Being neurodiverse means we often do not 'pick up' these skills in childhood, so we may never learn how to be organized, present well, make friends or manage our money- even though those are essentials in life. To know these things gives us greater opportunities for success.
Research tells us that not having life skills can severely affect wellbeing. Since the neurodiverse population are already marginalized, often having mental health issues alongside their diagnoses, we want to encourage greater wellbeing and a positive quality of life for our peers.
The more practical skills you know, the better equipped you are in new or unfamiliar situations. We believe teaching life skills can help neurodiverse adults cope better in their world and give them "added smarts" to better reflect on life and live it with purpose.
Our research to support this:
Life skills are, quite literally, skills for life. However, once a person reaches adulthood, it can be difficult (if not shameful) to express a need to learn such things. These skills are, as the World Health Organization defines them, “psychosocial skills required to deal with the demands and challenges of everyday life” (1999, p.1).
This entire curriculum of life skills training, has been written for the neurodiverse population by a team of neurodiverse people. As such, we have tried to write inclusively and shared our own experiences within the work. We reflect on life skills as a difficult topic to broach. Whether our neurodiversity itself contributes to the lack of organization in our heads, or our experience was due to parental neglect, many of us have grown up without the knowledge of how to care for ourselves in the best way.
Research shows that without these essential skills we tend to struggle in key areas of employment, psychological development, independent living and self-behaviour management (Bal et al., 2015; Griffiths et al., 2016; Lorenc et al., 2018). Furthermore, where mental health issues are prominent in our diagnoses, a lack of life skills gravely affects self-care and general health outcomes (see more Ghaziuddin, Ghaziuddin & Greden, 2002; Tungpunkom, Maayan & Soares‐Weiser, 2012). Other researchers Steptoe & Wardle (2017) add, life skills are necessary for wellbeing throughout one’s lifespan. They found that while no single life skill completes this process, a greater number of skills is associated with higher incomes, greater feelings of happiness, less depression and loneliness, fewer chronic illness and better overall health.
One method to help combat the challenges of under-developed life skills our community is to run an educational program. This is a vital need to improve our health literacy - it has been noted as important to Australians and the British (per, Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2008; Gotham et al., 2015; Thompson et al., 2018). Life skills educational programs are beneficial. We see outcomes of participants developing a positive and healthy view of themselves and others, better emotional regulation skills, confidence achieving tasks and growing resilience. The sad thing is that these programs are not available to everyone who needs them. Neurodiverse individuals are reached in supported residential services (King et al., 2015; McPherson et al., 2018) and within the context of some schools (Ohtake, 2015; Super, Vekooijen & Kolean, 2018), and where a person has a co-existing intellectual disability, there are more services available to them. As wonderful as this work is, it also means that neurodiverse individuals who are school leavers, job seekers, or living outside of supported services do not have access to the essential life skills programming they need to thrive.
So, when the bigwigs approached us (the small unit of neurodiverse professionals behind the very first ‘Be Your Best’ subject), we decided to change things for the better. We decided to be different. ‘Be Your Best’ is more accessible to the community. It is also clearly structured and builds your learning.
Key Elements of our Curriculum
We know there are so many life skills which neurodiverse populations need guidance and support to fully understand. We are doing our bit to help as best we can. We really hope the work we have given to this curriculum inspires you and helps you develop as a person to, be YOUR best.
We read widely, thought about it a lot, and came to the realization that a quality program—one which helps neurodiverse adults learn about life skills in a positive, non-patronizing and supportive manner—needs to have three key elements:
2) Evidence-based outcomes.
3) Practical and engaging materials.
We will now explain each of these points in detail.
Authenticity: Nothing About Us Without Us
This life skills program has been created by neurodiverse people for neurodiverse people. To see why we have chosen this approach, it is helpful to look at the history of autistic self-advocacy, which is continuing to unfold as you read these words. It is from autistic self-advocacy that the neurodiversity paradigm emerged about thirty years ago, into what is now “a rapidly growing civil rights movement” (Silberman, 2015, p. 16).
Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the “spectrum view” of autism was gaining momentum. Autistic adults, like Temple Grandin, Jim Sinclair, and Judy Singer began sharing their own experiences and entering debates about what autism is and how best to respond to it. They challenged dominant—and heavily negative—views of autism in ways that shook up the present conventions, both in the medical and psychiatric spheres, and heralded in a new frame of disability rights (Singer, 1988/ 2017). As autistic adults continued to connect with each other, the benefits of working together quickly became apparent. Many reported that spending time with other autistic adults was life-changing; for some, it was their first experience of really belonging, and of feeling understood, valued, and accepted (Sinclair, 2010). They came to recognize that in addition to addressing their own personal challenges, it is also important to address attitudinal and social barriers that discriminate against and oppress autistic and other neurodiverse people (Singer, 1988/ 2017). For instance, it is not uncommon for researchers, therapists, and advocacy organizations that focus on autism or other neurodiverse types to inadvertently devalue the lives, insights, and contributions of the people their work is about.
A frequently cited example is the “I am autism” advertisement created for Autism Speaks in 2009, which personified autism as a force of evil that steals children, leads to bankruptcy, causes endless humiliation, and destroys happy marriages. Autistic self-advocates launched a successful campaign, arguing that the advertisement was raising funds by stoking fear, stigma, and misconceptions about autism, while causing “real damage to people with disabilities everywhere” (Ne’eman in AspieEditorial, 2009/ 2019; Diament, 2009).
We face many serious challenges,
as individuals and as a group.
But now, for the first time,
we are able to face them together.
– Jim Sinclair, autistic self-advocate
In addition to helping create more humane, accurate, and respectful portrayals of people across the autism spectrum, autistic self-advocates are raising awareness of significant gaps in services and research (Pellicano, Dinsmore & Charman, 2014). Often only a small proportion of the resources dedicated to autism-related research and services are likely to help improve the quality of life of autistic adults who are currently struggling (Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, 2016). All too often, autistic and other neurodiverse people face a cliff after reaching early adulthood, and struggle with inadequate help structuring their lives and making their way in the world (Sparrow, 2018; Wallace et al., 2016). This program helps to address some of those concerns.
As neurodiversity advocates continue to work for change, neurodiverse people continue to connect with each other through online and in-person support and advocacy groups—and through programs like this one. By putting neurodiverse people at the centre of this work we hope to help bring about change on a much broader scale.
We hope you feel at home with us, and respected and valued by us. While we understand some of you reading these courses or chapters may feel as if the topics are at times ‘beneath you’ or patronizing you, please know that we really tried to write this work in a way that the broadest neurodiverse group would feel included and supported. If the work is ‘too easy’ for you, or you want to feel extended and challenged in each course (and you feel the references provided do not assist well enough), please contact Be Your Best and give us your comments. We want to support and reach as many neurodiverse individuals as we can, especially if they are struggling in transition to study and/ or work. That is the sole premise of this work! Anyway, we have spent considerable time with the population to create these subjects in the Be Your Best program. We need to stress while all our writers are neurodiverse, they are also professionals in their field. Indeed, this program may not be for everyone, but we have put forth our most sincere intentions to be inspiring, positive and encourage your development as much as we could. We have learned about the skills we teach, not only from our own lived-experience, but from a wealth of evidence-based literature about what works and why it works. Thus, we are eager to share what we have learned with you, to help you succeed in a world that is not yet built with neurodiversity in mind.
Evidence-Based: A Methodology of Rigour
The following paragraphs outline the approaches Claes and her colleagues use, which have been integrated in the making of this program. We note that while each of these approaches have limitations, they complement each other and correct their drawbacks when used in unison. We also provide justification to why our program meets these criteria.
A phenomenological-existential approach focuses on gaining evidence from lived experiences, including narratives and ethnographies, interviews, case studies, years of professional practice, and participatory studies (e.g. Nicolaidis et al., 2011; Radermacher, Sonn, Keys, & Duckett, 2010). Evaluation criteria include credibility, transferability, dependability, and confirmability (Claes et al. 2015). Phenomenological-existential approaches to evidence can help us to better understand our own experiences and to learn from others’ experiences. They can also help to guide, critique, and supplement other approaches to evidence.
Our program meets the criteria for the phenomenological-existential approach as it is a program based on experience, we have used peer-reviews to assess the writing, grammar and structure of this program, and neurodiverse individuals have piloted the initial courses in the Be Organized Mastery units. Considering feedback from our target population, we have edited and updated the work to meet their needs. We are confident that our work is representative of the population we aim to reach. Furthermore, all the research studies that we have quoted or referred to within this program are from academic journals or reputable sources. Our feedback from the pilot, in combination with critiques from our neurodiverse writing staff and illustrators, our neurotypical upper-management and academic advisors suggest that this program is valid and worthwhile. We believe neurodiverse individuals undertaking this holistic program will improve their knowledge and skills in a wide range of areas. The topic titles may sound narrow, but the materials go in deep. It is through that depth of exploration that we know this program will encourage critical thinking, curiosity and reflection. Furthermore, we sourced volunteers to contribute their lived experiences of neurodiversity, and these people’s original perspectives are included (de-identified) throughout the courses. Our activities provided in the text are linked to educational outcomes, but also help you to explore self-awareness and your own lived experience. We also believe by having a full neurodiverse team on this project adds to our credibility, transferability, dependability, and confirmability of the work. In addition to our team identifying as neurodiverse and holding a range of diagnoses, we also are professionals with valuable life experience to share. We have two writers who are qualified in counselling, one of whom has worked in person-centred roles for over ten years; the other who specializes in philosophical concepts of the “Self”. A past writer on our team is a quantum physicist who inspired us all with his insight and intellect. Our team also has had neurodiverse psychology students, engineering students, human rights advocates, musicians and poets, gardeners and retirees. This colourful array of experience helps us write engaging work and remind you that neurodiversity comes in all kinds of flavours! Our artists and typesetters and editors and project managers are also neurodiverse. As such, we are committed to practicing the inclusion we ‘preach’. And, we believe that you (the neurodiverse individuals undertaking this holistic program) will gain deeper insight about yourself and your lived experience because of our commitment to a neurodiverse team.
A post-structuralist approach is “based on public policy principles such as inclusion, self-determination, participation, and empowerment” (Claes et al., 2015, p. 134). It pays attention to power structures and to ways that experiences and research are being interpreted and shaped by historical, economic, cultural, political, and other forces. This approach to evidence is evaluated by the extent to which it increases the self-determination, well-being, and rights of its subjects.
Our program meets the criteria for the post-structuralist approach as it is a program based on principles of inclusion, self-determination, participation and empowerment. We strive to write in a way that can be acceptable and accepting of difference, and to develop activities and texts that encourage independence. The program has activities to engage participation and outcomes that enable empowerment. We have tried to pay attention to the discomfort that may come with gendered language and to avoid using terms that can attack or inflame. We also have designed the program to be relevant to current events, and respectful to historical events and people. We believe neurodiverse individuals undertaking this holistic program will see that our work is inclusive and empowering, and that they will understand that we have tried our best.
Finally, to follow an evidence-based methodology, we also sought to design our life skills subjects via a tried-and-true framework for learning. Underpinning the curriculum, we rely on the Paul-Elder theory which encourages personal agency, critical thinking and challenge-questioning to develop deep understanding of the topics presented (Elder & Paul, 1994; Paul, Elder & Battell, 1997; Elder & Paul, 2012). To truly learn anything, one must understand it. Critical thinking is the idea that to think critically and creatively, we must build outward in our understanding. In learning, to develop solid (and logical) thinking skills, we need to examine each topic with curiosity and depth, exploring the broader aspects. Also, as a key part of higher education coursework and assessment, critical thinking is recognized as essential in developing leadership competencies, self-management/ emotional regulation abilities and strategic decision-making skills (Watkins & Earnhardt, 2015; Perry, Paulsen & Retallick, 2018; Pravogi & Yuanita, 2018). Critical thinking acts as the ‘helping-hand’ for you to regain your sense of agency and by exploring the wider social conditions of your experience. Wallerstein (1983) says, “Critical thinking begins when people make the connections between their individual lives and social conditions. It ends one step beyond perception –towards the action people take to regain control over social structures detrimental to their lives” (p. 16). We really like that quote! We think the Be Your Best curriculum is all about helping you develop deeper self-knowledge, and the skills YOU need for life.
Practical & Engaging Materials: Something you want to learn!
One thing we really wanted to do for readers of this life skills program was to make learning fun. There is nothing worse than feeling excited about new learning materials and then being totally let down by the dry, boring and uncreative activities therein. That is why this program emphasizes engaged learning. Essentially, engaged learning is the term to describe learning that you are willing to do. It is active rather than passive. It is alert and interactive rather than zoned out and one-sided. There’s actually a lot of research that sprouted up from the 1990s showing that students find traditional schooling methods as if ‘one-sided’. A key part of learning in our modern age involves interactive approaches, self-directed learning, virtual communities and developing a form of engagement with the learner. So, ‘engaged learning’ involves taking ownership of the central role that you play in your own education and personal development.
There is a growing body of literature showing the benefits of engaged learning. In contrast to passive learning, engaged learning has been found to:
- Increase motivation and create a more inclusive learning experience (Ambrose et al., 2010; McGuire, 2015; Tanner 2013);
- Increase interest, personal investment, and completion rates (Braxton, Milem, & Sullivan, 2000; Mrazek et al. 2017; Smallwood & Schooler 2015);
- Reduce mind-wandering, which improves reading comprehension (Smallwood & Schooler 2015);
- Improve performance, understanding, and retention (Deslauriers, Schelew, & Wieman, 2011);
- Increase well-being and lead to improved health outcomes (Smallwood & Schooler 2015), especially when also informed by positive psychology (Donaldson, Dollwet, & Rao, 2015; Seligman, 2011).
Check out those five awesome benefits of engaged learning!
To help you remain engaged, we have tried to make the materials interesting, accessible, relevant, trustworthy, and thought-provoking. We have included carefully chosen exercises and activities for you to complete, some of which involve your senses and your imagination. You will also find questions to make you think or reflect, quizzes to help you assess your retention of the material, and stories that we hope you will find relatable and memorable. You might find some parts of this program far more compelling than others. That is to be expected.
If you are struggling to fully engage with some of the materials, you may want to move on and return to that material later, to give it another try. What works well for one person may not work well for another. You are encouraged to consider additional ways—that work well for you—to increase your engagement with this program. As challenging at times as it may be to engage with the materials, there is learning to be had in ALL your experiences, even when reflecting on the darker sides of ourselves. This is also a part of being in the world as a human being; at times aspects may frustrate you, but there’s learning in that. If something within the course is really annoying you, reflect on why that might be. If the ‘voice’ used in the text angers you, reflect on WHO IN YOUR LIFE it may cause you to feel so oppressed. Ask yourself the hard questions, like: What is the root of my anger? What does this feeling remind me of? Who in my life has treated me like this before?
Similarly, if you feel the questions are not asking you what key information you need to remember, you might like to take notes and paraphrase central ideas or write down your thoughts and any related plans as they develop. You can revisit these notes to monitor your progress and increase your retention of the material.
As you read, you might predict where the text is going, and after you complete a section, you might spend time thinking about how the material relates to your current views, and whether you agree with it. You might share and discuss what you are learning with others. Please do! You might also take care to focus on this program when you are alert and well-rested and take breaks and allow time to absorb one section before moving on to another.
Please remember, to really benefit from this program, it is vital for you to engage with and apply what you are learning. You wouldn’t try to learn how to swim by standing in a pool of water and just listening to talk about swimming. Just as you need to practice various strokes, breaths, and movements to become a good swimmer, you also need to take the time to practice and develop your life skills in order to make the most of your life. Give yourself time to apply what you have learned in each course. Feel. Think. Reflect.
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 You can read our author bio’s and/ or find us on LinkedIn. We’re real people, with real experience and sharing our lives with you.
 A “bigwig” is a colloquialism to refer to upper management inside a business or social structure.
 Neurodiversity means accepting that human minds develop in many different ways, and that people with a psychological condition should always be equal to ‘neurotypical’ people who do not have a condition.
 It is important to note that we have left the grammar, spelling and ‘voice’ of all lived experiences intact. We have not edited these contributions, except for adding asterisks to curse words and removing personal data, as indicated by the use of square brackets.