On Neurodivergent Students
As a vocal coach for the past fifteen years, I’ve worked with dozens of students diagnosed with ADHD/ADD and/or who reside on the autism spectrum. I see their daily struggle to work within the systems that are in place and I also see the creativity they bring in having had to learn to how to adapt on the fly to situations that vex them for various reasons. In spite of their challenges, the neurodivergent are capable of operating on a more sophisticated level than typical students, especially when it comes to their relationship to music, but in light of our society’s conventions, they’re more often labelled dysfunctional than exceptional. As anyone who loves a neurodivergent person will tell you, our limited assessments where they are concerned are wrong-headed, and long overdue for a more enlightened paradigm shift.
It strikes me as incorrect that neurodivergent people are perceived as being ‘difficult’ when they are noncompliant. I’ve learned to give them benefit of the doubt when they aren’t responding as I’d hoped they would because I’ve discovered that when I’m flexible, they often come up with a way forward that works well for them, and we meet the goal we’re striving for ultimately. When I adjust my way of thinking and exercise patience with their process, we’ve had remarkable results. What I appreciate most about having had these students is that they’ve opened my eyes to fresh possibilities for making music. I’ve also learned in unexpected ways.
Neurodivergent students often look off to the side, avoiding direct eye contact, when I make recommendations, because they’re better able to absorb what I’m saying by making this adjustment. Some might take this glance away as distracted or even disrespectful, but I’ve come to see it as strategic and clever. There’s no denying that the extreme sensitivity of neurodivergent students presents ongoing challenges, but it also makes their creative potential extraordinary. By practicing how to shift from reactivity, to response-ability, and by slowing down so they have time to exercise control over how they move through a given situation, their way of being in the world can become a superpower, not the liability it so often appears to be, especially in the school system, which is often a brutally indifferent environment for anyone who doesn’t fit into the limited learning models currently in place.