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New neuro-diversity course to foster knowledge, and compassion

Thursday, 10 March 2022

Professor Gibbs (left) receives the Critic and Conscience of Society Award from Gama Foundation founders Grant and Marilyn Nelson in 2020

Professor Anita Gibbs’ new Social and Community Work course will provide much-needed training and education in the key issues surrounding neuro-disability.

Offered from July this year, SOCI 404 Exploring Neuro-Disability in Health, Welfare and Justice Systems will examine outcomes within these systems for those with neuro-disabilities like Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

“I want our students – who are going to be tomorrow’s human services practitioners – to understand what neuro-disability and neuro-diversity are. I want them to think about the impact neurodivergent conditions have on individuals and whānau, what leads to successful outcomes, and the challenges professionals and workers face when working with those who are autistic or living with FASD or ADHD.”

The course will explore the importance of drawing on people’s experiences within these systems. It will focus on how a Treaty-based approach and various disability rights frameworks can lead to better outcomes for groups who are often marginalised and ‘unseen’.

Professor Gibbs says recent media coverage highlights the overwhelming gap in acknowledging, recognising and treating neuro-disabilities from all professional groupings in education, justice, child welfare, mental health, and the disability sector. 

“Survivors of abuse in care, parents and caregivers and practitioners all tell me that we need to see good quality tertiary education and courses available to make a transformative difference in the field of FASD and other neurodivergent conditions.”

“In 2020, I was privileged to have been awarded a GAMA Foundation and Universities New Zealand Critic and Conscience of Society Award. The Judges said my work on FASD had resulted in a much greater public awareness of this avoidable disability, which has tended to be misunderstood and overlooked. Over the past year, I have used the award to undertake research with 92 people involved in caregiving and practice.”

Professor Gibbs describes her profession, social work, as a further motivator; Aotearoa currently has no training for social workers in this area.

“This is shocking given that up to 50% of children in care have FASD, and estimates of those in youth justice with at least one area of severe neuro-impairment and brain injury go up to 89% of that population.”

The course’s content is underpinned by Professor Gibbs’ experiences with children living with neuro-disabilities.

“My own whānau has experienced ignorance and inadequate knowledge and skills, and I have stood alongside many other families in similar circumstances. I’ve seen the great cost of poor-quality practice that failed to implement appropriate additional accommodations or supports for children struggling at school, with social interaction, emotional regulation or communication challenges. It’s made me highly motivated to launch this course for current students and for those working, or seeking to work, in this area.”

The course takes a strong critical disability and human rights perspective, so learners not only gain extra skills and knowledge to work effectively with those living with FASD, or autism and ADHD but also “understand deeply the need to ensure that those living with these disabilities have a right to flourish and participate and live as good a life any anyone else does in Aotearoa.”

“I want my students to gain new knowledge, but also compassion for those who are often likely to be misunderstood and punished by many others in society. The course is aimed at ensuring a would-be workforce, which currently does not exist, can have a deeper systems-based understanding of neuro-disabilities within the contexts of colonisations, social, economic and health disparities and adverse childhood experiences, all of which influence whether or not those living with FASD, ADHD or autism will flourish.”