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Accessibility in Focus: Ustadha’s Story

My Neurodivergence

I knew from a young age I was slightly different from other kids. The way I processed things was different and how I understood things was vastly different from other kids. School was never stimulating enough but the subjects I loved I literally devoured till I knew the ins and outs of them, and the subjects I had no interest in? Well, it was like they never existed. It was not until later that I found out that I was indeed neurodiverse and that is when it all started to make sense. I was no longer just the weird and unusual kid anymore but here is the catch – as a neurodiverse female you can go your whole life not knowing that you are in fact autistic. Some woman don’t find out until they are in their fifties for the simple reason that the tests for neurodivergence are based on male traits and neurodivergence in males and females can look very different.

When you mention autism to someone, the first thing they think of is the stereotype of Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. The type of autism where someone has an extremely high IQ but lack emotional intelligence and social skills while usually accompanied with seemingly odd ticks and habits. Or they think of perhaps a child that could be non-verbal, sometimes with behavioural issues who are completely dependent on a care giver. While both do exist, we must keep in mind that the opposite can also be true. Neurodivergence in females can often look quite different and harder to detect because neurodiverse females tend to mask their autistic traits to try and fit it with neurotypical society. This is extremely exhausting and often leads to anxiety and depression so, because of this, neurodiverse women often get misdiagnosed as suffering with depression or bi-polar disorder. Some of the traits in neurodiverse woman tend to be that they are particularly good at communicating, are hyper socially intelligent, hyper empathic, hyper intuitive, very emotionally intelligent and tend to pick up a lot on nonverbal cues/ body language. But of course neurodivergence in males and females is not exclusive to what I have mentioned here, there is a reason why its called a spectrum and not a scale, and that spectrum is huge. My point of mentioning this is because we can no longer continue to pigeonhole autism because the reality is that autism comes in many forms and those who identify as autistic look very different no two people are the same.

Circling back to myself, I identify as a neurodiverse female and I am also a madrassa teacher. You are probably reading this wondering how does someone with autistic traits become a madrassa teacher? It partly comes down to the concept of “specialist subjects” as most who identify as neurodiverse have what are called specialist subjects which could be one or a collection of subjects that someone with neurodivergence becomes almost or completely obsessed with. It can be stuff like medicine, engineering etc because it’s like seeing how the world works and making sense of the world. For me its Islamic sciences and some of the sciences became my obsession more than others. I love it because learning about Allah (God) and his religion helps me make sense of the world and the universe at large. I have very particular methods in which I learn which results in me taking all the information and breaking it down which is, funnily enough, also how I teach. I take big subjects and I break them down. But in terms of support I have never had any and that’s simply because I learned to mask my traits so much. When it comes to asking for help, those in a position to help have deemed me as being neurotypical because I have never let my ticks and habits come to the surface and generally only those with a deep insight into neurodivergence can pick up on it or, quite simply, there has being nothing in place with which to help/support me. I have never let it stop me, it just sometimes becomes harder and the occasional meltdown can happen but it can become much easier when you yourself understand that your brain is just wired a bit differently. While others are looking at the world through a plain glass window, you are looking at it through a stain glassed window. When the light shines in it reflects all the different colours.

So, how does neurodivergence affect my teaching? Well, for me personally it helps it because I take the big subjects and break them down into bite size pieces. I am also one of those neurodiverse females who communicate well and am hyper empathetic, hyper intuitive, socially and emotionally intelligent and have sensitive hearing. This means that I can pick up a lot on non-verbal cues and body language. So, even though I may have twenty-plus students, I seem to pick up on them all and I can tell what like their mood is or when something bothering them. It’s like I feel what they are feeling, and this helps me to try and support them the best way I can emotionally. It also helps me pick up on their learning style so I can figure out who needs more help in what areas without making it obvious.

Don’t get me wrong though, it does not make me a perfect teacher. I deal with many kids daily who have different needs, different temperaments, come from different backgrounds and family situations, some of whom are even autistic or have learning difficulties. This can be like a billion terabytes of data downloading to your brain every minute and you’re constantly trying to filter it in such away it doesn’t hit you all at one time. For me, it usually hits me when I get home but when that happens the sensory overload is so much you are just exhausted and have to lay down on the floor in a dark room covered in a weighted blanket just to recover again. If the kids are having a bad day just forget about functioning afterwards.

I love teaching though and I love the kids I teach. I can never shout at any of them even when they are pushing so many buttons and boundaries. Sometimes I find parts of myself in them and I always try to make the misunderstood kids understood. In the end, I just want them to love God.

What about being neurodiverse and teaching in Covid? I am not going to lie teaching the Covid age is a bit more difficult. As well as everything else I have mild OCD so not only am I meticulous about my lesson plans and seating plans I am also quite meticulous about my routine. Covid threw that completely out of sync which resulted in a bit of a panic as I quickly had to get into some new idea of normality and again I went through that whole process of masking my stress. In terms of teaching it made it a little but harder to support and connect with the kids the way I would usually because sometimes teaching online they don’t turn on their cameras or speak. There is a total disconnect and most of the kids don’t like online teaching so they mentally check out fifteen or twenty minutes in. That means the workload becomes doubled because you’re having to do more to make sure they are getting the support they need both emotionally and for learning through an electronic means. It makes it harder to get the full picture sometimes but there is also a need for the parents to be supported as they are really going through the uncertainty as well and that is like an other terabyte of data being downloaded as well. You somehow always manage to get through it though and its only by Allah that I do because, in reality, I have no worldly support. That might be my own fault because there is only maybe five or six people in this whole world that know about my neurodivergence and I mask it well. I don’t tell people because people are not always the kindest and because there are so many misconceptions about what neurodivergence really is across the board but especially in the Muslim community. I wish to spare myself the judgment and passive aggressive undertones and wish to be judged for my work as a teacher and eventually my scholarly achievements. I would much rather someone take their child out of my class because they felt I was not the right fit as a teacher then question my ability because of my neurodivergence. If anything, my neurodivergence as a teacher has giving me a greater capacity to care for these kids, I am always thinking about them and worrying about them because I see them as if they were my own.

One thing I can say in closing is this: I am not ashamed of my neurodivergence. If anything, I thank Allah for making me this way and I thank him for taking me down this route of teaching/studying. Even though I have my struggles I feel its made me a better teacher, a better Muslim, and it allows me to see the world in a very unique way. Knowing this helps me manage my neurodivergence. I would not have it any other way.
Jazak’Allah khairan {May God grant you goodness}