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Blog: Thursday, April 20th, 2017
McMillan, Embracing Neurodiversity
I had a wonderful visit to McMillan Elementary school last week. I could write about a number of things I observed in the school, but have decided to focus on the staff’s commitment to creating an inclusive environment. It is a topic of some substance these days, and I was very encouraged by the examples I observed. Whether it was through their use of space, accommodations within the classrooms, or specialized interventions, I saw much evidence of the staff working to support all of their students. For instance, I observed the tremendous care put into designing and decorating a sensory room for one of their students, Yannick. Some of you may also know that McMillan Elementary was the fortunate recipient of a grant from the Rick Hansen Foundation for an Inclusive Playground. I had an opportunity to see the plans, and review the spot (see pic) where the playground will be installed this summer.
As I left the school, I recalled a TED talk I observed recently about the need for society to view children with special needs in a different way than we have done historically. The speaker, Steve Silberman, said we need to come to grips with the ‘neurodiversity’ all around us. He compared the differing mindsets of two psychologists who studied autism in the 1940s. The dominant view of the day, promoted by renowned psychiatrist Leo Connor, was that the was condition rare, exacerbated by unloving parents and could not be ameliorated. A less accepted view held by Hans Asperger was that autism was far more common, unrelated to parental love, and could be addressed with thoughtful therapies. Asperger believed that the stigma associated with this condition caused few parents to come forward to seek help for their children. He believed that this was a part of the spectrum of the human condition, and that there were far more of these children in the population than we knew (It should not be surprising that an Austrian scientist’s theories in the 1940’s would be easily dismissed). While it took over four decades, in the end, it turned out that Dr. Asperger’s views most closely approximated our best understanding of autism spectrum today. Notwithstanding some interesting bumps in the road to developing our current knowledge base (including a belief that autism came from the MMR vaccine), we have expanded tremendously on the knowledge base about the spectrum of learning differences in students.
The term “neurodiversity” came into being in the 1990s. Basically it means that “neurological differences are to be honored and respected just like any other human variation, including diversity in race, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, sexual orientation, and so on” (Armstrong, 2017). In other words, it is simply a part of the natural variation that occurs in all brains. Neurodiversity requires use to look with new eyes at the labels we sometimes assign to people whose brains are wired differently. It also means that something that manifests as a deficit in one setting, can be an asset in another setting. The Olympic snowboarder Shaun White tells us that his ADHD as a child was a tremendous problem in the classroom, but the same condition allowed him to become a better competitor.
Most importantly, neurodiversity means focusing primarily on strengths, talents, abilities, and interests, rather than on deficits. The fundamental difference here is helping students (and the adults around them) learn to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses (as opposed to "living with their disability”). For example, an educator might encourage a student diagnosed with a learning disability who has a keen interest in skateboarding to develop that interest through experiential approaches that would help ameliorate his challenges in other areas. Ironically, this was how we tended to design programs for the gifted students. The seamless inclusion of neurodiverse students into regular classrooms is more likely to succeed when we all see students in our classrooms as assets.
This was the mindset that I came away with from my visit to McMillan, and I am thankful that they shared their commitment and passion with me. I certainly know their school community is better for it.