Embracing divergent pathways of development

Author: Kerry Murphy - Lecturer in Early Years & SEND at Goldsmiths, University of London
Her Royal Highness The Princess of Wales at a play session for families and children with special educational needs.
Her Royal Highness The Princess of Wales at a play session for families and children with special educational needs.

It is an undeniable fact that the landscape of early childhood has changed dramatically since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Along with the increasing numbers of children being identified as having Special Educational Needs or Disabilities (SEND), developmental diversity itself has become more salient.

This raises a fundamental question: Are these perceived delays solely a consequence of the disruptive and adverse experiences brought about by the pandemic, or has this significant shift in our way of life challenged conventional notions of what typical child development should resemble? Along with a surge in speech, language, and communication needs, it is also important to note that waiting lists in the NHS are currently considered unsustainable for a range of neurodevelopmental differences, including Autism, Social Communication and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) (NHS England, 2023).

Essentially, the differences and needs identified in children are not always short-term or easily remedied by traditional early intervention methods but are indicators of lifelong differences. Understanding the distinction between a delay and difference in early childhood is crucial in ensuring that our support is compatible with the child’s unique developmental pathway. Unfortunately, in our existing systems, the emphasis is frequently placed on delays, potentially fostering the misconception that any development that diverges from what is typical is considered a problem that needs correcting. This essay aims to unpack some of the issues with these systems and offer a more hopeful narrative for embracing diverse child development. It is also a plea that if training and upskilling the early years workforce is considered vital, it must be informed by new ways of thinking about differences and disabilities.

Problems or learners? Deconstructing SEND

In the context of the 0-25 Special Educational Needs and Disability Code of Practice (SEND) (DfE, 2015), SEND is an umbrella term for children experiencing learning difficulties and disabilities. Children are defined as SEND when they are not meeting educational and developmental age-related expectations and are considered to be experiencing greater difficulties accessing educational opportunities compared to other children their age. Typically developing children are deemed ideal, whilst any child that falls beyond this is labelled “special”. Furthermore, children are grouped in age phases across both early childhood and primary education, including autumn-born (oldest) and summer-born (youngest) children within the same cohort. It is common for younger children in a cohort to be labelled as SEND regardless of differing maturity levels and the wide span of our age-related expectations.

There is a strong argument that the definition of SEND is not currently fit for purpose and situates the problem firmly within the child, promoting a deficit model of child development. The view that negative perceptions arise from the term and usage of SEND has been examined by Heiskanen, Alasuutari and Vehkakoski (2019). They argue that using language that portrays children as deficient leads to wider practices that attempt to normalise rather than to understand and appropriately attune to children’s differences (Millward et al., 2002). The advice from Heiskanen et al. (2019) is to reposition children traditionally identified as SEND from problems back to learners. Some ways in which we can engage in this repositioning is to unpack how we talk about children and to move towards humanising language:

  • Remember that SEN(D) is not a diagnosis
    An issue that persists in education is the misconception that SEND is a diagnosis. Special Educational Needs and Disability is a policy-driven term designed to assist educators and health professionals in identifying and supporting children who are not on track. Still, it is not a diagnosis, nor should it be a permanently fixed label. While originally intended as an effective euphemism to create more positive attitudes towards developmental differences and disabilities, it is now considered offensive to many disabled and neurodivergent people due to its stigmatising nature (Gernsbacher, Raymond, Balinghasay and Boston, 2016). We should use specific terminology or refer to neurodiversity and disability-affirming language. For example, “the child is autistic” rather than special needs, or “there is an emerging neurodivergence”.

  • Asking about children’s differences, as well as difficulties

    Imagine the conversation shift if we were to ask parents of neurodivergent and disabled children, “how does your child do it differently?” rather than “What are your child’s delays?”. This language shift acknowledges that we sometimes see a child’s development purely through a deficit lens when it may be a gateway to one of their lifelong differences. For example, rather than focusing solely on the delay in the spoken language of a non-speaking child, we might show curiosity about their other preferred forms of communication, such as visuals, signs or the use of technology.

  • Talk about traits, not just symptoms

    Diagnosis is currently underpinned by a medicalised model of disability, meaning that children are assessed using diagnostic criteria and lists of symptoms via the Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5 (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). This often translates into our educational practice, where we, too, view children’s traits as symptoms. For example, we may interpret autistic play as “repetitive and restrictive” and label it as an autistic symptom rather than understanding it as a valid autistic trait. This is not to say that symptoms do not exist, but sole reliance on symptoms can limit our perceptions of differences and disabilities. It is, therefore, crucial that we draw upon other models of disability and human difference.

Neurodiversity and Developmental Diversity

The Neurodiversity Paradigm challenges the current dominant idea that to be different is to be a problem. The core idea behind neurodiversity is that human difference is a biological fact (Walker, 2014). It aims to challenge the notion that having a mind or body that falls outside the socially constructed ideas of “normal” means that it should automatically be seen as a deficiency, condition, delay, illness, disorder, or impairment. Neurodiversity adopts a neutral standpoint, acknowledging that differences and difficulties are an inevitable part of life. It does not deny the existence of challenges, a commonly held misconception. Neurodiversity encourages a more balanced, compassionate and curious perspective. It draws upon aspects of the social model of disability, which argues that disability emerges not from the individual but from the inadequate structures and systems of the environment and society (Dwyer, 2022). For example, in an early childhood environment, a disabled child may be denied a place in a setting because there is no access to training and support for specific disabilities. This occurrence is not infrequent and highlights the need for a collective commitment to move towards neurodiversity and disability-affirming education that holds to account the institutions responsible for designing, funding and implementing support.

Neuroaffirmative Education

While neurodiversity takes a neutral standpoint, work must be done to unlearn deficit perspectives towards developmental differences. In recent years, neurodiversity-affirming education has been encouraged, which “caters to the naturally occurring variability of humanity” (Aitken and Fletcher-Watson, 2022, n.p). The premise of this approach is that our early childhood spaces are not a “one size fits all” but instead should adapt to various strengths, differences and needs. Early childhood education has some strong foundations for providing this, such as promoting child-led play and the principles of the unique child (DfE, 2012). Still, it must be acknowledged that neuro-affirmative inclusion practices are not always afforded to those who would benefit most due to the pressures of enforcing neurotypicalism on children who diverge in their development. For example, neurodivergent children are often deprived of the aforementioned child-led play to participate in adult-directed play-based interventions that aim to train them to behave in more socially acceptable ways. Thankfully, educators, therapists and specialists are increasingly rejecting this form of early intervention in favour of following children’s unique interests and ways of being. We must continue to raise awareness and understanding if we are to move on from the problematising of children, their development and, in this case, their play. Some other ways in which we can make radical shifts towards neuro-affirmative early education include:

  • Adapt and expand developmental expectations.
    If we refer to the current documentation that outlines early childhood development, we will find that it largely promotes neurotypical and non-disabled ways of being. Development that falls beyond this is described in several ways; for example, it may be referred to as a “red flag” or “checkpoint”, encouraging us to assess children’s development for signs of normalcy and conformity to typical milestones. However, we are increasingly seeing neurodivergent and disability-led research offering new insights and perspectives about the diversity of human development. For example, there has been a growing body of non-pathologising knowledge within autism research regarding the theory of Monotropism. This is defined as the tendency to be pulled deeply into interests, making it harder to switch and allocate attention across different tasks (Murray, 2018). For early years educators, this will likely resonate with many children, especially in how they play, but it is particularly relevant to those on autistic and other neurodivergent pathways. Autistic activist Helen Edgar (Autistic Realms) states that honouring children’s monotropic flow states can benefit wellbeing and engagement and reduce the pressures often placed on autistic children. From an early year’s perspective, it is yet another reason to promote uninterrupted periods of child-led play.

  • Follow Beardon’s Golden equation (autism + environment = outcome) (2021)
    While Beardon (2016) focuses on autism in his equation, it is easily transferrable to other neurotypes and disabilities. At its core, it is about recognising that the environment must be flexible and transient enough to adapt to human differences and cultivate meaningful outcomes. Neurodivergent and disabled children are often expected to tolerate and exist in spaces not designed for them. For example, a child may be expected to follow along with whole-body listening rules for circle time or be expected to tolerate sensory stressors within the environment. Early years environments belong to the child, so they should ideally match the strengths, differences and needs through dynamic and varied practices. Small changes such as reviewing the sensory impact of space or reframing practices to include all children can make the difference between fitting-in or belonging.

  • Access training and support from neurodivergent and disabled people along with well-informed accomplices
    To make radical shifts towards neuro-affirmative education, we need to access training and professional development opportunities from people who advocate from a lived experience perspective. This will also enable early years settings to draw upon intersectional factors and to consider the multi-faceted experience of neurodivergence and disability. For example, considering the intersection of racialised identity and disability or class and neurodivergence. The wider the scope of perspectives we draw on, the closer we become to being truly neurodiversity and disability informed.


As we look ahead to our changing landscapes in early childhood, we can now choose to change direction. It is time to move on from the idea that every child is travelling down the same developmental pathway and, instead, embrace that there are off-beaten tracks to be discovered. We can reject the idea that there is a universal “right” childhood and instead recognise the vast and beautiful assortment of childhood(s) that exist within our early years. It is time.


  • Aitken, D and Fletcher-Watson, S. (2022). Neurodiversity-Affirmative Education: Why and How?. British Psychological Association. Available at: https://www.bps.org.uk/psychologist/neurodiversity-affirmative-education-why-and-how (Accessed 26 September 2023)

  • American Psychiatric Association (2013) Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. 5th edn. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Publishing.

  • Beardon, L., 2020. Avoiding anxiety in autistic children: a guide for autistic wellbeing. Hachette UK.

  • Department for Education and Department of Health (2015) Special educational needs and disability code of practice: 0 to 25 years. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/send-code-of-practice-0-to-25 (Accessed: 25 March 2021).

  • Department for Education, 2012. Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage. Runcorn: Department for Education.

  • Edgar, H., 2023. Embracing autistic children’s monotropic flow states. Neurodiverse Connections. Available at: https://ndconnection.co.uk/blog/embracing-autistic-childrens-monotropic-flow-states (Accessed: 26 September 2023)

  • Edgar, H., 2023. Monotropism and The Monotropism Questionnaire. Neurodiverse Connections. Available at: https://ndconnection.co.uk/blog/monotropism-and-the-monotropism-questionnaire (Accessed: 26 September 2023)

  • Heiskanen, N., Alasuutari, M. and Vehkakoski, T., 2018. Positioning children with special educational needs in early childhood education and care documents. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 39(6), pp.827-843.

  • Hens, K. and Van Goidsenhoven, L., 2023. Developmental diversity: Putting the development back into research about developmental conditions. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 13, p.2994.

  • Millward, A., Riddell, S., Banks, P., Baynes, A., Dyson, A., Kane J. & Wilson A., (2002). Individualised Education Programmes: Part 1: a literature review. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs NASEN, 2 (3).

  • Murray, D., Lesser, M. and Lawson, W., 2005. Attention, monotropism and the diagnostic criteria for autism. Autism, 9(2), pp.139-156.

  • NHS England., 2023. A national framework to deliver improved outcomes in all-age autism assessment pathways: guidance for integrated care boards. Available at: https://www.england.nhs.uk/long-read/a-national-framework-to-deliver-improved-outcomes-in-all-age-autism-assessment-pathways-guidance-for-integrated-care-boards/ (Accessed: 26 September 2023)

  • Walker, N., 2014. What is autism. The Real Experts: Readings for Parents of Autistic Children; Sutton, M., Ed, pp.11-12.