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Foregrounding Potential, Not Disorder, in Neurodiverse Students

This post is by NCTE member, Peter Smagorinsky. 

PeterSmagorinskyAs a teacher, I have always hoped to cultivate my students’ potential through their engagement with my classes. Perhaps that’s simply a truism among educators. But how educators conceive of potential can take teaching in many directions.

No Child Left Behind, for instance, had the stated goal of making sure that all students succeed.  Just about every similar sort of initiative has some version of “Success for All” implied by its name.

I often see these programs and their noble aspirations to be highly problematic, however, because they view success as being the achievement of a single goal in a single way. It’s well known among teachers that each of their students is different, and that those differences can produce both different endpoints and different ways of arriving at them. Policy, however, tends to homogenize all into one sort of person, all headed to one narrowly defined place, measured by the same tests with the same correct answers.

Now, that’s a common rant, so I am not suggesting that my perspective is any sort of breakthrough. I do hope, however, to introduce into the conception of diversity a population that is often considered sick. Rather than being cultivated, the thinking goes, they must be cured, and only then can they get on the right pathway.

This population has, over time, been known by many names, few of which invite encouragement. They are the mentally ill, the disabled, the disordered, the deficient, the abnormal among us. When I say “us,” I am being facetious. As one with Asperger’s syndrome, obsessive-compulsive thinking, chronic anxiety, and mild Tourette’s syndrome, I’m actually one of them. And note the way I’ve phrased these conditions: I don’t think I’m sick or disordered.

Rather, I think that I follow a different order, like many who share my classifications. In fact, it’s quite ordered. There probably is no more ordered way of being than to live on the autism spectrum. It’s a life of pattern, ritual, and clarity of purpose. The problem is that those purposes can seem odd to those who believe that having a narrow or unusual way of being in the world is a problem to be fixed, a sickness to be cured.

School can be a challenging place for people with such a makeup. People on the Asperger’s spectrum, for instance, are built to see the world in a grain of sand, as William Blake put it. Rather than exploring a variety of topics in shallow detail, such people tend to immerse themselves in narrow worlds that they explore in extraordinary depth. Often, teachers discourage highly focused attention to single topics, and instead tell their students to expose themselves to a wide variety of authors, topics, eras, and other areas of inquiry.

To an anxious person with an obsessive-compulsive personality and autistic tendencies, being forced to abandon what their makeup insists that they need to learn about, and instead to sample other possibilities superficially, is torturous, often ramping up anxiety to paralyzing levels. And being assessed by answering someone else’s questions with the superficial means of a multiple-choice test is immensely frustrating, making the likelihood of “success” according to this definition even more remote. This approach also overlooks the interdisciplinary way in which people undertake investigations of a single topic in depth, with knowledge synthesized into useful and meaningful wholes rather than being parceled out across the school day in unrelated bits.

To return to my original points: education should be about the fostering of potential. But one’s potential may be stifled by the conduct of school when it is oriented to standardizing the education of diverse students. As many have noted, diverse cultural backgrounds, gender orientations, and social class acculturation prepare students for school in different ways. Standardizing the curriculum to suit only one human type greatly advantages those who are aligned with it, and creates obstacles for those who are not.

The same applies for the population in which I am interested. Just as some districts require all African American students to be labeled at-risk, thus foregrounding their risk status to teachers and creating deficit expectations, many school systems foreground “disability” classifications that first and foremost create deficit assumptions about people who are not neurotypical—that is, not having the most typical neurological makeup.

Neurodiversity refers to the range of neurological makeups that characterize the human population. Although there is perhaps a “neurotypical” population that sets the norms for what people expect of others, at least among researchers and diagnosticians who decide what the norms are, they might be a chimera, given that few people are normal.

Neurodivergence assumes that virtually all neurological makeups should be treated as legitimate, rather than as disorders, disabilities, or diseases, as many conditions are widely believed to be. Each of these differences is to be recognized and respected as any other human variation. Being autistic, obsessive-compulsive, or hyperactive, or demonstrating dyslexia, presenting Tourette’s tics, or being characterized by other conditions that diagnosticians consider to be abnormal and thus signs of mental illness are, from the neurodiversity perspective, types of order, rather than disorders.

The neurodiversity movement asserts that seeing people primarily through the lens of disablement creates an environment of pity or charity that is far more disabling than whatever sets a person apart to begin with. To Vygotsky, this “secondary disability” of feeling inferior as a result of being treated as abnormal is the most harmful consequence of being different.

In the interests of getting neurodiverse people on track to meet typical norms, their potential is instead derailed. Labeled with debilitating terms like “disordered” and “disabled,” they are presumed to be frail and pitiful. This foregrounding of deficit detracts attention from their strengths and ignores their potential and thus the possibility that what makes them different is a set of assets that could be cultivated, rewarded, and admired.

Extreme cases of mental illness tend to get the headlines and in turn frame how the public views the potential of all neurodivergent people. But more ordinary cases, which comprise the great majority of this population, pose no threat except to the status quo. Just as all Muslims are interpreted by many to be threatening because of the actions of a relative few, neurodivergent people are often framed by the sensational violence of those who act out.

Although there do appear to be conditions that in the extreme are unhealthy—if, like me, you know of depression-based suicides, or schizophrenic people whose families fear them—the rank-and-file neurodivergent population, rather than being viewed in terms of deficits, are full of assets that a sensitive human environment can cultivate and foster.

If cultivating potential is a shared value among educators, then it seems that we should be the first to fight back against both stereotypical constructions of people and the ways in which schools adopt slogans celebrating diversity yet, through their deep structure, discourage it for so many of their students.

Peter Smagorinsky is Distinguished Research Professor of English Education at The University of Georgia. Palgrave Macmillan will publish his new book, Creativity and community among autism-spectrum youth: Creating positive social updrafts through play and performance, later in 2016. He recently contributed a commentary on teacher performance assessment for the November 2015 issue of Language Arts.