By: Irfan Toor  • December 8, 2023  •  (4.5 min read)

In a previous blog, I shared some of my conversations with Karen Timm (Durham District School Board) and the importance of recognizing Neurodivergent identities in education. 

Responding to a clear and present need to create safe spaces for Neurodivergent students and staff, Karen co-founded NINE – the Neurodivergent Infinity Network of Educators – with two fellow Autistic educators in Durham. From there, the team has evolved into an international collaborative network and co-learning community of Neurodivergent educators, which partners with self-advocacy organizations from around the world. NINE’s mandate is to work “beyond walls and borders to foster Neuroaffirmative, Human Rights based practice in education and beyond.” NINE offers a variety of opportunities for Autistic students, educators and others, as well as those seeking to be allies, to connect, share experiences and foster a sense of belonging, while actively engaging in Neurodiversity Affirming learning. 

NINE began as a means to bring together Neurodivergent (or Neurotype questioning) adults who navigated the education system as students and continue to do so as adults. “It takes a lot of masking of Neurodivergent traits, essentially both conscious and subconscious code-switching, to exist within the education sector,” Karen explains, “and it’s almost seen as okay to be ableist since it is so embedded into the legacy of historical language, most of which still persists in our sector.” Karen points out that many Neurodivergent educators face daily microaggressions and systemic barriers, “which have yet to be breached or even identified in many school boards, often because most Neurodivergent educators and leaders are not willing to risk openly identifying as such.” 

While there is no physical ‘look’ to being Autistic or otherwise Neurodivergent, Karen reminds us that for those who may seem neurotypical to onlookers, it makes it a little easier for them to pass without judgment and discrimination from colleagues, students and community members. But she also notes that spending their day suppressing who they are is exhausting and comes at a cost. “Imagine going through every day of your career expending inordinate amounts of energy trying to present the way others expect you to present, trying so hard not to react to sensory overload because of fluorescent lights and loud, unnecessary bells, for instance, or participating in lunchroom chats to avoid being seen as a loner, when what you really need is a sensory break. That is really just the tip of the iceberg, because being a Neurodivergent educator means experiencing systemic ableism not only firsthand as an adult employee, but also as we witness and can even be unintentionally complicit in the negative experiences caused for our Neurodivergent students. For many of us, the HEART work never stops, because we are always trying to do better for our Neurodivergent students within a system that was not built for them, or for us.“ 

As an offshoot of NINE, Karen runs an all Autistic Affinity space called the ‘Ausome Human Club,’ currently a virtual weekly opportunity for local and international Autistic educators and students to engage in co-learning, sharing of specializations, Autistic Pride, event planning and mentorship opportunities. In that space, Sofia from Scotland interacts with Sabrina, a Non-Speaker from the USA, alongside Autistic students and staff from Durham and beyond. Karen shares that while AHC is in a “continual state of metamorphosis to honour the diversity of its members authentically, what has remained constant is the joy, pride, connection and self-confidence that members and their families have described, because they have found a community they hadn’t otherwise experienced. For many, including the educator members, it has been trajectory changing.”

For more information about NINE events and resources, or to connect with NINE, please check out its website. You may also follow @NINE_On_Can and @KarenAnnTimm on Twitter. 


Irfan Toor, Director of EDI

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