Neurodiversity and Young Children with Special Needs
Neurodiversity and Young Children with Special Needs:
Identifying and Nourishing the Most Delicate Flowers in the Field
By Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D.
Imagine for a moment that every person in the world has been transformed into a flower.
Some of us are petunias, some begonias, others are tulips. And imagine that in this world, the
psychologists and psychiatrists are the roses. Let us take a peek into the professional life of the
rose psychologist as she welcomes her first patient of the morning. It’s a cally lily. The rose
psychologist does a range of diagnostic assessments including measuring the white spathe, the
yellow spadix, and the green stem. She gives the calla lily the Rose Normality Rating Scale for
Flowers (RNRSF), and also has a chlorophyll biopsy taken and sent to the lab. Then, when all
the tests are done, she announces her diagnosis to the calla lily: ‘’You have PDD or Petal Deficit
Disorder, and here is a medication called ‘Petal-In’ that can help you learn to live a successful
and productive life.’’ The calla lily is shocked but accepts his new status as a disordered flower.
This story is a bit ridiculous because we don’t expect a calla lily to have petals. The calla
lily is lovely just as it is. But compared with the rose, it is seen as coming up short, as having a
deficit. This situation is, unfortunately, what many children go through when they are identified
as having a learning disorder, an attention deficit, a social dysfunction, or some other type of
problem. Instead of appreciating them for who they are, we put them in a diagnostic category,
whether it be autism, learning disabilities, ADHD, or some other label, and define them for all
time in terms of what they can’t do instead of what they can do.
Now, please don’t get me wrong, I believe that it is extremely important to identify children
early on in their lives who are likely to have specific problems with socialization, language,
attention, behavior, and/or emotional or social competence. A great deal of research strongly
suggests that early identification and treatment of children with these challenges can ameliorate
difficulties later on in life (Chawarska, Macari S, & Shic, 2013). Consequently, teachers in early
childhood education should be alert to signs that a young child may have difficulty in one or
more of these areas. Some examples include:
the young preliterate child who is a late talker, has difficulty telling if a word rhymes or
not, has a limited vocabulary and/or shows other language difficulties and who may be
‘’at risk’’ for dyslexia or other learning disabilities when he begins to learn how to read;
the young child who has difficulty interpreting non-verbal cues or making eye contact,
who seems remote from his peers, and/or who has emotional melt-downs if his schedule
isn’t maintained or if certain sensory input is too intense, who may be showing signs of
autism spectrum disorder;
the young child who is destructive to himself, peers, and/or property, who shows
evidence of chronic withdrawal from social activities, who is highly anxious, who
displays obsessive behaviors, and/or who seems to be out of contact with everyday
reality, who may be showing early signs of emotional or mental illness.
Once a diagnosis has been made by the by the psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker, or
other mental health practitioner, then early intervention is a must for these children. Here are
some sample strategies:
For the child diagnosed with dyslexia: reading to the child, engaging in conversations
with the child, playing around with the sounds of words with the child, exposing the
child to a variety of exciting and interesting looking books; these strategies can set
the stage for a strong language-based approach that creates a foundation for later
literacy acquisition (please note, however, that giving the child formal lessons in
reading and writing at the ages of three or four in the hopes that this will help them
with later reading is not developmentally appropriate for any child, including those
with special needs).
For the child identified as being on the autistic spectrum: engaging the student in
social interactions through free play (Greenspan & Wieder, 2009), helping the child
understand the meaning of different gestures and facial expression,and providing
clear and consistent schedules for the child’s home or school day
For the child at risk for social or emotional problems (e.g. bipolar disorder,
depression, obsessive compulsive disorder etc.): immediate referral to a mental
health professional for evaluation and/or on-going therapy; in the classroom,
provision of consistent behavioral and academic expectations, opportunities to discuss
feelings, conflicts, and upsets in a safe setting, and the chance to channel energies
into creative outlets.
Having said all of that, I want to say that the use of these types of activities and strategies
within a model that is strictly based on what the child cannot do, is a limited and limiting
approach to helping these students achieve their full potential. I am suggesting in this paper that
rather than using a ‘’deficit’’ oriented paradigm, we ought to use, instead, a ‘’diversity’’
perspective in helping these kids succeed. There is, in fact, an emerging paradigm coming out of
the autism rights movement that uses the term ‘’neurodiversity’’ as a way of affirming that
people with neurologically-based disabilities have strengths as well as challenges, and that a
greater emphasis needs to be placed on these strengths (Blume, 1998, Singer 1999, Armstrong,
2010). Just as the calla lily shouldn’t be viewed as having ‘’petal deficit disorder,’’ but seen for
its own intrinsic beauty, so too should children labeled autistic, ADHD, learning disabled,
intellectually disordered, or emotionally disturbed ought to be seen in terms of their abilities,
strengths, capacities, and talents, and not solely in terms of their deficits.
Neurodiversity has been defined as ‘’an idea which asserts that atypical (neurodivergent)
neurological development is a normal human difference that is to be recognized and respected as
any other human variation’’ (Urban Dictionary, 2009). It’s tenets are in line with growing
evidence that the human brain works, not like a machine or computer, but like an eco-system or
‘’rain forest.’’(Edelman, 1987). In constructing a holistic model that can be used to help young
students with special needs achieve success in school and life, I’ve borrowed the term ‘’niche
construction’’ from evolutionary biology, as a way of providing a structure for creating favorable
environments within which students with special needs can succeed (Odling-Smee et al., 2003).
Niche construction is what animals in the wild do all the time: beavers build dams, spiders spin
webs, birds build nests, ants create ant hills, and bees make hives, among many other examples.
Each of these creatures is modifying the environment so that there is harmony between the
unique characteristics of a species and its immediate surroundings. In the same way, early
childhood educators should learn how to create ‘’positive niches’’ for their young students, so
that their difficulties are minimized and their strengths as maximized.
I’ve identified seven basic components of positive niche construction (Armstrong, 2012).
The first, and most important, is strengths awareness. By this, I mean that we need to do as
much as we can as educators to find out about the strengths, talents, and abilities of our students
with special needs. As I’ve pointed out above, too much attention has been focused on what
these kids can’t do. We need to turn this around and focus more on a strength-based approach to
learning. There is an emerging research base suggesting that children with special needs do in
fact have strengths that are unique to them and which aren’t necessarily as pronounced in
‘’neurotypical’’ (e.g. normal) children. For example, children with autism are often excellent at
finding small details, excel at working with systems (like math, machines, and schedules), do
better on the Raven’s Progressive Matrices IQ test than the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for
Children, and have strong interests that can lead to avocations and careers later on in life
(Grandin, 1996; Baron-Cohen, 2003; Mottron, 2011). Children with bipolar disorder have been
measured as more creative than typically developing children (Simeonova et al. 2005). Children
with dyslexia appear to have better three-dimensional visualization ability, while those with
ADHD are often novelty-seekers, which is a trait associated with creativity (Crammond, 1994;
Karolyi, 2003). I’ve designed a Neurodiversity Strengths Checklist to help educators, parents,
and mental health professionals identify a broad range of strengths in kids with special needs
(Armstrong, 2012, pp. 146-154).
A second component of ‘positive niche construction is the use of assistive technologies to
help students with special needs get around obstacles and accomplish things that might otherwise
be too difficult for them. For children with communication and articulation problems (e.g.
autism, Down syndrome etc.), augmentative and alternative communication software and apps
can help with social interaction. For example, the program Proloquo2go, has buttons that
through a synthesized voice, when pressed, ‘’speak’’ various commands, desires, or requests that
a child might have but be unable or unwilling to say through their own vocal cords (e.g. ‘’I need
to go to the bathroom’’). For children with social and emotional difficulties, there are software
programs and apps that allow for the construction of ‘’social stories’’ that can guide the child
through simple activities like brushing teeth, sharing with a partner, or visiting the zoo.
The third component of niche construction is positive role models. Children with special
needs should be able to see examples of people who have disabilities like their own who
achieved great things in life. For kids with autism, the animal scientist Temple Grandin who has
autism spectrum disorder, would make a wonderful role model. Other examples of role models
might include Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps (ADHD), Nobel Prize winning chemist Carol
Greider (dyslexia), television actor Chris Burke (Down syndrome), and movie actor Robert
Downey Jr. (bipolar disorder). The essential message to these kids is that ‘’if these people can
succeed, then so can I!”
The fourth component of positive niche construction is strength-based learning strategies.
Too many educational strategies for students with special needs are ‘’fix it’’ strategies; that is,
they are based on helping these kids do things that they can’t do. We should instead focus on
learning strategies that utilize the strengths of the students. So, for example, kids with autism
often have very strong interests in things as varied as electric fans, military battles, the planets of
the solar system, or model airplanes. Early childhood educators who traditionally have a
‘’sharing time’’ at the beginning of the school day should seize the opportunity and give these
kids a chance to share their strong interests with the rest of the class. For kids with dyslexia who
are good at thinking visually in three-dimensions, we should be having them learn their letters
and words by forming them in clay. For students with ADHD who often need to move in order
to learn, we can provide activities such as putting vocabulary words in different places on the
walls of the classroom and then having the student go around as fast as he can touching each
word and giving its meaning (the same thing could be done with math facts or other academic
skills). For students with intellectual disabilities like Down syndrome, who are often great
‘’mimics,’’ and who enjoy dramatizing, letting them re-tell a story by putting on a puppet and
having the puppet do the re-telling, would be a good example of an excellent strength-based
strategy. For kids with emotional disorders who have creative abilities, having them do a
painting or collage based on a story that’s been read, or a subject that’s been covered in class,
gives them a chance to channel their creative energies in constructive directions.
The fifth component of positive niche construction is positive environmental
modifications. We should regard the classroom, and the school campus itself, as a set of microenvironments that we can modify in different ways to suit the needs and strengths of different
children with special needs. For example, students with emotional disorders should be able to
have a space they can go to (that is not associated with punishment) when they need to calm
down from an emotional upset or social conflict. Students who have been diagnosed with
ADHD should have plenty of opportunity to play and learn outside, especially in natural settings,
because research suggests that when these kids are in ‘’green’’ environments their symptoms of
ADHD decrease (Taylor & Kuo, 2011). Efforts should be made to help modulate sensory input
for students with autism who have extreme sensory acuity (e.g. loud sounds that are acceptable
to neurotypical students but excruciating to them). So earphones might be a good environmental
The sixth component of positive niche construction is enhanced human resource
networks. Every child exists within a complex social network of family, friends, relatives,
teachers, fellow students, specialists, and others. Each particular relationship exists on a
continuum running from nourishing/affirming on one end to draining/conflictual on the other.
Children with special needs often have a preponderance of draining/conflictual relationships (e.g.
peers who bully them, teachers who see them as a problem, parents who are disappointed that
they didn’t have a ‘’normal’’ child, etc.). Educators and administrators should examine the
social relationships of each child with special needs--by creating, for example, a ‘’sociogram’’
that visually depicts those relationships--and set about enhancing the student’s social network.
Some practical ways to do this include:
decreasing the impact of the draining/conflictual relationships (e.g. through antibullying programs or by resolving student-teacher conflicts);
strengthening the nourishing/affirming relationships (e.g. by using peer teaching with
the student and a friend he has a good relationship with), and/or
adding new nourishing relationships to the child’s social network (e.g. finding a good
psychotherapist or learning specialist to work with the child; seeking an older
volunteer who can tutor the child).
The final component of positive niche construction is affirmative career affirmations.
Too often, parents and teachers envision poor outcomes for kids with special needs when they
reach adulthood. While very young children are far in years away from having to think about
careers, I believe it is important for their parents and educators to hold positive future images of
them working in vocations that make the most of their strengths. It turns out that there are a
number of careers that are positively matched to the strengths of students with different special
needs. For example, new developments in technology have seen a number of software
companies hire people with high-functioning autism because of their strengths with systems (e.g.
computer programming), small details (e.g. finding bugs in computer code), and consistent
schedules (e.g. doing things that neurotypical people might consider boring, but which they find
absorbing and interesting) (Geer, 2013). For dyslexia, careers that focus on working with
pictures and three-dimensional structures (e.g. graphic artist, architect, interior designer), might
be good matches. Students with ADHD might look forward to careers that involve movement,
novelty, speed, and/or nature (e.g. forest ranger, firefighter, emergency room physician).
It’s important to realize that when we change our focus from trying to fix what is broken
within the child (an outdated and negative metaphor) to trying to create a positive and nourishing
environment within which the student can succeed, we are assisting that child in adapting to the
environment around him, but we are also helping create an environment that is harmonious with
the child’s own unique ways of learning, behaving, socializing, attending, and thinking. Each of
our students with special needs is like a delicate and beautiful flower that needs to be regarded as
wonderful in and of itself. While the ‘’rose psychologist’’ can be essential in the early
identification and treatment of the specific difficulties that these kids face, the early childhood
educator can be equally as important in creating optimal environments that focus on strengths
and that develop gifts in these children that can provide them with the self-esteem and
competence that comes from having successful experiences, and that, when they reach
adulthood, can contribute toward making the world a better place in which to live.
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