Supporting Neurodiversity in the Classroom

By Ronit Molko

One concept frequently lost in the education of autistic children is that the purpose of education is to prepare them, not only for managing childhood but for succeeding in adulthood as well. Autistic adults are seeking the same markers for happiness as neurotypical adults. They are looking for as much independence as possible—a job to support themselves, a strong social network, the pursuit of their passions and fulfilling relationships.

The current services provided by the autism industry are ill-equipped to provide autistic individuals with the skill sets they need to live and thrive independently. While our science provides for the tools to make this happen, there are too few providers focusing on what needs to be learned in adolescence to prepare young autistic adults for employment and independent living. Too few providers are truly engaged in measuring the long-term outcomes and quality of life indicators of the services they are providing to the child and their family. They fail to view their young clients as the adults they will become. Autistic adults and their families have a myriad of frustrating and distressing tales about the mismatch between their early education and the tools they need to function as adults.

Most younger autistic adults today were educated under the law now known as IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which mandates that physically and mentally disabled children be educated in the “least restrictive environment.” This led to the mainstreaming of many autistic students. The goal of this law is to provide disabled students with the same opportunities to participate and succeed in life as neurotypical students.

Teaching autistic children in a class of neurotypical students requires a new kind of thinking on the part of teachers and administrators. However, not all teachers and school districts are prepared or equipped to manage the variety of student needs, which can be overwhelming. This is one area in autism services that could use significant improvement.

When we think about educating students with autism and their unique needs, it’s crucial that we remember these students should not be viewed as “broken,” needing to be “fixed” or normalized. This is an old viewpoint that drove much of the research and intervention in the early years of treating this disorder. Instead, our educational system needs to equip them with the skills and tools they will need to navigate the next 60-70 years after they leave high school. Most of the autistic adults with whom I have spoken want to be viewed as themselves, as diverse individuals who perceive the world differently, adding to the diversity of our population with a unique matrix of strengths and stretches.

The “neurodiversity” approach to classroom education recognizes and respects the mosaic of neurological differences as part of human variation, like eye color and personality. It focuses on aiding autistic individuals to interact successfully with their environments, and learn how to communicate with and navigate a world designed around the neurotypical majority.

Dr. Thomas Armstrong, executive director of the American Institute for Learning and Human Development, and author of books about neurodiversity, advocates for embracing the strengths of a neurodiverse student ecosystem by incorporating new approaches into school curricula. Some of his ideas include:

Computer programs and applications that allow students with special needs to overcome obstacles.
Networks of experts with whom educators can consult to support the social and emotional lives of neurodiverse students.
Innovative learning strategies that are tailored to each student’s unique strengths.
Guidance towards future career paths for which a student’s particular passions and preferences might be a good fit.
Modifications in the school environment that allow for seamless inclusion of neurodiverse students in the regular classroom.

Dominican University of California offers a course called “The Gifts of Autism” to educate teachers on how to take an asset-based approach towards educating students with autism. The class encourages teachers to consider how the strengths and weaknesses of autistic students in their classrooms are supported. Assignments require the study of methodologies and strategies to improve that support and explain how they will be deployed.

Classroom neurodiversity advocates point out that there is nothing particularly novel about the idea of employing multiple teaching methods within a single class. Even in classrooms comprising only neurotypical students, educators must accommodate a variety of learning styles like auditory, visual, tactile, and so on.

“Just as we celebrate diversity in nature and cultures, so too do we need to honor the diversity of brains among our students who learn, think, and behave differently,” says Dr. Armstrong.