Learning Differences, not Disabilities

Cool Brain Hall of Fame to help children understand and appreciate learning differences.
Sep 7, 2023
Tourette syndrome hasn't hindered Billie Eilish's career.

We all learn in different ways and kids need to be taught that while they might see or perceive things differently they are not alone and it definitely isn’t a barrier to succeeding.

Many prominent people have overcome their learning differences, celebrated contemporary figures like Greta Thunberg (climate change activist, autistic), Billie Eilish (pop singer, Tourette syndrome), Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter actor, dyspraxia), Pharrell Williams (pop singer, synesthesia) and Dav Pilkey (author of the popular children’s book series Captain Underpants, ADHD/dyslexia) are all people who learn differently.

Sharing the real-life stories of these actors, authors, musicians, scientists and others will help challenge the attitudes of children towards learning differences in a new program being developed by Flinders University researchers, the Cool Brain Hall of Fame.

Dr Amy Wyatt from Flinders University says, “While the stories of these people are available online, we want to present them in way best suited to engaging children, that clearly showcases the value of neurodiversity.”

About 15-20% of South Australian children have a learning difference such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, autism or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), yet these kids are one of the largest marginalised cohorts in schools - at risk of discrimination and harassment, which impacts their mental health, school attendance and learning outcomes.

“Although policies exist to ensure the physical inclusion of students with a disability in mainstream schools, there is an urgent need for novel strategies to improve their social inclusion,” says Dr Wyatt.

“Research shows that embedding relevant knowledge about disability in school communities reduces peer-discrimination, but programs to combat stigma against learning differences are not commonplace in primary schools.

“We are working to develop and evaluate an innovative peer-based de-stigmatisation program that has the potential to promote inclusivity and enhance self-esteem in primary school children. This will translate into better psychological and educational outcomes for children with learning differences and has the potential to improve their quality-of-life across their lifespan.”

The project team will work with the award-winning Flinders University Digital Media team to bring “The Cool Brain Hall of Fame” to life as an animated series, developed with the help of children with a learning difference.

“We want children aged 7-11 years to help us develop an animation series that talks about having unique learning strengths and  challenges. An engaging animation series that normalises this will promote more inclusive school environments and increase self-esteem in children,” says Dr Wyatt.

Participation will involve children attending a fun one-hour focus group session conducted by researchers at Flinders University. Each participant will receive a $10 gift card, and will be given the option of being acknowledged as a co-developer in the animation credits.

Once completed, the animation series will be presented by teachers in SA schools, with Flinders researchers recording students’ attitudes towards learning differences before and after watching the animation series.

“Due to the simplicity of our program, which does not rely on teachers having specialised skills or knowledge to implement, it’s plausible that our program could be made widely available to Australian primary school children,” says Dr Wyatt.

This research represents the first analysis of South Australian children’s attitudes towards learning differences.

“We believe that providing young school children with access to an engaging, age-appropriate educational resource that draws on relevant examples from popular culture and popular occupations will reduce the tendency of children to devalue and exclude children with a perceived learning difference - and increase self-esteem in children with a formally identified learning difference.”

This projects compliments work Dr Wyatt is doing with the Flinders Neurodivergent Study Support and Advocacy group (FNSSA) that is currently presenting an art exhibition at Flinders Medical Centre as a part of the Arts in Health gallery Program on the Promenade Gallery  (running August- 22nd September 2023). The collective, established at Flinders University in 2021, has swiftly gathered over 300 members - and while not all of them are studying creative disciplines or intend to move into creative professions, they all have deep personal connections to making art.

“I see creative pursuits as fundamentally important to wellbeing and self-expression, and so I want to provide neurodivergent youth with opportunities to showcase their creativity and strengthen connections between the neurodivergent community and the community at large,” says Dr Wyatt, who believes that more initiatives such as this will challenge the stigma associated with conditions such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia - and shine light on the value of neurodiversity.

Image Source ALTer EGO 1/18/2020 Author Justin Higuchi, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creative_Commons