May 22, 2023

What is Neurodiversity?

Jane Magnani
Jane Magnani
What is Neurodiversity?

What is Neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity refers to the differences between our brains and neurological processes, which means our brains are structured differently and process things differently, from information to emotions.

Those with developmental conditions like Autism and ADHD are called neurodivergent because their experiences 'diverge' from the typical developmental trajectory.

How can we support children with Neurodiversity and special needs through play?

Play is precious for all children, they learn and develop through their play opportunities and experiences, and those with neurodiversity are no different! 

Playtime can help them grow, learn and develop in fun and engaging way. For example, a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may struggle to play socially because their symptoms, such as having difficulty waiting their turn, can sometimes put other children off playing with them. However, playing with some adult support can help them build relationships with other children.

Children with hearing or visual impairment can focus on their other senses to help them navigate and explore the world.

In addition, Play can exercise their muscles and improve coordination if they have a mobility impairment.

However, having special needs or being neurodiverse can often present barriers, making it difficult for them to enjoy the experience fully.

So what can we do to support and enhance our children's play opportunities?

Small changes can make a huge difference!

Understanding our children's needs and challenges is essential when planning and adapting the environment and play opportunities.

Stepping back and observing your little ones will enhance your knowledge of their likes, dislikes and what they can and cannot do.

Allowing you to modify and accommodate the play environment to match your child's needs.

  • Accessibility: Adapt the toys and equipment: Use toys suitable for your child's needs. For instance, items that are easy to grip or large enough to hold and play with.

  • Sensory-friendly space: Create a sensory-friendly space at home. This can include low light, soft music, comfortable seating, and a calming colour scheme. Reduce clutter and other stimuli that can be overstimulating for children with sensory issues.

  • Visual aids: Provide visual aids such as checklists, schedules, and picture symbols to help children understand daily routines and expectations.

  • Accommodations: Accommodate individual needs by providing assistive devices like headphones or weighted comfort items. Install handrails and other safety devices where necessary.

  • Sensory play: Provide opportunities for sensory play that can help develop fine motor skills, social skills, cognitive skills, creativity, and communication. Examples include finger paints, kinetic sand, and play dough.

  • Clear communication: Communicate with children in clear, simple language, using visual aids and other communication tools when necessary.

  • Positive reinforcement: Use positive reinforcement, such as praise and rewards, to help reinforce positive behaviour. This can help children feel confident and motivated to succeed.

It's important to focus on what the child can do rather than what they can't. For example, children with ASD may have challenges being social and imaginative in their play.

So, providing them with baskets with repeated toys such as stones, animals, or gems can engage their attention and interest.

Children with ADHD may struggle to sit still, concentrate on tasks, and follow instructions. Physical activities that allow them to express themselves and exert some energy can be highly beneficial.


Sensory Play

Children learn about the world through their senses; exploring and discovering is essential to their play experience.

Stimulating senses strengthens brain connections, which are crucial for all types of learning. Sensory activities are great for developing physical skills and strengthening small muscles in their hands and fingers. As your little one starts to venture out into their surroundings, they are enhancing their sensorimotor abilities and learning to distinguish between themselves and the world around them by utilising their senses.

Some children with neurodiversity and special needs may have difficulties understanding and processing language, so sensory play ideas that use their senses (and don't require language or comprehension) can be ideal.

Hypersensitive children and sensory overload.

Remember to adapt to your child's needs so they can get the most out of their play experience. For example, if they are hypersensitive, introduce new materials carefully, and be aware of those they do not like. If your child has a mobility impairment, ensure the activity table is accessible and easy to reach.

  • Hypersensitive children may struggle with sensory overload during sensory play, so it’s important to take play breaks now and then - e.g. snack, rest.

  • It is important to provide a safe and supportive environment.

  • If your child has limited mobility, focus on what they can do rather than what they can't

  • These are all activities children with or without SEND can join in and enjoy.

  • Using less overwhelming materials such as playdough and adding certain resources such as sensory cushions, chewy necklaces, sensory tents, sensory bottles (glitter, oil and water) or poppet toys can support them and encourage concentration. 

Activity Ideas

  • Turning your pots and pans into a drum kit, complete with wooden spoons as the sticks, can provide endless fun.

  • Flying to space in an old cardboard box, popping old bubble wrap or even ripping up junk paper from your paper recycling into shapes are simple ways to entertain youngsters whilst supporting physical skills.

These high-energy activities are great for children with ADHD who struggle to sit still and concentrate.

If your child has limited mobility, focus on what they can do rather than what they can't.

  • For example, if they can blow with their mouth, get them to practise blowing bubbles or ping-pong balls across a tabletop. Support them by modelling; modelling is vital; your little one loves watching you, and they will use your gestures, actions, movements and sounds as a cue to what to do next.

Sensory Bottles

Plastic bottles are a great resource. 

  • Get your little one to fill them with pasta, beads or buttons to make shakers.

  • Filling them with water and glitter creates a visually stimulating bottle (make sure the lid is sealed tightly!). Children love watching the glitter floating in the water and oil; it promotes a sense of calmness as they submerge in the experience.

Water and sand 

This sensory activity is another great way for your little one to experience different textures. 

  • Get a bucket of water or sand for them to play with. 

  • Add a bubble bath to the water for extra sensations, and include their favourite toys for double the fun.

Sensory guessing games.

  • What's in the bag is a lovely game to play with them. Place different objects in a bag and sing a simple rhyme to support attention and understanding. Then get them to take something out of the bag. Describe, name and make their sounds!

  • Put objects in several cloth bags. Get your little one to feel the bag, identify one thing without looking inside, and pull it out!



Art is a great gateway to play for children with neurodiversity and special needs because it is an open activity, meaning there are no right or wrong answers when creating art.

In addition, art activities allow children to express themselves, their feelings and their emotions through art.

Art and messy play involves exploring different textures, colours and shapes through hands-on experiences.

  • Make a texture book.

  • Face painting, mural painting, hand print painting, making collages or sticking some blank paper on a wall and turning it into a 'graffiti wall'.

  • Often children with neurodiversity enjoy playing with shiny objects; to extend their play, why not create a "sticky table" using sticky back paper, so they can stick as many shiny sequins as they wish, creating a colourful and shiny collage? In addition, if they feel they don't want the sequins to stay on the paper, it is easy to remove them.

  • For less messy art, try water painting on the pavement or a brick wall outside.

Participating in activities like this can improve social skills, including assertion and supports hyperactivity and problem behaviours.

Treasure Hunts

Treasure Hunts can help children develop curiosity, exploration, and problem-solving abilities, Capture children's imaginations, and they can quickly adapt to many needs and abilities. They also learn to be patient and persistent in their efforts. In addition they learn about different materials and their properties.

  • For example, ask your child to find objects in the house or garden, e.g. a toy car, a particular colour, or a flower.

  • Use visuals to support their understanding, print off pictures, or use a book or magazine of the objects you want them to find.

  • Use what interests them, such as spotting animals or finding pre-hidden treats.

Role Play/Storytelling

The beauty of role-playing and creating fantasy worlds is that anything is possible.

Children can become the main character in a role-play story – even for a child with limited mobility, imaginative play is both possible and thoroughly enjoyable. It allows children to express themselves and their emotions, aiding social interaction and cooperation.

  • Share materials and work together to create and explore.

  • Bring storytelling into your home by making stories come to life. Change your voice, exaggerate your actions and gestures and add extra features to make it more exciting – whether it's pictures, puppets, or even adding sounds and smells.

  • Use gestures and actions (Makaton) when singing to make them more exciting and interactive.

  • Ask open-ended questions, e.g. What did you make? How did you make that?

  • This helps children develop empathy and understanding of others' perspectives.

  • Playing different characters and scenarios may help them explore and express their feelings safely and indirectly.

Physical Activities

Children use gross and fine motor skills to manipulate materials and explore their environment, such as hand-eye coordination. It also aids sensory development and stimulates their creativity.

  • Mixing motions and manipulating dough during cooking can help develop fine motor skills.

  • Get ready-made biscuits and provide icing, sweets, and decorations (considering allergies or sensory sensitivity).

  • Add a bubble bath to the water for extra sensations at bathtime, and include their favourite toys for double the fun.

  • If they can blow with their mouth, get them to practise blowing bubbles or ping-pong balls across a tabletop.

  • Plastic bottles are a great resource - Get your little one to fill them with pasta, beads, or buttons to make shakers - you will only need a small amount.

  • Support them by modelling; your little one loves watching you, and they will use your gestures, actions, movements, and sounds as a cue to what to do next.


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