Neurodiversity and Young Children with Special Needs


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This is an article based on a keynote speech I did on October 26, 2013 at the 13th Annual International Conference on Early Childhood Education held in Monterrey, Mexico.

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Neurodiversity and Young Children with Special Needs

  1. 1. 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
  2. 2. 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
  3. 3. 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
  4. 4. 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 modification. 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:
  5. 5.  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. References Armstrong, Thomas. The Power of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain. Cambridge, MA: DaCapo Lifelong, 2010. Armstrong, Thomas. Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2012.
  6. 6. Baron-Cohen, Simon. The Essential Difference: The Truth About the Male and Female Brain. New York: Basic, 2003. Blume, Harvey. “Neurodiversity,” The Atlantic, September 30, 1998. Chawarska K, Macari S, & Shic F. ‘’Decreased Spontaneous Attention to Social Scenes in 6Month-Old Infants Later Diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders,’’ Biological Psychiatry, published online January 10, 2013. Crammond, Bonnie. ‘’Attention-deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Creativity: What is the Connection?’’ Journal of Creative Behavior, 1994, vol. 38, no. 3, pp. 193-210. Edelman, Gerald. Neural Darwinism: The Theory of Neuronal Group Selection. New York: Basic, 1987. Geer, C. (October 8, 2013). ‘Training Program Helps Students With Autism Land Jobs’’ The Wall Street Journal. Grandin, T.(1996).Thinking in pictures: And other reports from my life with Autism. New York:,Vintage. Greenspan, Stanley, & Wieder, Serena . Engaging Autism: Using the Floortime approach to help children relate, communicate, and think. Cambridge, MA:DaCapo/Perseus, 2009. Karolyi, C.V., et al. ‘’Dyslexia Linked to Talent: Global Visual-Spatial Ability,’’ Brain and Language. June, 2003, vol. 85, no. 3, pp. 427-431. Mottron, L. ‘’The Power of Autism,’’ Nature, November 2, 2011. Vol. 479, pp. 33-35. Odling-Smee, F. John et al. Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003. Simeonova, D. I. et al. ‘’Creativity in familial bipolar disorder.,’’ Journal of Psychiatric Research, November, 2005, Vol. 39, no. 6, pp. 623–631. Singer, Judy. “Why Can’t You Be Normal for Once in Your Life,” in Marian Corker and Sally French (eds), Disability Discourse, Buckingham, England: Open University Press, 1999, p. 64. Taylor, Andrea Faber & Frances E. Kuo, ‘’Could Exposure to Everyday Green Spaces Help Treat ADHD? Evidence from Children's Play Settings,’’Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 2011, Vol 3, no. 3, pp. 281 – 303. Urban Dictionary, 2009,