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Bringing Neurodiversity into the Classroom

  • Posted on November 17, 2009 at 10:42 PM

A little boy steps off the bus, confused by his unexpected surroundings.  This year—the year he starts kindergarten—the bus stops at the backdoor of a new school, instead of the front entrance of his neighborhood school, after a much longer bus ride.  Maybe he knows he’s being ushered into this new school through the backdoor, maybe he doesn’t.  Maybe he even knows the classroom he enters is segregated from his peers.  We assume he doesn’t know, because he doesn’t talk about it, because he can’t talk about it.  You see, this little boy is my own son, and he is autistic.  We assume he’s unaware that he’s being treated differently (not equally), but we can’t be sure.  Of one thing I am sure:  If he’s not aware of it now, he will be aware of it when he’s older, just like the many autistic adults speaking in favor of neurodiversity.

Unlike past forms of segregation, my son doesn’t spend his entire day in the special education room.  He visits the regular classroom and his peers are told that, even though he doesn’t stay in their room, he is part of their class.  He comes in with an aide who helps him participate.  Then, when it’s all too much, she takes him away.  The school system recognizes his educational needs differ from those of his peers and claims those needs cannot be met in a regular classroom.  I know my son’s needs are not met in a regular classroom, but does that really mean they cannot be?  I grew up learning that “different but equal” is not equal at all.  Sadly, that doesn’t apply to my children or others like them, because our society fails to recognize people with atypical neurological development as equals at all.

Some refer to this forced inequality as disabilism and see it manifested in pervasive ways throughout our society.  Disablism refers to the societal tendency to single out, exclude or mistreat people with impairments, because of those impairments.  Segregated classrooms for the cognitively disabled are only one example of disablism.  Disabilism is institutionalized into the public education system, in part, by the behavior of teachers, service providers, and administrators that Dr. Thomas Armstrong, an educator and author out of California, calls the disability discourse, which he described as “an institutionalized discourse consisting of specific words such as ‘disability’ ‘disorder’ ‘deficit’ and ‘dysfunction’ to describe the lives of these children.”  These societal behaviors shape the environment in which all of our children learn and grow.  Telling children a segregated child is part of their class, while well-intentioned, still fails to integrate that child into their class.

Unfortunately, the regular classroom is not only designed to exclude specific students from the learning environment it fails to include any child in the learning environment.  The public school system is designed to teach standardized curricula.  It is not designed to teach the individual students expected to learn that curricula.  Individual teachers can transform that environment into something special, but this ability is not a requirement for employment and often the resources to do so must be found outside the public school system.  This fundamental flaw is not the fault of individual teachers, principals, or school boards, but is built into the educational system itself.

Our children are unique with individual needs that can only be met when they are treated as people, instead of a homogenized group.  Our children do not come standardized.  Yet, our educational goals and the learning environment we create to meet those goals are standardized.  Our children get pushed through the system regardless of what they learn.  Unless, of course, their needs stand out so much that the system rejects them.  The child who does not and cannot fit the standardized mold is diverted into the special education system.  There, they face the unfortunate reality that they are not deemed equal in our society.  They are different, but not equal; and disabilism and the disability discourse shape their futures.

Neurodiversity is a two-fold concept that can change the public educational system for all children.  Neurodiversity refers to a civil rights movement crafted by autistics that seeks true equality for people with cognitive disorders and mental illnesses—founded on the belief that neurological differences are natural human variations and deserve the rights, accommodations, and acceptance any other human difference deserves.  Neurodiversity also recognizes that neurological development is not standardized.  Everyone develop unique neurological processes that should be recognized, respected, and facilitated.

Everyone is neurologically diverse.  Everyone has unique educational needs our education system fails to meet.  Instead of designing an education system that meets the individual needs of our children, we have designed an education system that meets societal needs for measurements, cost-control, and resource allocation.  Changes to IEP legislation that require recording strengths as well as needs, separating a grade into groups that study different levels of mathematics or reading, using inclusive language, and telling students that those segregated in the special education system are part of their class address surface issues.  But the problem goes much, much deeper.  Our education system is fundamentally flawed.  It does not meet, nor is it designed to meet, the needs of the students we wish to educate.

Our children deserve an education system designed to meet their individual learning needs.  Our children deserve a learning environment that teaches children, not curricula.  Our children deserve teachers that are trained and qualified to teach them as individuals, recognizing and meeting their individual education needs.  An Individual Education Plan shouldn’t be a privilege reserved for students with special needs, but should be provided to all students.  Our school systems need holistic change.  We need to re-think how we teach, what we teach, and who we are teaching.  We need to rethink the qualifications our educators need and we need to rethink the needs our schools should be required to meet. 

Change comes slowly and painfully.  Holistic change may be easy to envision, but it is very difficult to achieve.  It won’t happen this year or next year.  But it can happen.  Change requires a lot of work, a lot of planning, and often a new allocation of resources.  An individualized education provided by well-trained, highly-qualified, and fully-resourced staff doesn’t come cheap.  But our children are our future and they are worth the work and they are worth the money.  The real question is:  Will we afford our children the respect and consideration they deserve?

Back to School Ruminations

  • Posted on September 3, 2009 at 8:00 AM

Comparing and contrasting Willy’s educational experience with that of his brothers always makes me a little sad.  Willy is fortunate in that he’s found a way to take the world as it is and interacts on a level that most people understand.  He’s very much autistic and still faces many challenges in how he interacts and what he’s considered able to do and what he is able to do (which are not always the same).  But, he has a strong support system at Roosevelt and is able to compensate for most of his differences to succeed in a socially recognizable way.  Alex and Ben are on a different track.  They do not demonstrate a sufficient amount of self-control, communication, or interaction to participate (as per the Janesville school system) in an integrated environment.  Their educational needs are met in a segregated classroom called the CD room – for cognitively disabled.  The fact that they are not, in fact, cognitively disabled plays little significance in this designation, because they are not able to communicate their intelligence in an academically recognized fashion.  Roosevelt is not equipped to meet their needs, so they are sent to attend school together at Kennedy.

I don’t mean to slam Roosevelt or Kennedy.  The decision here is made at a level neither school can change.  Both are goods schools with good people and both try to service their students as they are able.  But I cannot help but remember my own time in school.

In one of several grade schools I attended there was a student with Down ’s syndrome.  I only saw her on the playground and many of the students made fun of her.  She first came to my notice when I saw another child push her for no apparent reason other than her poor balance meant she’d fall with only a little push.  I didn’t usually see things like that, because a friend and I would go off as far in the field as we could to play our own games of make-believe.  This girl would always come out a few minutes later than us, so we’d already be gone.  After seeing our classmate push her down, we went to her an invited her to come play with us.  She couldn’t quite follow our game, but enjoyed our company. 

In junior high, I was somewhat segregated.  They called the classes I took “gifted and talented” or “differentiated.”  They were the opposite of CD classes, designed for students who excelled instead of those who struggled.  I enjoyed these classes, because I was challenged academically for the first time in a long while.  Yet, integrating with non-differentiated students in the regular classes was difficult.  I was set apart, and they knew it.  Most of my fellow differentiated students had the social skills to compensate, but I didn’t.  I was an outsider.  Not like any of them and being segregated for most of my classes seemed to make that worse.

In all my time going to school and in all the different schools I attended, I was only aware of the one girl with cognitive disabilities.  The rest were kept out of sight, but I know now there had to have been more.  Kennedy doesn’t try to keep Alex and Ben out of sight.  Each child is assigned to an age-appropriate classroom with their typically developing peers.  Each will visit this classroom as their schedules allow.  And, at my recommendation, last year on Fridays one of Alex’s peers would come to the CD classroom to visit him.  This became a special treat that his peers looked forward to and enjoyed.

So, progress is being made.  Yet, I know fully integrated schools exist and that they can work for the benefit of all the students.  I know that children with special needs should not be kept out of sight for the comfort of the bigots.  I remember sitting in school, surrounded by my predominantly white peers, and learning about the history of segregated schools.  I remember when I first learned what happened in Little Rock.  I remember raising my hand and asking, quite honestly, “But why would they be angry that the kids wanted to go to the good school?”  I didn’t understand.  In a way, I still don’t.  I can wrap my head around racism and bigotry.  I see it as wholly illogical, but I understand that it is driven by emotion not intellect.  I cannot wrap my heart around it.  I cannot understand those emotions that drive racism and bigotry, however well I can label them:  hatred, fear, disgust.  I understand that people crave a sense of commonality and that those outside that commonality face prejudice.  That it is so, and understanding that it is so, doesn’t help me to understand why.

I’m thankful for the progress that has been made and look ahead sadly to how much more must be done.  But, my boys are lucky.  They have a chance.  So many have their chances stolen from them by prejudice and hatred.  I cannot help but think my failure to understand leaves me powerless to affect needed changes.  But I will try.  Everyone deserves the chance to live, to be educated, to grow, to develop – without artificial roadblocks keeping them from their own potential.