students have equal access to the educational program and engage and motivate teachers to consider how their teaching practice can best support student learning. 

A Victorian government secondary school, Templestowe College collaborates with each student on their own Individualised Learning Plan and allow students to manage their own curriculum once they have reached functional levels of literacy and numeracy. This provides a high level of student agency and freedom to explore their own passions and interests in depth, leading to exceptional levels of engagement and achievement. As the school has no year levels, students interact and collaborate within mixed age classes, and are able to undertake VCE studies at any age.22  

To find an appropriate neurodiversity affirming school for your student, first identify what their barriers to school currently are or what you anticipate they may be. This will help create a list of the most important neurodiversity affirming aspects to consider during your search. While some information may be available through information published by the school a more effective way to learn will be in speaking with the school leadership team. 

When speaking directly with the school, craft your questions carefully to help you elicit the information you need. Start the question with What/Why/When/Where/How which will result in a more comprehensive answer rather than just yes or no. For example, change the question ‘Do you offer indoor play options’ to ‘what indoor options are available to students during breaks.’ 

If you have the opportunity to speak with parents or students already involved with the school, again be specific in the questions you ask. You are less interested in if they think it’s a good or bad school, but what has given them that opinion and what that is likely to mean for your child.

Suggested questions to ask leadership

  • What is your school’s process for working collaboratively with a student’s external therapy team, especially regarding suitable accommodations or adjustments?
  • How are your staff supported to have regular consultation with students and their families as appropriate/if required?
  • What arrangements are made for students who may require a ‘sensory break’ from class? (are there suitable spaces for them to go, do they have to get permission every time)
  • Who is in the Student Wellbeing/Support Team and what training have they had regarding Autism/ADHD/Learning Disorders etc?
  • What training have staff & teachers received in trauma-informed practices or emotional regulation strategies?
  • What opportunities are there for students and families to contribute to decisions regarding school culture?
  • How do you support students who may require adjustments to positively attend camps or activities? 

Is the school neurodiversity affirming?

MaybeMaybe Not
Teachers validate and respect studentsHeavy focus on Positive Behaviour Support, or fixed beliefs regarding discipline
A demonstrated willingness of the school to collaborate with family and cliniciansUse of language that is not neurodiversity affirming
Common ‘accommodations’ are available to all students regardless of diagnosisBelief by staff that they are the experts
An understanding of the complexity regarding challenging behavioursVery little cultural diversity evident
An interest and focus on students’ strengths and passionsA strong emphasis on education attainment above all else
Ability to implement creative solutions to navigate barriers to participationFocus on students having the same experience, rather than one suitable to their needs 


When it comes to finding the most appropriate school for your neurodivergent child the main things to be aware of regarding the school itself is the leadership teams attitude towards all types of diversity, their understanding of neurodiversity and if they use affirming language, an awareness that challenging behaviours are best managed by collaborating with the student rather than with staff dictated responses, and teachers who value students’ strengths and passions. Then consider the needs of your child and what type of environment and ethos will provide the support that will help your child flourish.

Remember you are looking for the best school for your child, which will be different for different students in the same way that Neurodivergent Individuals all have different challenges and abilities.


  1. https://yourmindmatters.net.au/a-neurodiversity-affirming-approach-what-is-it-and-how-can-it-support-your-children/ ↩︎
  2. https://theeducationhub.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Neurodiversity-An-overview.pdf ↩︎
  3. https://www.adhdaustralia.org.au/about-adhd/ ↩︎
  4. https://kidshelpline.com.au/teens/issues/understanding-autism ↩︎
  5. https://medvidi.com/blog/types-of-neurodiversity ↩︎
  6. Saggers B, Klug D, Harper-Hill K, Ashburner J, Costley D, Clark T, Bruck S, Trembath D, Webster AA & Carrington S, 2018, ‘Australian autism educational needs analysis – What are the needs of schools, parents and students on the autism spectrum?’ Full report and executive summary, version 2. Cooperative Research Centre for Living with Autism, Brisbane  ↩︎
  7. Kurt S, 2022, ‘Behaviorism: Key Terms, History, Theorists, Criticisms, and Implications for Teaching’. Educational Technology, https://educationaltechnology.net/behaviorism-key-terms-history-theorists-criticisms-and-implications-for-teaching/ ↩︎
  8. Reframing Autism, ‘WA Education Inquiry Into Support for Autistic Children and Young People in Schools’, https://reframingautism.org.au/wa-education-inquiry-into-support-for-autistic-children-and-young-people-in-schools/ ↩︎
  9. Education Today, 2020, ‘Disabled students face exclusion from education’, https://www.educationtoday.com.au/news-detail/Disabled-students-face-exclusion-from-education-5101 ↩︎
  10. https://www.amaze.org.au/creating-change/research/community-attitudes-education/
  11. Tape S, 2023, Disappointment and discrimination: CYDA’s surveys of the learning experiences of children and young people with disability, Children and Young People with Disability Australia, https://apo.org.au/node/323925 ↩︎
  12. Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability 2023, Final Report: Volume 7 – Inclusive Education, Employment and Housing, https://disability.royalcommission.gov.au/publications/final-report-volume-7-inclusive-education-employment-and-housing ↩︎
  13. Disappointment and discrimination: CYDA’s surveys of the learning experiences of children and young people with disability (ix) ↩︎
  14. https://reframingautism.org.au/emotional-regulation-part-one-what-is-it-and-why-is-it-so-hard/
  15. https://neurodivergentinsights.com/blog/the-power-of-sensory-regulation ↩︎
  16. Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability 2023, Final Report: Volume 7 – Inclusive Education, Employment and Housing, https://disability.royalcommission.gov.au/publications/final-report-volume-7-inclusive-education-employment-and-housing  ↩︎
  17. Centre for Social Impact (CSI), 2023, ‘New research reveals leadership practices to improve school community wellbeing’, https://www.csi.edu.au/news/new-research-reveals-leadership-practices-to-improve-school-community-wellbeing/ ↩︎
  18. Friskney, R., Tisdall, E.K.M. & Aitken, D. (2019). Communication matters: Three scoping studies about the experiences of children with learning difficulties, and their families, in Scotland. Salvesen Mindroom Centre and University of Edinburgh. Edinburgh. ↩︎
  19. Using a strengths-based approach to help students realize their potential. 2022. https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/60088/using-a-strengths-based-approach-to-help-students-realize-their-potential ↩︎
  20. https://reframingautism.org.au/service/i-am-an-educator/ ↩︎
  21. Neurodiversity-affirmative education: why and how? 2022. https://www.bps.org.uk/psychologist/neurodiversity-affirmative-education-why-and-how
  22.  https://hundred.org/en/innovations/templestowe-college ↩︎

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