Neurodiversity in the Classroom by Thomas Armstrong: A must read for teachers

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by Debra Muzikar

With Back-to-School upon us, it’s the appropriate time to review a wonderful book by Dr. Thomas Armstrong, Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in the School and Life (2012). Dr. Armstrong is an enlightened educator and author of fifteen books on education and diversity.

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I wish every teacher who had my son, Kevin, in their class had read this book. His public school experience would have been much different. I wish I had read this book a decade or two ago. Neurodiversity in the Classroom offers the reader a practical guide on taking students’ strengths as the starting point to help them achieve success.

What is neurodiversity? Dr. Thomas Armstrong explains the history in another of his books, The Power of Neurodiversity (2010). Neurodiversity originated among individuals labeled with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) who desired to be seen as “different, not disabled.” Not surprising Dr. Temple Grandin’s recent book is titled Different … Not Less.

In 1999, the term neurodiversity was coined by Judy Singer, the parent of an “aspie.” She states the ‘Neurologically Different’ represent a new addition to the familiar political categories of class/gender/race.” Dr. Armstrong’s definition of the word “includes an exploration of what have thus far been considered mental disorders of neurological origin but that may instead represent alternative forms of natural human difference.”

Many of us see neurodiversity as the latest civil rights movement. Neurodiversity looks at the brain as working as an ecosystem rather than a machine. As Dr. Armstrong points out “whether you are regarded as disabled or gifted depends largely on when and where you were born.” The socio-political norms of society define the labels.

In his book Neurodiversity in the Classroom, Dr. Armstrong looks at different categories for learning including intellectual disabilities, ADD/ADHD, autistic spectrum disorders, learning disabilities, and emotional and behavioral disorders. He examines the latest research that focuses on strengths and aptitudes of each of these categories.

We all know the world is becoming more diverse. As Dr. Armstrong states it’s time regular and special educators “step out of the box and embrace an entirely new trend in thinking about human diversity. Rather than putting kids into separate disability categories and using outmoded tools and language to work with them, educators can use tools and language inspired by the ecology movement to differentiate learning and help kids succeed in the classroom.”

Dr. Armstrong gives specific examples for strength-based learning and how to apply positive “niche construction.” Positive niche construction is a term Dr. Armstrong borrows from biology. The book contains many examples about how teachers can look for student’s positive behaviors to create profiles of their multiple intelligences. The result is students who develop a higher self-esteem and become more engaged in the academic environment.

Dr. Armstrong examines assistive technologies and Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL “refers to the process of removing barriers to learning for kids with disabilities in ways that also enhance everyone else’s ability to learn.”

One chapter in Dr. Armstrong’s book is dedicated to creating “Strength-Based Schools.” What does a strength-based school look like? Strength-based schools include students with and without disabilities in regular classrooms. They celebrate and teach all different types of diversities. Schools which are strength-based top priority is looking for students’ talents. It makes this an integral part of each student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).

This well-researched book includes “Neurodiversity Checklists” to help teachers create individualized plans for students.

In the last chapter, Dr. Armstrong looks to the future of neurodiversity. We must look to people’s strengths in the employment process not hiring people out of pity or goodwill, but because they are more competent at a given job than anybody else. He looks at companies such as Specialisterne (“The Specialists”) as the future. Seventy-five percent of their employees have Asperger’s. Forbes magazine’s recent article shows how this company is creating jobs for 100,000 people on the autism spectrum.

The latest figures show only six-percent of Autistic people work full-time. Ninety percent of those with serious mental illnesses are unemployed. We must look at different models. We must combat ‘ableism,’ which Dr. Armstrong describes as “discriminating against people with disabilities in favor of those who are ‘able.'”

Neurodiversity in the Classroom will stretch the reader to look at the world through a different lens. I highly recommend this book. If I had my dithers, this book would be mandatory reading for all teachers, parents, and behaviorists. It can be purchased on the ASCD website in ebook or print format.

You can follow Dr. Armstrong’s blog here.

Debra Muzikar is the author of The Art of Autism: Shifting Perspectives.

3 Comments

  • Kelly Green says:

    I love the neurodiversity message. It is about time we all realized more about our own central nervous systems and how that greatly affects our ability to receive and process information. Thanks for bringing this book to light! A whole new system is so needed and the ideas you highlight here ROCK!

  • Really interesting how Dr. Armstrong tries to un-catergorize the old words and procedures. He shows the evolution of a more accurate treatment of the conditions and possible lines of nurturing.

    Every storm is different. Our children are special enough for guidance and inspiration. Identifying approaches to use for each of an array of temporary challenges give adults in authority and fellow peers new outlook and needs to adapt during outbursts or just plain human mistakes.

    Since there is higher incidence of spectrum children in homes, class rooms and society one would hope that dealing with any behavior that needs attention can be a special lesson for all to learn in helping and getting inspired from, great kids like Kevin and many many others.

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