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Equity and Inclusion,  FacultyLearningCommunity,  Professional Development

Neurodiversity FPLC: Understanding the Conversation

Featured Photo by Hal Gatewood


Although the term “neurodiversity” is not new in the field of educaiton, I am realizing through the resources provided for our mini-FPLC that I may not have as good an understanding as I thought.

One of the key points that I took from Jacquiline den Houting’s article “Neurodiversity: An Insider’s Perspective” is that to determine if autism should be considered a “disability,” the person’s integration into their current environment without accommodations is primary. According to den Houting, when autism is determined using the social model, meaning it relies on societal norms for determining if a person is either disabled or neurodiverse, an unfair assumption is made. Thus, the label of autism as a disability is applied when a person has significant needs, or is considered “low-functioning” (272), making the person “disabled” as opposed to “neurodiverse.” The social model presumes that neurodiversity is a variation of normal, which leads back to reviewing the standards of “normal” as being the only truly acceptable way of being. If an environmental change removes the “disability” of autism, is autism actually a disability or just a variation from expectations? Thus, “to minimise disability for autistic people, both the physical AND social environments require change, as attitudinal barriers to inclusion and acceptance are often significant” (272). In other words, the default expectations of social norms should be more inclusive to allow neurodiverse people’s way of being to be acceptable in the range of “normal.”

As an advocate of the neurodiversity movement, den Houting argues that being part of the neurodiversity movement requires that when understanding an individual’s needs, people (such as educators and medical professionals) should assume competence and “provide an opportunity for achievement, rather than to presume incapacity and thereby stifle development” (272) because variation in impairments can be inconsistent, allowing an individual to complete a task one day and not the next. This concept is new to me. I understood autism to be more “fixed,” but in applying this idea, it seems it is more like anxiety with variations from day to day. I look forward to learning more about not only autism but other ways of showing neurodiversity.

By calling the neurodiversity movement paradigm one that is a social justice movement (271), den Houting widens my concept of social justice. In the article notes, this is further explained as “the social-relational model conceptualises disability as a combination of personal and social effects resulting from impairments, and social restrictions resulting form social barriers, which together function as oppression (272). In a time when social justice has hopefully moved to forefront of educators’ minds, I am rethinking that term as well.

As educators, we need to offer a path toward people finding success from varying approaches, and Christy Hutton highlights this in the use of inquiry-based teaching to support children with autism and their parents by focusing less on “lacking” skills and more on strengths in demonstrating a variety of thinking and problem-solving. Thus, students who excel in a certain field of knowledge but are neurodiverse in their approach to solving problems know this difference as positive rather than feeling their way of being must be “accommodated.” In the 2016 TED Talk, Hutton argues that a reliance of high-stakes tests to measure achievement leads to people failing when they could be succeeding if we valued and accepted a variety of problem-solving. Although some progress has been made in critiquing the system since this TED Talk was given, tests like the SAT still wield access — particularly to entry and financial rewards in higher ed. With models like the flipped classroom approach, we can get closer to valuing a variety of thinking as opposed to a “right way” that is right because it’s the typical way.

In all the resources for our first meeting, the speakers have a theme: play to strengths. This is also not new in the field of education, but in truly embracing this concept, we have to rethink our perception of strengths to widen those we reinforce and those we “accommodate.”

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