Analysis of the Article : “Neurodiversity: The Future of Special Education”

This post is an analysis of an education article titled “Neurodiversity: The Future of Special Education”. You can find a link to the original article here. The following is a thoughtful response that I wrote for a small audience and I thought I would share it here.

Special Education is a topic that is near and dear to my heart as I know several individuals and families that depend on its services to educate their children. While laws require that schools offer and fund these services to students, how they are offered and performed can vary greatly in schools; even schools in the same district can have widely varied programs available. Some schools may even choose to flout the laws requiring special education and parents are forced to start lawsuits to achieve any services as all. One thing that seems consistent in schools over the country is how special education and those students who need it are viewed: students with disabilities are seen as having problems and weaknesses and those who need special education are not as intelligent or as able as ‘normal’ students. These viewpoints with their emphasis on disability, dysfunction, and other negative connotations that go hand in hand with them can cause resignation and a negative outlook in students and families for their future prospects. Thomas Armstrong brings a fresh perspective on special education and how the perspectives and viewpoints of teachers and schools can and should change to facilitate better learning, the development of programs that support a ‘whole person’ growth, and to develop positive perspectives and momentum both in scholarship and individual growth.

In his article titled “Neurodiversity: The Future of Special Education”, Armstrong states that the ways special education programs are currently developed and understood by its practitioners needs to change in several key ways. He suggests that schools and educators recognize the neurodiversity of students as a positive trait to be honored and respected just as with other human diversity traits such as race, gender identity, religion, etc. While current programs for exceptional education tends to emphasize a student’s deficits and strengths, he believes that a new approach should be developed that emphasizes the students’ strengths (such as what currently happens for gifted or talented students.) Some formal assessments to help determine a students’ strengths are the VIA Character Strengths, Virtues, Dunn and Dunn Learning Style Assessments, and the Baron-Welsh Art Scale. Informal assessments that are currently available for educators to utilize for additional information on learning strengths is the Neurodiversity Strengths Checklist, “strength chats” as devised by Epstein (2008), and motivational interviewing. This emphasis on positive talents should then be used to build on the students’ strengths and minimize their weakest areas by utilizing workarounds to help students manage both academic and nonacademic challenges without allowing their disability to hinder them. According to Armstrong, this approach is very different than current special education services where students are taught how to live with their disability instead of working to overcome it.

Another key component of Armstrong’s suggested neurodiversity acceptance is that all students in classrooms need to be taught about the intrinsic worth of human variation and neurological diversity. By educating all students on how the human brain works, how environment shapes brain structure and function, and that all students have a capacity for learning, the expectations of everyone involved in the special education system would change. Some research studies suggest that when teachers expect positive outcomes from their students, academic results usually improve. Also, inclusion would be more effective as learning diversified students would be viewed more as assets in the classroom rather than a difficulty or burden. As a side benefit, if students are taught to respect and embrace neurodiversity, students who learn or act differently are more likely be accepted by their peer groups and less likely to be marginalized or bullied. If implemented, the author’s recommendations have a significant potential to change the way special education is understood and provided to students as well as positive implications for both individual and community development.

This article has several strengths. The author discussed traditional methods of special education and compares and contrasts these methods with his recommendations. He includes research that supports his conclusions and also addresses some of the challenges that would need to be overcome to implement them. He suggests assessments that are currently available to educators to help determine student strengths so that they can be used to facilitate a learner in knowledge attainment. He states that educators who start to utilize these methods will have positive feelings for the children they teach who have learning weaknesses and that these positive feelings will translate into strength manipulation to help students recognize and work to overcome the learning areas in which they are weak. Armstrong’s work can be used for students that have been shunted into special education to help create IEPs that truly look at the student as a whole person and not just a list of ‘things to check off.’

One weakness that the article has is the author’s use of polarity language. He uses language to discuss his thesis and special education in ways that is inherently divisive. His recommendations are littered with language that radiates positivity: growth mindset, nuance, creating, thrive, transformation, assets, etc. However, the language used to describe the current system is very different: deficit, disorder, dysfunction, negative connotations, insular, remediation, burdens, etc. I do not disagree necessarily with his word choices as they do allow him to discuss his research with readers and work to motivate educators into implementing his stated program. However, I worry that the language used may turn off some of the very people that are needed to implement the changes suggested. Another weakness is that the author doesn’t address funding needs to implement his changes. Armstrong acknowledges that both educators and parents may fear the process of funding special education for children if disabilities are viewed more positively- it is the use of terms such as disability and dysfunction that make that funding currently available. If his recommendations are put into normal usage, would the funding dry up? I think that it is quite understandable to worry about this aspect as, even with protections for funding that are required by law, these regulations are still held in contempt by some schools and school districts. Armstrong suggests a way to protect current funding under the system by continuing to use the traditional methods of determining disability and dysfunction that will open the door to special education services. Educators would then try to discard the ‘disability mindset’ after initial diagnosis and use the recommendations stated above to motivate and teach their students. However, Armstrong does not suggest how to get the funding to utilize his recommendations in the classroom. He recognizes the financial problems that are conceivable if special education funding becomes restricted, but he doesn’t offer any ideas as to how to use that funding for development of similar programing in schools. At one point in the article, Armstrong gives suggestions for educators to utilize his research; schools in specified districts working together to integrate his research, promoting school wide ‘fairs’ for students on neurodiversity, and hiring a neurodiversity coordinator to help monitor the changes put into place. Where is the funding for these extra services going to be found? Will it take away services that are already in place for students? Will funding for a coordination for a school district make funding dry up for special education teachers in different schools in the district? It is really hard to know and the author has not addressed that at all.

As stated above, I would really like to understand how this research can be funded and put into common usage. As a mother of a child with a few learning disorders, I see a potential benefit for using Armstrong’s research for changing the way that school deal with and teach individuals with disabilities. As neurotypical students also have many different ways of learning, it seems correct to believe that all students may need some help for success in the classroom. As such, it seems reasonable that educators who recognize the differences between a “disability paradigm” and a “diversity paradigm” would be able to quickly modify the ways that they provide services to their students. I would like to have a better understanding of how best to help ‘change perspectives’, both in educators and parents to see a more positive yet realistic outcome for their children. I would also like to know exactly how accessible the student strengths assessments are to educators and whether there are fees or other hurdles to ease of use. As the most clear cut assessment mentioned- the Neurodiversity Strengths checklist- was developed by the author, I would want to understand what financial benefits he might enjoy from this product. (This could also be seen as another weakness in the article as it might be more of a sales pitch depending on what benefits the author stands to gain.) Also, Armstrong mentioned some ways of modifying lessons to help students with learning differences achieve better results from their students. However, every modification he mentioned suggests to me that the students he is thinking of would have two specific traits; at least normal intelligence as defined by current special education assessments and their education would be provided by a decently funded educational system. I would be curious to see what modifications that he would recommended for individuals of less than normal intelligence scores (forms of mental retardation) or for individuals who attend schools with significant funding issues that can’t afford to purchase specialized software, virtual reality applications, etc. I could not tell if Armstrong had studied the ramifications of working with students who display significant physical, mental, or learning challenges when developing his views and conducting his research as this information was not mentioned. I would really like to know how his theories work and can be used across the whole spectrum of students and not just a majority.

I can see several ways that Armstrong’s research can be used in practical settings in schools. For schools districts and educators that are able to see their students from the perspective of student strengths over weakness, teaching and inclusion could become more specific for each student- even in larger classes. Currently, inclusion of special education students in mainstream classrooms can make teachers feel overwhelmed and they can view these students as a distraction or encumbrance to themselves and the others students. Any perspective that helps teachers to see the good in the children they teach and give them a desire to help all students perform at their best regardless of ability is an essential part of true classroom inclusion. As Armstrong mentioned in this article, when teachers view particular students negatively, other students may develop the same attitude towards those students. This can lead to bullying, ostracizing, and other negative consequences towards special education students which can create an unsafe school situation for all participants.

One way that this research can be applied is to provide a more specific emphasis in equality in the school environment. By helping students to learn with the strengths that they have, it should create an environment that doesn’t stratify as easily among financial and perceived intellectual lines. I suspect there will always be some form of social class functionality in a school- there will always be a student who is always last to be picked for team sports for example- but helping to minimize those aspects in classrooms by creating more equal opportunities for learning should be very helpful for helping students to prepare for their future. Teachers who are able to take the time to understand both the weaknesses and strengths of the children that they teach can take that knowledge into the mainstream classroom to create an inclusive learning environment that holds realistic and high standards for all student participants. These actions as performed by teachers conform to the recommended guidelines in the InTASC Model Core Teaching Standards; specifically, Standard #2 titled Learning Differences.

I also think that teachers that encourage students to utilize learning by tapping into their strengths are teachers that affected students will work harder to achieve for. At the beginning of this class, almost all learners mentioned a specific teacher that made a difference in their lives and all of those teachers had one thing in common. That commonality was that each student felt the teacher’s sincere desire and support for the student’s educational growth . When each of us feel cared for and developed a strong bond with that teacher, we worked harder and achieved more because our success was no longer just for us, but also to cement the relationship that had been previously created between teacher and pupil. Not all teachers feel inspired or have any desire to develop that kind of deep relationship with their students, but all anecdotal evidence provided in class suggests that teachers who create positive circles of communications and a unique relationship with each student do create significant knowledge growth and more positive outlooks for these students. I suspect that teachers who are willing and desire to create these tight bonds with students will also desire to provide the student what they need to succeed. If so, that extra time or service will not feel so strongly like a burden to be endured, but a challenge to overcome; a slight difference in viewpoint, but one ripe with better outcomes.

I found myself very interested in Amstrong’s research and I am happy that my library search brought it to light. I thought the article well written and provided many opportunities for thought and opportunities for more research. I can think of several ways that this information could be utilized in a classroom and I hope that these particular recommendations are incorporated into the traditional special education programs that are currently functioning in schools locally and across the country. I would be interested in seeing how these techniques work in the typical classroom and within the resources currently available to rural schools. I look forward to more research to suggest whether this program is optimal for most students.

Any thoughts on both the articles and it's topic? An experience that you wish to share? I'm eager to hear if anyone has first hand experiences with this program and it's implementation....

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