Including Neurodiverse Students in Health Education

Apr 19, 2024

You’ll often notice a focus on the what and when when observing efforts to improve health education. What content are we teaching? And when are we teaching it? But what’s arguably just as important is the how. How are we teaching health education? This question is where we find a lapse in provision that disproportionately impacts neurodiverse students.

In order for health education to work properly there needs to be robust knowledge retention—the students need to be able to recall and utilize the information they’re presented with. This is especially important for those students on the autism spectrum or with ADHD—to better understand their condition they require foundational understanding of their general health & wellness and the way their bodies and minds are working. They also may require different ways of teaching across a number of subjects such as communication and consent.

To bolster knowledge retention for neurodiverse learners, educators must move beyond the "one-size-fits-all" approach. Some students may struggle with traditional lecture-based lessons that rely heavily on auditory processing and sitting still for long periods. Instead, hands-on, multi-sensory teaching methods can be key.

For students on the autism spectrum, utilizing visual aids like pictures, diagrams, and videos can create pathways to better comprehend abstract health concepts. Modeling desired behaviors through role-play scenarios also allows them to practice skills in a safe environment. Predictable routines and clear expectations help minimize anxiety.

Those with ADHD may benefit from lessons that incorporate movement and tactile manipulation. Providing fidget toys or short brain breaks can help them stay focused. Frequent repetition, chunking information into manageable segments, and relating topics to their interests also boost engagement.

When teaching interpersonal skills like communication and consent, clear instruction is crucial for neurodiverse students who may miss subtle social cues. Using concrete examples, scripting scenarios, and discussing perspectives can foster perspective-taking abilities.

These are just some methods that may be incorporated into health education class; but efforts to do so are rare. In the vast majority of classrooms across the country you will find a gym teacher reading from powerpoint slides (maybe once a year) and there’s no assessment to gauge program efficacy or knowledge retention. What’s the result? A disjointed, inadequate health education system that fails to empower students with the toolkit they need for a lifetime of wellness.

The thing is, these teaching methods have the ability to improve learning outcomes for all learners—neurodiverse or neurotypical. By designing health education through an inclusive lens, we can create a more engaging, multimodal experience that appeals to a wider range of learning preferences. A system that works for every student.