Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Highly Specialized Minds

In response to the suggestion that autism spectrum conditions should not be classified as disorders, this question is often raised: How would children get services without a diagnosis? Can the schools effectively educate children who learn in different ways if they do not have disorder labels?

A recent Newsweek article entitled You and Your Quirky Kid included the following quote from an educator who believes it's both possible and vitally important for the system to stop treating children as defective because of differences in their learning styles:

Mary-Dean Barringer, of the nonprofit learning institute All Kinds of Minds, says we put too much emphasis on the labels that others assign to our kids. "We're absolutely appalled by this diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome... These are very highly specialized minds, and to put a syndrome on it and treat it as an aberration does damage to kids and families. There are still challenges there on how to manage it, but why not call it a highly specialized mind phenomenon rather than a disorder? That label alone shapes public perception about uniqueness and quirkiness."

Ms. Barringer, a founding member of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, described in an interview with Highlights for Parents magazine how schools could create a more positive environment for all students by focusing on individual strengths, instead of singling out neurological minority groups and defining them in terms of their weaknesses:

Highlights: How would you like to see schools change to become more respectful and even appreciative of different learning styles?

Mary-Dean Barringer: I'd love to see educators in a school take an oath similar to the Hippocratic Oath that medical professionals take: "First, do no harm." Then, as a group, the faculty could examine all the policies and practices in their school to make sure that they do not inadvertently publicly humiliate children or punish them for their uniquely wired minds.

Educators need to get a working knowledge of the latest brain research and understand that each one of us has special "hard-wiring." With that understanding, teachers can begin to let go of the notion that we should all be "well-rounded" in all subjects, including foreign languages, athletics, music, and arts. Rather, teachers should look for and nurture those children who are "hard-wired" to succeed in these areas—and teach them through their passions and strengths.

That's not to say that we shouldn't have exposure to a wide range of subjects and interests, only that we should not expect the same level of proficiency from all students. We don't put this burden on adults. When we get to our adult work and personal life, we get to choose our specialties.

In her work with All Kinds of Minds, Ms. Barringer organizes seminars and training programs to enable teachers to meet their students' diverse learning needs. The organization also provides helpful resources for parents and caregivers who seek to understand more about developmental differences.

Is it possible to change the culture in our schools and in the broader society as Ms. Barringer suggests, so that all children are valued and are encouraged to use their strengths to succeed? Perhaps we should instead be asking: How much longer can our society afford not to do it?



  • Ms. Berringer makes an excellent point, in that language shapes perception, as well as the ensuing conversation regarding a condition.

    That's why words such as "train wreck", "horror", "affliction", etc. rankle so much.


    By Blogger Club 166, at 11:58 PM  

  • I agree that it would be ideal to see classrooms where all children are allowed to at least devote more attention to the areas they're best in (and certainly identifying these areas of talent and helping students develop them into careers later on)...but I read things like that and wonder if the people writing them have been in a classroom in the past twenty years. When I was in the K-12 public school system in a suburban area not that long ago, it wasn't as bad as it is now, but we still were dealing with thirty student classrooms with no teachers' aides, inadequate decades-old textbooks, virtually no multimedia learning materials (when we had computers at all, you signed up for ten minute increments once a week because your classroom had two, if you were lucky), and few opportunities to do anything hands-on. We were lucky that most of us learned to read and do basic math, considering the environment and resources. And as for teacher attitudes...well, we even had a teacher who assigned us all numbers at the beginning of the year and called us solely by those.

    Dreams of education that caters to student intellectual individuality are great, but I would've given my right arm just for up to date textbooks or a counselor who wasn't still telling girls at the turn of the last century that they couldn't and shouldn't do math. We can send teachers to seminars and have them read up on neurodiversity until they're experts, and it's not going to matter if schools are still understaffed, underfunded, and mismanaged.

    I'm certainly glad for my "highly specialized mind", as it's probably the only reason I came out of public education with a love for learning intact!

    By Blogger Angela, at 1:22 AM  

  • That's very interesting to read. Thanks for posting those quotes here. I absolutely agree that all children do best with an individualised education. It's just another reason why home-education is so right for us. Duncan gets to focus on whatever he's interested in at any time every day.

    By Blogger Sharon, at 4:12 AM  

  • Unfortunately, we're discovering the hard way that if your kid isn't cookie-cutter, even with a label, the schools aren't interested in helping. The idea of individualized- or even flexible- education is rare, and practically non-existant in public schools. Without the protection of the IDEA, Joey would get no help at all- just like Andy won't. He'll be stuck with sink-or-swim, and he's just lucky he's got a family that supports him.

    By Blogger Joeymom, at 1:21 PM  

  • I don't like the distancing in the concept of 'quirky kids'. They talk about how to distinguish 'quirky kids' from kids with 'real problems'. They say:
    "Parents need to ask themselves, Is this making him unhappy or just making me unhappy?"
    But don't follow that rule - parents of many obviously disabled kids have noted that their child's differences don't make them unhappy - for example in the book 'Does She Know She's There?' the mother of a profoundly developmentally delayed girl said her daughter was happy about 90% of the time, and didn't show any sign of being upset by her differences, yet I have little doubt they'd consider her a child with 'real problems', thereby not following that rule.

    By Blogger Ettina, at 7:11 PM  

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