Neurodiversity – Not a Disability

By Rahida Aini, Rachel Yeoh, Sheryl Teoh

September 2022 FEATURE
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The children are exposed to general knowledge and music.

DRIVEN BY THE fear that Catherine De Padua’s Down syndrome daughter may hamper the academic progress of the Year 1 (Standard 1) class, the parents of children in the class held a petition, pressing the international school to remove the seven-year-old. The petition was rejected but the disdain towards the girl did not stop. She was bullied throughout her schooling years until Catherine finally pulled her out of the system.

There is, surprisingly, still a prevailing stigma against those who are neurodivergent, even among adults. Reactions typically come in the form of avoidance, rejection and even intimidation.

This gap in the system led Catherine back to university at the age of 50 to learn how to educate and help those who are neurodivergent. She later developed a curriculum and started OakTree Resource Centre, a homeschool system for special needs education that provides holistic development, including functional academic skills and communication skills.

Diversity in Neurocognitive Functions

Neurodiversity refers to variance in brain functions in terms of sociability, learning, attention, mood and other mental functions that are not considered standard or typical. This can manifest in a wide range of ways, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), autism, dyspraxia, Tourette’s syndrome and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Neurodivergence in children can range from mild to severe, depending on how it affects their daily lives, relationships and emotions. Those who have high-functioning ADHD, for example, may go through their lives completely unaware that they have ADHD.

Today, most doctors no longer consider neurodivergent individuals to have a disability. Rather, they recognise the numerous benefits of the uniqueness of how the brain functions. This changes the treatment plan of healthcare practitioners, who are no longer treating neurodivergence as an illness but as distinct ways of learning and processing information.[1]

Occupational Therapy

Audrey is the mother of a child who was diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety. Jude, her now nine-year-old son, had been having meltdowns at home and would frequently complain about feeling scared for no discernible reason. Suspecting that her son was suffering from a form of anxiety attack, she decided to bring him to a child psychiatrist who recommended therapy sessions to help him with his struggles in daily life.

Jude has been going for occupational therapy for more than a year now and his mother believes that it made a lot of difference. “His emotions are much more regulated and he’s pretty good at controlling himself now and expressing himself in a calmer way. He also used to be very clumsy – he was always falling down or dropping things or spilling things or knocking things over and we noticed recently that he had stopped falling down so often,” explains Audrey.

Occupational therapy helps children develop fine motor skills, improve hand-eye coordination, learn positive skills and social behaviour by improving the way they manage anger and frustration, and learn age-appropriate life skills, such as self-feeding and getting dressed.

“A typical session is an hour and they normally do two activities that are tailored to what his struggles are,” says Audrey.

For Jude, it was emotion regulation. “They taught him how to put into perspective whatever was upsetting him, like how bad is this problem or what can he do about it. Before this, every time he faced an obstacle or a problem, he would have a meltdown.”

Other than that, the occupational therapist also worked on his motor skills and executive functions. Children with ADHD tend to face difficulties that come with executive dysfunction which affects skills relating to attention, memory, flexible thinking and time management. “The therapist came up with activities not just for his spine-motor or cross-motor skills, but also those that teach him to see things in a different light,” Audrey adds.

Early Intervention is Key

Differences in how neurodivergent children function can become more apparent during their school years. Those with dyslexia may experience confusion over letters that look similar when taught the alphabet or when taught to read. Meanwhile, children with ADHD may struggle to pay attention, impairing their ability to think, learn and listen.

Catherine De Padua (far right) with some of the teachers at OakTree Resource Centre.

The neurodiversity concept views all of these issues as normal variations in brain function. Early intervention for neurodivergent children is critical because it can drastically improve their quality of life in the future, notably in their relationships, school life and careers.

As a professional, Catherine urges parents of neurodivergent children to start intervention as early as possible. “It is not just helping the children to be school-ready, it is teaching them the fundamental functioning skills so that they can live well and independently.”

To do this, she believes that foundations in academics are still crucial, such as literacy, numeracy and general knowledge. Other primary elements include social skills such as awareness of people and their surroundings as well as etiquette, creative skills, living skills, self-help skills and physical development. Each lesson, which follows an individual education plan is suited to the child’s learning pace and each milestone is recorded to identify progress.

Audrey states that receiving the diagnosis that your child is neurodivergent or has learning differences is not the end of the world. In fact, it is useful to make sense of the child’s struggles and can push parents in the right direction in terms of treatment. “I feel like we shouldn’t bother with labels so much. I don’t believe that [neurodivergence] is abnormal and I feel like everybody is just different variations of each other,” she says. ​

Today, a growing number of Malaysians are beginning to understand and accept neurodiversity. People are becoming more aware and vocal about the importance of mental health and less prejudiced about neurocognitive differences. However, much remains to be done in terms of inclusive policies and public awareness. 



Rahida Aini

works as a Publication Officer at Penang Institute. She enjoys writing and strolling along Straits Quay, appreciating the beauty of mother earth.

Rachel Yeoh

is a former journalist who traded her on-the-go job for a life behind the desk. For the sake of work-life balance, she participates in Penang's performing arts scene after hours.

Sheryl Teoh

holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Linfield College, a liberal arts college in the United States, and majored in History with a focus on Classical Greece and Rome. Her interests include the study of philosophy as well as a range of humanities and socio-political issues.