We are all the same as we are all different

By Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. 

Students with special needs are particularly at risk of being bullied since they are perceived by students and teachers alike as not measuring up to the ‘’normal’’ standard of achievement and behavior.  An intervention that can assist in revising this perception, and at the same time boost the school-wide image of students in special education is neurodiversity.  The concept of neurodiversity emerged in the 1990’s as part of the autism rights movement and proposes that individuals with autism and other special needs be viewed not as disabled but different. The use of a diversity model to understand students who learn and/or act differently can help counter the picture of students in special education as somehow ‘less than’ and protect them from becoming ready-made victims for the abusive behaviors of school bullies. 

The focus of neurodiversity is upon strengths and draws upon an emerging literature which highlights the assets of people with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, intellectual disabilities, and other special needs. Research suggests, for example, that dyslexics often possess strong three-dimensional thinking abilities and entrepreneurial skills, students with ADHD can be novelty-seekers and creative thinkers, students with autism can be systemizers and experts in small detail work, and students with intellectual disabilities can possess strong theatrical capabilities.  A school that can highlight these strengths will help reverse the image of special education students as disabled, dysfunctional, and disordered. 

Curricula needs to be provided to all students in school that display the positive achievements of individuals from all walks of life who have special needs and have become successful in their chosen professions.  Emphasis needs to be placed on activities in the classroom that allow students with special needs to demonstrate their strengths rather than to have their weaknesses constantly exposed.  So, for example, students with autism who have strong interests can serve as experts in their chosen fields, students with dyslexia who have well-developed visual-spatial strengths can fulfill classroom requirements through art-related activities (e.g. illustrating a book report or school essay) and by exhibiting their photos, paintings and sculptures in school-wide art shows, students with Down syndrome who possess a flair for dramatic expression can demonstrate their abilities in classroom role plays and in school theatrical performances.  As the positive image of these students is built up over time in the eyes of students, teachers, and administrators, they will become less and less potential targets of school bullies. 

Teachers need to create a positive climate in the classroom where all students are perceived as having different strengths and abilities (Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences can be useful in this regard).  In a class that promotes neurodiversity, students attain a measure of equality (we are all the same in that we are all different).  This takes the stigma out of being seen as a ‘’special ed’’ kid and replaces it with a view that both typically developing students as well as students with special needs have important skills and talents that can be expressed throughout the school day.  And like a raging fire that is gradually extinguished by depriving it of oxygen, so too, the bullying epidemic in America can be starved by withdrawing the elements of weakness and vulnerability in students with special needs that serve as ready-made tinder for the bully’s savage cruelty.

Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. is the author of Neurodiversity in the Classroom:  Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life (ASCD) and The Power of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain (DaCapo).  His website is:  www.institute4learning.com.