In the past few years, educators and education advocates have put a robust focus on equitable access and representation in STEM fields for disadvantaged groups, such as girls or students of color. Maker education has been on the front lines in creating these innovative spaces and programs that focus on bridging this gap. And maker education can do the same thing for students with neurological differences.
A Range of Unique Abilities
Neurodiversity is a term which recognizes the variability in brain development among humans. Instead of focusing on the differences between brain types, neurodiversity celebrates the strengths and gifts for an individual while recognizing the challenges which arise with a neurological difference.
The population of students with acknowledged neurological differences has increased greatly in the past decade, and educators are seeing a greater neurodiversity in their classrooms every day. We can create inclusive, powerful classrooms of learning for all brain types when we understand and embrace the strengths and challenges that our students with neurological differences are facing.
Students on the autism spectrum bring an incredible set of gifts into a makerspace. Need a teammate who lives and breathes computer programming, woodworking, or leathercraft? Students on the autism spectrum can present with highly-focused attention on preferred activities. Need a student to challenge your assumptions? Need a student who can recall everything there is to know about a particular microcontroller or programming language? Students on the autism spectrum who have an affinity for making will bring a questioning and curiosity about conventional thinking and a strong recall of factual information. Recognizing these gifts, and leveraging them by providing these students with respectful team roles that exploit these strengths, will build confidence and social connections.
Students on the autism spectrum also have challenges. Often, they have high anxiety in social situations. Educators can help by modeling and moderating collaborative conversations between learners. Students on the autism spectrum can also be adversely affected by visual, auditory, and olfactory clutter as a benchmark of their neurodiversity. When this occurs, stimuli flood their senses with overwhelming amounts of information and might cause a student to shut down, become agitated, or remain constantly distracted. Educators can reexamine their makerspaces (often wild and creative spheres) with an eye toward mitigating this potential challenge for a neurodiverse student population.
Leveraging Strengths and Managing Challenges
Makerspaces offer students with Tourette Syndrome a rare opportunity to discover a variety of interests -- and the opportunity to discover their "thing." Tourette Syndrome is a neurological difference characterized by repetitive movements and vocalizations called tics. Students with Tourette often find that intense flow states during some physical and mental activities, such as playing an instrument, sports, or making, will lessen their tics and make them manageable or negligible. A former student of mine found his flow state while cutting out intricate shapes with a scroll saw, even though he had intense tics involving his hands. Making offered him a place to shine. This replicable example featured the educator and student support team working with peers to explicitly teach inclusion and tolerance of differences while helping the student with Tourette normalize and manage his tics.
Students with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder bring many gifts into a makerspace. My students with ADHD are project butterflies, generating idea after idea after idea, bouncing between and contributing to team after team. These young people bring boundless energy, excellent problem-solving skills, and non-linear thinking. Instead of developing rigid classroom objectives and routines, I've added project-based and station-based approaches to my teaching to best capture the attention of my students with ADHD, and best channel their productivity. I can help them find success, not by buttressing or developing their weaknesses, but by leveraging their strengths.
Leveraging strengths and managing the challenges are two keys to running a successful makerspace (or any classroom, really) with neurodiverse learners. Different brains bring different and exciting strengths into the makerspaces, and educators must utilize these gifts to build their students' competence and confidence. By examining our classroom structure, practicing empathy, and problem solving with our colleagues and students, we can manage the impact that challenging behaviors may have in the makerspace. In creating inclusive spaces for young people, we model the inclusivity we want for our students as adults.