By: Irfan Toor  • September 15, 2023  •  (5 min read)

I’ve had the opportunity over the last few months to communicate with and learn from Karen Timm, an OPC Member who works as an administrator in the Durham District School Board, identifies as Neurodivergent and also facilitates the OPC Affinity Space for Neurodivergent administrators. Karen explains how the journey to understanding and embracing her own neurology has been fundamental throughout her career as an educational leader and an advocate, and she asserts that these two roles should not be separated, especially as we strive to centre Human Rights, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion into all we do. As a ‘‘perpetually reflective” Autistic education leader, Karen describes having an “intrinsic drive to ensure a safe, clear and responsive path is forged so Neurodivergent students, families and staff face increasingly fewer barriers with every collective step we take towards Neurodiversity-Affirming schools, workplaces and communities.” 

In our conversations, Karen shared with me how important it is for our system to progress from awareness to acceptance and inclusion.   “Everyone is aware Autistic and otherwise Neurodivergent humans exist, but existence is not enough. We need to be understood, respected, valued and presumed competent, but too often that does not happen in the educational setting because everything we have been taught throughout our careers about Autistic realities, for example, has come through the lens of the medical model of disability.”  This, Karen explains, is incredibly harmful, because the medical model “begins with the deficit-based assumption that we are broken Neurotypicals”. Instead, she affirms, “regardless of our varying support needs, communication differences and unique ways of being, ALL human beings should be seen as “Different, NOT less.”

Karen speaks passionately about her own learning journey of self-discovery, and “retro-piphanies” but recognizes that, as with the general population, there are layers of privilege within the Neurodivergent community. Karen continually challenges herself and others to really listen to those most marginalized within the Neurodivergent community so their voices can be heard and acted upon with intentionality. Amplifying the voices of Non-Speakers, for instance, has been a powerful, driving force for Karen. “There are so many Non-Speakers who have been so incredibly misunderstood for so long. There is an urgent need for educators and school leaders to really dig deeper and build a new shared schema about Non-Speakers. We must immerse ourselves in the rapidly growing global library of stories, videos, blogs, and other publications written and produced by Autistic Non-Speakers from all over the world who are advocating for accessible communication tools, respect and the presumption of competence.” When education staff do this, their pedagogical shift can translate to a life changing positive impact for Non-Speaking students, and Karen sees this as more and more are connecting with NINE, attending their events, such as last year’s ‘Intersectional Infinity Summit’, and becoming co-conspirators for change. 

One of the key next steps to shift education practice, according to Karen, is for “all educational stakeholders to commit to learning from diverse Neurodivergent educators about our authentic ways of being, communicating and experiencing the world, as this will help provide incredibly valuable insights into Neurodivergent students and help inform school and system goals in authentic ways.” Realizing this will require a “significant, but extremely powerful mindset shift” for many, Karen challenges all in education “to ‘walk through that door’, because time and time again, those who join this co-learning journey realize very quickly that what they thought they knew about us, has been defined from the outside for far too long. And there should be #NothingAboutUsWithoutUs”. 

Karen hopes that we will see more openly neurodivergent educators in the future. As with other diverse identities, “students need to see themselves represented in our education system, and for those educators and leaders who are neurotypical, it's important to understand that Autistic and otherwise Neurodivergent humans experience the world in our own unique ways and these ways need to be honoured in order for us all to thrive. The natural variation of human diversity is so rich. It is time for Education to redefine its notions of ‘Normal’ by embracing Neurodivergent perspectives.” 

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


Irfan Toor, Director of EDI

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