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Diverse Minds, Inclusive Practices — Are We Preparing Social Workers to Be Neurodiversity Inclusive?

By Savannah B. Higgins, LMSW

If you have completed or are enrolled in a social work education program, you likely have been introduced to the concepts of diversity, intersectionality, oppression, and privilege. When discussing these topics, how often is the content inclusive of disability and, even more specifically, neurodiversity? Competency three of the Council on Social Work Education Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards requires students to engage in antiracism, diversity, equity, and inclusion in practice. Within this competency, disability is listed as an intersectional dimension of diversity.1

The purpose of social work education is to equip students to engage with individuals, families, and communities, a significant portion of whom may live with one or more disabilities. Neurodivergence encompasses inherent variations in neurological functioning and is frequently perceived as a disability by and within a societal framework that perpetuates ableism as the prevailing norm. Although social workers are likely to engage with individuals with disabilities as part of their regular professional responsibilities, many social work programs provide minimal content specifically focused on disabilities and neurodiversity. Consequently, this begs the question, are social workers prepared to engage with a diverse range of neurotypes?

The concept of neurodiversity, which acknowledges and embraces these inherent variations in human neurological functioning, has garnered increased recognition in contemporary discourse. Understanding neurodiversity—which encompasses a spectrum of neurological differences such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and others—is paramount for social work professionals. This comprehension enables them to deliver more effective and inclusive support to individuals with diverse neurotypes.

The State of Social Work Education
Ogden et al discovered that disability-related content in social work programs is frequently integrated into diversity courses rather than being presented as independent courses.2 Their findings indicate that as of 2017, a mere 18% of social work programs reported providing a dedicated course specifically addressing disabilities.2 This suggests a potential gap in the comprehensive inclusion of disability-focused education within social work curricula. Curricula lacking dedicated content leaves students unprepared to work with neurodiverse clientele. This deficiency has implications for the quality and inclusivity of social work practice.

Neurodiversity-Inclusive Content and Social Work Values
Incorporating neurodiversity content into social work education enhances cultural competence.

The NASW Code of Ethics states that social workers possess the ethical responsibility to “obtain education about and demonstrate understanding of the nature of social diversity and oppression with respect to race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, and mental or physical ability.”3

Clients may opt not to disclose a neurodivergent condition, especially when seeking resources or intervention for an issue perceived as more prominent and seemingly unrelated. Introducing and incorporating neurodiversity content equips future social workers to recognize and navigate the unique needs of clients, ultimately improving client outcomes and satisfaction.

Strategies for Integrating Neurodiversity Content Into Social Work Education
Colleges of social work must focus on curriculum development and review, ensuring that neurodiversity is adequately integrated into core courses and strive to develop standalone courses focused on the topic. Here are a few ways programs can ensure this integration:

• Develop and update course content to include neurodiversity-inclusive frameworks and theoretical perspectives such as the social model of disability and critical disability theory, emphasizing the acceptance and celebration of neurological differences.

• Offer elective courses or program specializations specifically related to neurodiversity.

• Include case studies that represent a range of neurodivergent experiences, covering neurological differences such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and more.

• Invite individuals, professionals, and advocates to speak in classes or participate in panel discussions pertaining to their neurodivergent experiences.

• Ensure that students have the opportunity to work with diverse clients, gaining practical experience in supporting neurodivergent individuals and their families.

• Cover communication strategies, understanding sensory needs, and adapting interventions to meet the diverse needs of neurodivergent clients.

• Incorporate discussions on policies and advocacy efforts related to neurodiversity and encourage students to critically analyze and engage in advocacy for rights and inclusion.

Moving Forward
It’s imperative to advocate for change in policies and accreditation standards. Exploring research opportunities at the intersection of neurodiversity and social work ensures continuous improvement and adaptation of programs to meet evolving needs. The future holds promise of a more inclusive social work profession.

— Savannah Higgins, LMSW, is a licensed social worker in Georgia, South Carolina, and Maryland. She’s the academic director of Mosaic Academic Empowerment Center, an organization providing neurodiversity-affirming academic support. She’s also a part-time instructor in the Master of Social Work program at the University of Kentucky and a doctoral candidate in the University of Kentucky’s Doctor of Social Work program, where her research is focused on advancing social work education to better prepare students for culturally responsive service provision.

1. Council on Social Work Education. Educational policy and accreditation standards for baccalaureate and master's social work programs.
https://www.cswe.org/getmedia/bb5d8afe-7680-42dc-a332-a6e6103f4998/2022-EPAS.pdf. Published 2022.

2. Ogden L, McAllister C, Neely-Barnes S. Assessment of integration of disability content into social work education. J Soc Work Disabil Rehabil. 2017;16(3-4):361-376.

3. National Association of Social Workers. Code of Ethics. https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English. Published 2021.