Neuroatypical: an atypical approach for all students?

image of neurotypical warning label
image credit: belief makers

The term “neurotypical” is used specifically to refer to individuals who are not on the autism spectrum. People who are neuroatypical are said to be on the spectrum. The problem with this binary, on/off labeling is that there are a wide variety of behaviors that fall under the neuroatypical designation. If you include ADHD and dyslexia – admittedly, both are not typical – the number of individuals in the group, particularly boys, increases. According to one recent article, combining those identified with autism, ADHD, and dyslexia would amount to 25% of all individuals – and you know where this is going – most of whom would be male. Does that mean that simply being male puts a child at risk of being identified as neuroatypical? Seems a bit unfair.

Check out this recent (September 2018) article from WIRED which takes education to task for identifying so many boys as neuroatypical. According to the author, Joi Ito, he learns just fine, even if his way of learning isn’t “typical” and does not fit well in a mainstream school setting. His point is that schools fail these kids by labeling them as somehow deficient, and therefore not helping them develop their skills which might help them work well in other settings.

Tech companies, particularly Microsoft, are developing programs to hire neuroatypical individuals, since many of them have skills that work well in the tech industry. The boy who spent his childhood playing video games just might have the skills and the vision to troubleshoot software problems. He may have social access issues, but his skill set makes him such a valuable asset for the tech companies that they are developing programs to help these individuals become valued employees. The stories of these individuals are heartwarming and it is wonderful to see that the companies are finding places for these extremely capable individuals.

A dear friend, who is an amazing professor of special ed, was extremely upset when I discussed this with her. She sees this problem from a very different standpoint – from the side of the school and the teacher. Her point is that without the designation, these students will not receive services and their chances at success are seriously limited. Her position is that we need to have special ed programs because those bring with them funding and training to supply teachers to help.

Here is the issue: on one hand, we need to be able to identify students with learning disabilities so that they can receive services and without those identifications, there will be no funding for the special education that absolutely will help many of them. On the other hand, identifying children as neuroatypical means that they may think of themselves as “problem kids” because their brains are broken for learning.

I fit into the category of neuroatypical, but I had the advantage of good verbal skills. While I didn’t need special educational help, I had the advantage of going to a very small school with very small classes. That gave me the attention I needed in school. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school before I began to understand my problems with dysgraphia, mild dyscalculia, and mild ADHD. In fact, even though I myself fit the diagnosis of ADHD, I still resist the designation. I believe that there needs to be a wider understanding of variations of reaction to environmental stimuli. I do really well when I’m pushed to the edge, when I have six deadlines all at once. If there is not enough going on in my life, I fail to pay attention. That is why I was a really good 9th grade science teacher for boys. When you have 14 boys using 7 Bunsen burners in one class, it helps to be a bit like me. I could pay attention to them all at once. In my college classes, I am constantly moving around, asking questions, and trying to help my students get engaged in the material. Some students find my class a bit too much, but others love it.

That is my point, we need to remember that people are not all the same and that variation is important in the world. You wouldn’t want all teachers to be like me, that would be too much and likely to be a bit exhausting. You also do not want every single teacher to be standing behind a podium totally focused on the subject at hand. Teachers also need to understand that the child whose activity level or whose social skills are not average is not incapable of learning. Having a variety of students in a class can help everyone learn, but only if the class is not too large.

The solution to this dilemma is for all classrooms pre-K – 12 to be smaller, no more than 15 students per class, and every teacher trained in the basics of special education. Most special ed techniques are just simply good teaching methods, although these methods do require more time than those in place to teach the “typical” kids. We need to stop preparing teachers to teach one way – special ed or mainstream – and help them learn to respond to each student’s learning needs. Good education is expensive and it should be. You want highly trained teachers working with your children and you want them to have the materials they need in an environment conducive to learning. Remember that when a politician promises to lower your taxes – who is going to suffer?