I was a special education teacher for several years back in the 1970s and 1980s. Although I’d been trained at the University of Massachusetts’ School of Education to be a “change agent’’ and help kids realize their potential, I saw little of this going on in the world of special education. Instead, the focus was on disabilities, dysfunctions, and disorders. We had tests to look for problems and many different types of programs to “remediate” those difficulties. Forty years later, while the tests and learning programs have gotten more sophisticated, nothing has really changed much in terms of the underlying philosophy of special education: the idea that special educators fundamentally need to diagnose, prescribe, and “treat” the disabilities that these children and adolescents bring into the classroom.
In my article in the April 2017 Educational Leadership, “Neurodiversity: The Future of Special Education?”, I suggest that we need a revolution of sorts to change the paradigm we use to help students in special education. We should change from a “disability paradigm” to a “diversity paradigm.” It seems strange to me that we encourage all our kids in school to value biodiversity and cultural diversity, but when it comes to diversity in brains, we are still in the Stone Age; we fall back on a negativity-focused model in an effort to “fix” kids in special education so they can learn more effectively. Instead, we should heed and take a lesson from the emerging “neurodiversity’’ movement, which started in the autism community, and value the diversity our kids in special education bring to the table.
I believe we need to revamp our whole special education approach by using more positive metaphors to talk about differences (like valuing the diversity of our students’ “brain forests”); developing assessments to find strengths and abilities; employing psychologies based on a “growth mindset” and the neuroplasticity of the brain; and implementing programs that seek to build on students’ strengths rather than dwell on trying to patch up what we regard as their deficiencies. Ultimately, our kids in special education deserve the same approach to human potential that we give to our students in the gifted and talented programs. It makes total sense–but it hasn’t happened yet. The big question is why not?
Thomas Armstrong is an Educational Leadership author and the author of Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strengths-Base Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life (ASCD, 2012).