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Neurodiversity and Learning Theory

Ms Stonick draws from her own experience with her Autistic son to highlight parallels between Neurdoiversity and Development Theories

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Part 1 of 3: Touching on some Child and Learning Theorists and how it relates to Neurodiversity in children. Drawing on Psychology and Development study and personal experiences,

Beth and Chris

Beth and son, Chris, celebrate World Autism Day

Beth and son, Chris, celebrate World Autism Day

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Neurodiversity Finds Its Roots in Child Development and Learning Theory

by: Elizabeth Stonick, PFAP

Neurodiversity has become a word frequently bandied about when we talk about schooling, acceptance, psychology and workplace integration. What is Neurodiversity and why is it so important?

Before we can effectively talk about Neurodiversity, we have to take a quick trip through some elements of Child and Learning Development Theory.

The first person to tackle Child Development was Sigmund Freud. We won’t spend a lot of time looking at Freud’s theories as they tend to be entrenched in varying degrees of Sexual Fixation, but suffice it to say that he did have a working theory as to the development of the young psyche. The one great failure of Freud, however- without picking apart the practicality of his theories- is that he developed his theories only through the first few years of young childhood.

Following in Freud’s footsteps, next Erik Erikson developed his own theory. His theory began at birth and talks about Trust Stages, how Crisis helps develop the individual and Self Identity develops during the teen years. His theory is also the first to cover the entire life span from birth to death.

With the turn of the Twentieth Century, Child Development Theory saw a dramatic upturn in interest. Several different types of theory have emerged over the last 100 years.

BF Skinner, Ivan Pavlov and John B. Watson all were of the school of thought that all behaviors are learned. This theory of development and learning is known as Behaviorism. Pillars of Behaviorism are Operant and Classical Conditioning which are defined by learning, punishment and reward, and reinforcement as methods of encouraging and repeating or eliminating or extinguishing certain behaviors.

Jean Piaget gave us one of the first Cognitive Development Theories.

Piaget’s theory consisted of Four Stages, each with a different way a child looks at himself and how he learns from others and the world around him. Piaget happens to be one of my persoanl favorite theorists because he was the first person to determine that children think (and thereby learn) differently than adults.

Like Piaget, Lev Vygotsky developed a theory that children learn through hands-on experiences and identified the Zone of Proximal Learning- that magic space between the ability a child has to do an activity with help from another and the ability to do it successfully for themselves. Another favorite of mine.

Albert Bandura developed what is now known as Social Learning Theory whereby children learn and develop not only from the environment around them but also from intrinsic reinforcements such as pride and self worth.

So, what, exactly is the point? More importantly, is there ONLY one theory that is correct and all the others incorrect?

Ultimately, the answer is no. There is not a single theory that fits every single person. Why? We were all designed uniquely and individually. Hence, Neurodiversity.

So now that we have some history and theory under our belts, let’s take a brief look at Neurodiversity itself.

What, exactly, is Neurodiversity?

According to learningenglishwithoxford.com, Neurodiversity refers to the range of differences in brain function and behavioral traits among all humans with the paradigm that the atypical ways of thinking and behaving are in fact part of the normal range of human thought and behavior.

Chew on that for a just a moment. Effectively we are saying that no two people behave or think the same. Think of your friends, family members, coworkers, acquaintances. Think about how they behave, how they respond in situations, how they think about certain things. None of them are exactly the same, are they? Of course not.

So let’s take that one step further.

Neurodiversity has come to be synonymous with children- and adults- who are “neurodiverse.” Didn’t see that coming, did you? Ok. I get it. I am referring to individuals who tend to display thoughts or behaviors a bit outside the “norm.” These individuals may- or may not- be diagnosed with a learning disability or mental health related diagnosis. They may be diagnosed as being a person on the Autism Spectrum or having ADHD or Dyslexia. They may be the “late bloomers,” quirky, or just seem a little different. Neurodiversity casts a wide net.

Are you able to see the overlap between Neurodiversity and Childhood Learning Development Theory yet? No? It’s ok. We will get there.

Each child develops a little differently. Most children reach accepted Milestones within accepted age ranges. When they don’t, there may be a reason other than simply being a “late bloomer.” Development, of course, refers to physical, emotional, psychological and social development.

Most five year old boys are fairly social. They enjoy playing with each other- be it rough housing, playing tag or PeeWee Sports. They may be able to read by the time they enter Kindergarten, but certainly by the end of it. They make friends. They have a general concept of right and wrong. They know the difference between strangers and family or friends. They can speak well enough and some may even be hyperverbal.

My son, CJ was an exception to many “rules of thumb” from the minute he arrived. He smiled at three hours old. He was holding his head up at 2 days and sat up and rolled over all before 3 months old. He crawled at 5 months. He said three words on his five month birthday with almost no preverbal cooing or noises.

That is where his “normal” ends. CJ was an incredibly clingy baby and refused to be bottle fed. He needed to be held all the time. He hated being in his swing or exersaucer. He hated self entertaining. He hated naps… or sleeping as a general rule. This was a total shock to myself and his dad because our daughter had been such a breeze. Jo had been the most easy going baby. She was born happy with a smile (I’m not kidding. She was happy to simply look around and the nurse had to pinch her to get her to cry so I would stop panicking that I couldn’t hear my baby cry!) She sat early, spoke early, loved self entertaining and regularly fell asleep in her swing or the exersaucer.

CJ adored his sister very early on (she is three years his senior) and skipped the Parallel Play stage of development and went straight to Interactive Play. Once he knew how to crawl, he refused to learn to walk until long after his first birthday. His first words? Just those first three for many months and no desire or hint that he was capable of anything more. When he finally spoke again, it was in full, properly articulated sentences. I must admit, we were a bit baffled.

CJ had horrible trouble being left alone. I had to stay with him in the nursery at Church because he would howl relentlessly when I left him with anyone else. He obsessed over certain toys, even at a young age. He hated sharing or waiting his turn. He couldn’t sit still.

As he grew, it became very evident that CJ was incredibly limited in the foods he would eat. He couldn’t maintain eye contact. He had several sensory issues with tags, socks, underwear, particular weather, showers and loud noises.

We spent the first three years of CJ’s life jumping through hoops trying to avoid anything and everything that could trigger epic meltdowns and bouts of self injury. He was downright exhausting!

His troubles didn’t smooth when he hit nursery school either. His teacher was experienced in teaching kids with “sensory issues” so she managed with him fairly well through the year, although not without a few major events. She also mentioned that if, in a year or two he was still having some of the same issues, to look into getting him evaluated.

Then he went to Kindergarten.

And Life, as we knew it, careened out of control.

Up to this point, I had done everything I could think of, based in my knowledge of Child Development Theory, to help both my kids along their ways. We ensured both kids had unfettered access to both of us at any time to encourage bonding and trust (Erikson) We talked to both the kids all the time knowing that if they keep hearing language modeled, they would eventually repeat it. (Piaget and Vygotsky) We exposed them to play dates with other children to encourage proper socialization. (Bandura)

We did our best to “implement” as much of our knowledge of Development and Learning Theory as possible. Yet, our two children, raised in identical circumstances with identical access to both parents, developed very differently. Diversely.

So how does CJ’s story end? Considering he is only 10 at the time of the writing of this article, we can’t say for sure.


CJ has been evaluated. He has Autism Spectrum Disorder, Anxieties, Sensory Processing Disorders and undiagnosed Learning Disorders. We do know he does much better in a Self Contained classroom with a Paraprofessional. At home, he has an Emotional Support Animal and there are discussions about bringing in a Service Dog. We are looking at private schools designed specifically for kids like CJ where he can thrive and bloom into a wonderful young man.

Development happens at every stage of our lives. Neurodiversity happens as development changes us into the individuals we are. All the elements in and around us come together in the moments of Life and shape us into who and what we are.

Each one of us is Unique. Diverse.

More coming soon!

This is only the first of three articles on this topic. More coming soon!

Theorists and Their Big Contributions

A Comparison of Development and Learning Theorists

TheoristType of TheoryConcepts



Stunted development leads to Frustrtion



Trust Stages



Children learning differently than adults



Zone of Proximal Learning

BF Skinner


Skinner Boxes

John Watson



Ivan Pavlov


Classical Conditioning

Albert Bandura


Intrinsic reinforcement effects Development

Beth and Chris

Celebrations at school always bring smiles - and sometimes eye contact!

Celebrations at school always bring smiles - and sometimes eye contact!

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