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Special Education Opinion

Appreciating Special Education Students’ Diversity

By Thomas Armstrong — February 05, 2013 6 min read
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Forty years ago, while preparing to become a special education teacher, I happily immersed myself in the study of thought leaders who viewed education as a process of developing the full potential of all children. I read Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner, John Holt, and many others who filled me with excitement and the hope that I could really make a difference in the lives of students with special needs. Then, in 1976, I became a special education teacher, and all that changed.

Special education turned out to be a very different place from the one that I had envisioned. There was virtually no mention of unleashing human potential, developing children’s strengths, or introducing students to the joy of learning. Instead, I entered a world of deficits, disorders, and dysfunctions. Instead of embracing the richness of children’s lives, I encountered diagnostic tests, behavioral checklists, and hundreds of instructional objectives. Instead of celebrating the playfulness, imagination, inventiveness, and curiosity that these students possessed, I confronted a long list of soulless processes, including auditory sequential memory, visual-spatial perception, short-term memory, and sensory-motor skills. The whole child, with all of his depth, profundity, and dignity, had somehow become dismembered.

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Since that time, not much has changed. I recently Googled the phrase “strengths of students with special needs” to get a sense of whether educational researchers these days were shifting their focus from deficits to abilities in studying students with special needs. Other than the occasional token acknowledgment of the need to discover a student’s strengths, I found little material of any relevance. This struck me as worrisome.

It seems to me that if students are having difficulties in learning, they need to be surrounded by adults who see the very best in them, not the very worst. Yet the real problem here is that special education has its historical roots deeply embedded in the medical model, a domain which focuses on the diagnosis of disease and not the articulation of degrees of wellness. A look at the pioneers of special education in the 20th century reveals a very different list from the thinkers who inspired me 40 years ago. This roll call includes eugenicist Henry H. Goddard, who coined the diagnostic term “moron” in 1910; neuropathologist Samuel Orton, who, in 1925, asked teachers to refer students to him “who were considered defective or who were retarded or failing in their school work"; neuropsychiatrist Alfred A. Strauss, who in the 1940s at Wayne County Training School in Michigan worked out the psychopathology of “minimal brain injury"; and psychologists Samuel Kirk and William Cruickshank, who “invented” the term “learning disability” in 1963 in a Chicago hotel room. (I heard Cruickshank say as much in a lecture in Montreal in the mid-1970s, although apparently Kirk had used the term a year earlier.)

Such historical baggage makes it particularly difficult for people in the field of special education to break out of this institutionally based deficit orientation into a new and more affirmative perspective—one that is proactive in its approach toward children with special needs. Yet these educators clearly must do so in order to align themselves with current trends in “positive psychology,” which seek to put more emphasis on researching values, strengths, virtues, and talents than on studying illness, damage, disorder, and dysfunction.

I believe it’s time for a paradigm shift in the field of special education. Fortunately, a new concept has emerged on the horizon that promises to establish a more positive foundation upon which to build new strength-based assessments, programs, curricula, and environments for these kids.

Proponents of neurodiversity encourage us to apply the same attitudes that we have about biodiversity and cultural diversity to an understanding of how different brains are wired."

The concept is neurodiversity. The term, which was coined by Australian autism-activist Judy Singer and American journalist Harvey Blume in the late 1990s, suggests that what we’ve called in the past “disabilities” ought to be described instead as “differences” or “diversities.” Proponents of neurodiversity encourage us to apply the same attitudes that we have about biodiversity and cultural diversity to an understanding of how different brains are wired.

It would be absurd to say that a calla lily has “petal-deficit disorder,” or that a person from Holland suffers from “altitude-deprivation syndrome.” The fact is, we appreciate the flower for its intrinsic beauty and value citizens of the Netherlands for their unique landscape. So, too, we should celebrate the differences in students who have been labeled “learning disabled,” “autistic,” “ADD/ADHD,” “intellectually disabled,” “emotionally and behaviorally disordered,” or who have been given other neurologically based diagnoses. We ought to appreciate these kids for who they really are and not dwell upon who they have failed to become.

This is not a Pollyannaish philosophy, nor is it an attempt to whitewash the real difficulties and challenges that children with special needs face on a daily basis. What neurodiversity does, however, is suggest that just as we honor diversities of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation in our schools, so too we should add to this list of diversities those of cognition, behavior, attention span, intelligence, sociability, and learning style. The neurodiversity movement is supported by a strong empirical base that has documented the strengths, talents, and abilities of people with special needs.

At Cambridge University in England, for example, psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen has studied the special gifts of people with autism, detailing their ability to work with systems rather than people and pinpointing their capacity for recognizing tiny details in the midst of complex data. At the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, developmental psychologist Catya von Károlyi has assembled compelling evidence for the three-dimensional visual strengths of people with dyslexia. At Vanderbilt University, psychologist Elisabeth Dykens has studied the positive personality characteristics of students with intellectual disabilities. At Stanford University, psychiatrist Kiki Chang and his colleagues have documented the creative abilities of children with bipolar disorder. And at the University of Washington, anthropologist Dan T.A. Eisenberg has written about the evolutionary advantages of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

What we are seeing here is the emergence of a rich database of strengths about people with special needs that has thus far remained hidden from the vast majority of people working in both regular and special education.

It’s time to clearly acknowledge and fully integrate a strength-based approach to learning into special education research and practice. Already, we’re beginning to see the emergence of a new growth-oriented paradigm toward neurodiversities in education. In 2009, the Jefferson County, Colo., school district created an office of diversity and inclusion “to ensure that our graduates know and understand more about themselves, others, and the world.”

In 2010, a leading neurodiversity advocate, Ari Ne’eman, was appointed by the U. S. Senate to serve on the National Council on Disability. In 2012, National Book Award winner Andrew Solomon’s best-selling and critically acclaimed book Far From the Tree highlighted the role of the neurodiversity movement in promoting the cause of people with autism. As we move further into the 21st century, it is my hope that both regular and special educators will begin to discard the outmoded “deficit” approach to special education, and embrace a positive neurodiversity perspective as a revolutionary new way to ensure that our students who learn and develop differently can realize all of their potentials and achieve success in school and life.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2013 edition of Education Week as The New Diversity in Education

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