As the principal of Education Incorporated Private School, I’m lucky to have been part of the many transformative journeys our students and their families have gone through. Every journey is different – as is every child – but as two remarkable mothers recently highlighted during our EduThink Podcast, we are doing our children a disservice if we don’t learn to understand and ultimately embrace their differences.

Jo Judnick Wilson and Nicola Killops are both parents to neurodiverse sons. Nicola’s son is 19 and was diagnosed with autism at age 7. Jo’s son is 13 and was diagnosed at 4

Jo and Nicola have both faced challenges finding schools that cater to their sons’ needs, and for me, this underscores the importance of embracing neurodiversity in education. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Some children learn differently, and we owe it to them to nurture that rather than exclude them because of it.

Nicola touches on her journey with James: “James is what they call ‘Twice Exceptional’ or ‘2E’ – intellectually gifted with dyslexia and high-functioning autism. Early on, I noticed he was different, struggling with sleep and speech delays.

“His journey through various schools, including a remedial school and a specialised dyslexia programme (The Davis Programme), eventually led him to Orion College, and now he is at a tutor centre. But despite the challenges, he’s grown into a strapping, bright young man.”

Says Jo, “When our son arrived, signs of sensory issues emerged around two-and-a-half years. Meltdowns and intensified sensory challenges followed. After joining support groups and seeking professional advice, our son was diagnosed with autism around age 4.

“We faced conflicts about mainstream versus remedial education, and the journey included homeschooling during the pandemic. Eventually, we found a supportive environment at Education Incorporated, where he felt comfortable and chose to stay back a year for his well-being.”

My conversation with Nicola and Jo highlighted how crucial it is for every child to be seen – to be respected – not despite who they are, but because of it. Nicola explains, “Don’t underestimate your child. If you start with a mindset that your child is incapable, that’s exactly what they will be. I have had teachers who have said James is incapable, and this was often when the child was sitting in the room listening. I always tell my son, ‘Whatever it is, it’s not your fault. It’s the teacher who doesn’t understand you.’”

“If somebody isn’t getting it, it’s not you. It’s them. Always believe in your child. If you believe in them and show them – teach them that they’re capable – you’re going to create somebody who is very resilient, motivated and ultimately will surprise you and many others.”

Jo adds, “You begin life with expectations – like you’re going to get married, have kids – and it’s all in this perfect little box. Then life really hits you, and it turns out messy. But the messy parts are the beautiful parts. Messy is where you grow and learn, and change is inevitable.

“I was recently asked in an interview who the person is that I look up to. I responded that, quite literally, I don’t look up; I look down because I’m taller than him. I look up to my son because he has taught me so much.”

As social entrepreneur Vivienne Schultz said, “We are all under construction,” but we need the right building blocks to progress with our journeys. As educators and parents, it falls to us to give our children the bricks and mortar they need to build themselves up.

Jo and Nicola acknowledge there is no single recipe for success, given each child’s uniqueness. While neurodiverse children can face challenges in life, in school and social situations, parents and educators can help them overcome barriers and thrive.

Many neurodiverse people have made a profound impact on the world. Director Tim Burton, tech pioneer Steve Jobs and fellow Silicon Valley billionaire Bill Gates are among the neurodivergent changemakers who have achieved success far beyond anything most ‘normal’ people ever will.

Being different should be a source of pride, never shame. As Nicola and Jo have proved, with early intervention, consistent therapy, being a tireless advocate for your child, finding other parents to connect with and having no expectations except giving your child the tools they need to become the person they want to be, they can become functional, highly successful human beings – and it is our privilege to educate them.

Gershom Aitchison

Co-founder and headmaster

Education Incorporated Private School (Fourways, Johannesburg)