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Neurodiversity and Educational Trauma

Let me start with a quick definition. The term “Educational Trauma” comes from the work of Dr Kristin Olsen.  In short, it is the long emotional response to harmful or hurtful practices perpetuated by teachers and administrators on students.  This pain is often carried into adulthood.  I have yet to meet a neurodiverse adult who does not have trauma responses due to the harm done either intentionally or unintentionally by the school experience.  Here is where mine began.


This is what Educational Trauma looks like.

I went back to the states for a few weeks after my sister had a baby.  I don’t get to help with my mom as much as I’d like.  So, I decided to help clean out the garage.  We found boxes that had not been unpacked since we moved from Mississippi in 1999 after my dad died!

One of these boxes was full of paperwork.  Amongst the old taxes and once-important documents, we found my first-grade report card.  “What a treasure!” was my first reaction.  I was a smart kid in the top set.  I thought it would be fun to read the old comments from a 1980s first-grade teacher.  Within 3 minutes, my mother and I were both in tears.

Back in the 1980s, girls did not have ADHD.  Certainly, smart girls didn’t have it.  This paper which is the only documented evidence of my education included comments like this:

“Gwen isn’t even trying with her spelling.”

“We had to tape Gwen to her desk several times this six-week term.  She will not stay at her desk.”

“Gwen is just lazy.”

“Gwen will not stop talking in Science.  She needs to know when she should be quiet about what she knows.”

“Gwen is not meeting her potential.”

Y’all, I was 6 years old and the youngest kid in that class.  As in most schools, the decision made about me by my first-grade teacher followed me.  Each teacher weaponised the same words and their synonyms as I progressed.  By 6th grade, I learned how important it was to make myself smaller.  I learned that if I tanked my grades, I didn’t have to attend the gifted programme where I was relentlessly teased.  I learned how to hide at recess to cope with the intense anxiety I had about being judged.  I became a master at faking an asthma attack.

You see, kids pick up on what adults put down.  When a teacher rolls their eyes at you, students pile on.  When a teacher looks at you with derision, kids take that as a cue to attack and exclude.  There was no celebration of diversity.  Instead, there was a “let the herd take care of it” mentality.  If we make things difficult for Gwen, she will learn and conform.  Strangely, being in a state of fight, flight or freeze for 6 hours per day does not yield to learning social skills.


The 7 types of educational trauma

There are 7 types of educational trauma and I have experienced them all.  Here’s what they looked like for me.

Wounds of creativity

This occurs when unique creativity is stifled and even punished.  I was forced to stay in from recess because I coloured a vegetable garden that would be appealing to dragons.  Purple carrots and blue lettuce were not OK.  Compliance is more important than creativity.

Wounds of rebellion

This involves punishing a child for questioning or not following arbitrary rules.  Like many ND people, I have a strong sense of justice.  When I saw one child being punished for something another child got away with, I asked why.  It wasn’t disobedience.  I needed to understand the unfairness.  For this, I was taken into a room and paddled (that’s hit with a wooden paddle for those who didn’t grow up in a time when teachers hit kids to help them learn) for being disrespectful.

Wounds of compliance

These wounds refer to a state of learned helplessness, where individuals may feel that they must comply with authority figures in order to survive or avoid punishment.  As an accidental rebel, I tried so hard to comply where I could.  I wanted teachers to like me.  So, when a teacher told me I needed to talk less or boys wouldn’t like me, I did my best.  I’d try to tamp down my intellect and natural competitiveness so boys would like me.  Guess what, it worked.  The boys liked who I was becoming.  But, I hated myself.  I couldn’t keep this up.  So, the subservient affect left, but the self-hatred stayed.

Wounds of numbness

Many ND people report a sense of zoning out or numbness in school.  Masking who I was and pretending to be what I was supposed to be was exhausting.  By the end of the day or even certain classes, I would zone out and lean into my inattentiveness to cope.  I’d detach from my learning and the learning space.  It didn’t matter if I excelled as long as I got the marks.  This lack of intellectual stimulation caused me to detach from academics as I got older.  No one wanted to hear the info bomb of my hyper-focus of the week.  So what did I do?  I just stopped caring and engaging with my academics.

Wounds of perfectionism

This one is very misunderstood.  As a student who is identified as a high achiever, the pressure is intense.  Anything less than an A is a failure.  The other side of this is that nothing is an achievement.  In my younger years, if I got a 99 on a test, I would cry and wonder where the other point was.  It turned into a lifelong battle of a game we have coined ”Find the Flaw”.  When you are expected to achieve, you never feel a sense of accomplishment.  How can you possibly celebrate the status quo?

Wounds of underestimation

Many ND adults report being underestimated because of a part of their intersectionality.  Whether it is race, gender or socioeconomic status, assumptions are made that limit.  For me, it was being a girl.  In 5th grade, I wanted to play football.  I loved the running and crashing and hyper-competitive nature of the sport.  Plus, my father played pro.  It was in my blood.  Unfortunately, girls do not play football.  Girls are cheerleaders.  Y’all, this was not a sport meant for me.  I am not coordinated enough to pull off what those athletes do.  So, I had a term of being made fun of for being awkward…again…rather than getting to play a sport, I would have dominated at 10.

Wounds of average

This is the student who is in the middle.  They neither excel nor fail.  They become invisible.  I used this idea for my benefit.  I was bullied in my gifted and talented class.  However, I learned that if I earned a C in a 6-week term, I had to sit out for 6 weeks to get my grades back up.  Guess what happened.  I magically scored a C in spelling every term.  I was doing great in my other classes.  But, no one challenged it.

If these are the stories I feel safe sharing, you can only imagine what I keep locked in the vault.  I could give you a slew of words weaponised against me.  Gwen is not meeting her potential.  Gwen is a space cadet.  Gwen is flaky.  Gwen is irresponsible.  Gwen should know better.  Gwen is lazy, talkative or needlessly defiant.

When we talk about celebrating and understanding neurodiversity this week, it is important to remember that not all of our struggles are innate.  Many of the obstacles we have had to overcome were put in our path by people who value conformity and compliance over everything else.  These wounds of educational trauma still show up for me years later

If we are to do better with our neurodivergent children, we need to learn from the past.  This includes wrongs done by possibly well-intentioned, but definitely uninformed educators.   We need to focus less on the “supposed tos” and more on the other ways of showing up.  We need to define success in ways that make it appealing rather than a moving target impossible to reach.  Most importantly, we need to meet children where they are with a message of, “I see you.  You’re safe here.  Let’s find a way to help you thrive.”