In this article and podcast, we explore what it means to shift from a focus on learning disabilities to focusing on learning differences. What does it mean to embrace neurodiversity and help students find their hidden potential connected to their neurological diversity? How can we shift from a deficit mindset to one of empowerment and opportunity?
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Terms to Know
Seeing the Hidden Potential in All Students
When I was a middle school teacher, I had a student who was largely non-verbal. He had a speech impediment and also experienced selective mutism. He also had the label of ASD or Autism Spectrum Disorder.
When he arrived in my journalism class, his teacher’s aide warned me, “Good luck getting him to write much less talk.”
In our first week, we did a show and tell and he brought an old school Nintendo game. He said nothing during the round robin activity but he set his item on the table. From there, as we shifted toward our Geek Out Blogs, he stared at his computer screen for the first day. In the next day, he began to write. It took him an entire class period to write a single paragraph that was riddled with spelling and grammatical errors.
To my horror, I saw his blog post with a list of the number 10, meaning 10 students had left comments on his blog. However, to my surprise, classmates had left positive comments on his post about video games. Over time, he shared a hidden genius he had in comparing, contrasting, and analyzing games. He shared patterns he saw and cheat codes he discovered. His classmates suddenly saw his hidden potential.
Over time, they invited him to join them on Xbox Live and he joined our brand new eSports team a few months later. Javier (name changed to protect his identity) eventually fell in love with programming and is now working as a software engineer.
His story is a reminder of the need for neurodiversity.
What Is Neurodiversity?
I first learned about neurodiversity in 2011, after reading The Power of Neurodiversity. For the first time ever, I felt like I had a language for the beliefs I had developed as a teacher. Neurodiversity is a concept that embraces neurological differences as natural variations in the human genome. This perspective views conditions like Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, dyslexia, and others not as deficits or disorders, but as unique variations of the human brain.
The term, coined in the late 1990s, advocates for celebrating these differences as part of human diversity. The neurodiversity paradigm shifts the focus from what individuals cannot do to what they can do, emphasizing strengths and abilities. The term “neurodiversity” originated in the late 1990s and is credited to Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist who herself is on the autism spectrum. Singer sought to shift the paradigm of how neurological differences are perceived in society. Her work was influenced by the concept of biodiversity, the idea that diversity in plant and animal life is essential and beneficial for the ecosystem.
Singer’s introduction of “neurodiversity” was a groundbreaking step in advocating for the recognition and acceptance of neurological differences as a natural and valuable aspect of human variation, rather than as defects or disorders. This term became a foundation for the neurodiversity movement, which promotes the idea that neurological differences like autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and others should be respected and valued just like any other human variation.
The neurodiversity movement, stemming from this term, emphasizes the importance of creating a society that is more accommodating and inclusive of all types of neurological makeups. It challenges the traditional medical model of neurological conditions, which often focuses on pathology and impairment, and instead advocates for a social model that recognizes the rights and contributions of all individuals, regardless of their neurological makeup.
This shift in perspective has significant implications for education, employment, and social policy, advocating for systems and structures that are adaptable and inclusive of different ways of thinking and learning. The concept of neurodiversity has been instrumental in changing conversations and attitudes towards neurological differences, promoting a more inclusive approach that values diversity in human cognition and behavior.
Why Neurodiversity Matters So Deeply to Me
When I was a freshman at a community college, I struggled with College Algebra. After we took our first test, I walked up to the professor and said, “I don’t think I can do this. I need this for my major but I didn’t even finish the first three problems.”
“Let’s talk about it. Can I get you a coffee?” he answered as he packed his items into one of those roller carts that resemble small luggage.
“Okay,” I answered.
As we sat down, he handed me the rubric showing how he graded the first test. “Notice that I don’t grade each problem. I choose one randomly and then move to a different one only if needed.”
“But what if I got that single problem wrong?” I asked.
“It’s not about speed. It’s about problem-solving. If you got it wrong, I want to figure out why. Was it a simple computational error or a lack of procedural knowledge or a failure in conceptual understanding,” he added.
“What if you choose one I didn’t even get to? Is that a zero?” I asked.
He laughed and then said, “Oh, you’re serious. I would only choose one you completed.” He then pulled out my paper from his folder and scanned it.
“Do you have a hard time remembering dates?” he asked.
“How’d you know?”
“When you were a kid did you hate long division?” he asked.
“I still hate it,” I shot back.
“Listen, I want you to go to the Academic Resource Office and get tested for something called dyscalculia,” he answered. Later, I had the official diagnosis. I felt like I was finally known. I could squeak by College Algebra and leave this behind.
But when I met with my professor to talk about the accommodations, he said, “John, this isn’t a disability. This is a different way of thinking. There’s a hidden advantage to being slower with computational fluency. I’ve already seen your ability to think divergently and problem-solve in unique ways. You’re also not crushed when you get things wrong. You second-guess yourself and that leads you to double-check your work and fix mistakes. You see the contextual and conceptual sides of math. All of that is the hidden strengths of dyscalculia.”
I earned an A in that class. It was the very first time I had earned a top score in a math course. I then signed up for statistics and fell in love with the subject. I enrolled in Calculus and, while it was a huge challenge for me, I earned my third A. Decades later, I still have moments when I hate my dyscalculia. I just had to redo an entire four-hour class period because I thought it was synchronous but it was asynchronous. I struggle to remember dates. I curse the simple 2-factor authorization that my university uses. But I also remember that I can see context in math. I make connections between seemingly unrelated mathematical ideas. I thrive in probabilistic thinking. As a professor, I have a different way of viewing quantitative research.
When I embraced the concept of neurodiversity, I internalized the reality that there is nothing inherently wrong with me. My dyscalculia is no different than my propensity toward creative thinking, my love of music, or the color of my eyes. It’s part of who I am and, at times, it’s exactly what this world needs.
Taking a Strengths-Based Perspective of Learning Differences
Traditionally, learning disabilities have been viewed through a lens of deficit, focusing on what individuals struggle with or cannot do. This approach often leads to a negative stigma and a sense of limitation. However, the shift towards neurodiversity encourages us to see these differences as part of the spectrum of human brain function. Here we not only recognize diversity as “different” but we can view “different” as a gift.
Neurodiversity is a hidden gift in a world of AI. In a world of machine learning, our students will need to be really good at what AI can do and really different with what AI can’t do. If you consider the way generative AI works, it’s built on natural language processing. When you ask a generative AI chatbot question or give it a prompt, the AI uses NLP to break down and understand your words. Then, using its algorithms, it generates a response that makes sense based on what it has learned from a large amount of text data. So, if you ask it to write a story, it analyzes your prompt, figures out what you’re asking for, and then composes a story based on patterns and information it has learned from its training.
But the AI solutions are often cliche. They tend to fit into what is most common and popular. In many respects, the process resembles convergent thinking. However, a neurodivergent thinker might have a totally different process that diverges significantly from the algorithm. When that person leverages AI but uses a different idea or process from their own divergent mind, the end result is often more practical and more creative than what the AI would generate.
What Does This Mean for Schools?
So where do we start? Many advocates suggest a shift in the language we use. The term “learning differences” is increasingly preferred over “learning disabilities.” This semantic shift reflects the neurodiversity paradigm, highlighting the fact that everyone learns in different ways, and these differences are not inherently inferior. By using “learning differences,” we acknowledge that the traditional educational model may not accommodate all learning approaches, and it’s the system that needs adapting, not the individual. Note that there is some disagreement here on the language. Disability advocates point out that a formal designation of a disability is protected under the law. Both ADA and IDEA have used the term “disability” to describe learning differences and a lack of distinction might mean students lose legal protections within their IEPs (Individualized Education Plans).
However, a strengths-based approach needs to go beyond a change in language and toward a change in mindset. A deficit mindset focuses on what individuals cannot do or what they lack. This leads to lower expectations in school and reduced opportunities later in life. As a teacher, I saw this with certain staff lounge conversations. When I would talk about doing project-based learning with some of my students who had learning differences, a few teachers would say, “That’s just too much for them” or “I don’t know if they’ll be able to finish.” I watched as certain students failed to experience necessary productive struggle.
Fortunately, most teachers I’ve worked with don’t hold this deficit mindset. However, the mindset seems to be embedded within many of the systems of education. One student described it to me this way, “I spent years hearing about my IEP goals and there was the message that something was wrong with me. I was below the norm in reading and I took that to mean that I wasn’t normal. They spent so much time telling me what I couldn’t do but it wasn’t until I was in drama that someone noticed what I could do.”
Shifting away from this deficit mindset means recognizing the unique contributions and potentials of all individuals, regardless of how their brains work. And this requires systemic and structural changes:
- Inclusive Curriculum Design: Adapt curricula to include a focus on student strengths. Use Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles to ensure that teaching methods cater to diverse learners (more about that later). Consider ways that you can allow students to pursue their passions and interests through a Geek Out Blog or Genius Hour project. When I taught journalism, I found that students with learning differences could tackle challenging skills in reading, writing, and speaking, when they were able to connect those skills to their passions, interests, and questions.
- Strengths-Based IEPs (Individualized Education Programs): Develop IEPs that not only address challenges but also emphasize and build upon each student’s strengths and interests. I remember working with a special education teacher who kept the data on the IEP at a 5:1 ratio of strengths to weaknesses. She knew, based on the research, that we all have a negativity bias. So, she framed the document and the meeting in a strengths-based way. She would actually ask each student to list their strengths and talk about strategies they might use to succeed in areas where they were struggling. She encouraged neurodiverse students to lead meetings student-teacher conferences where they would talk about their progress, highlighting their strengths and areas where they feel confident.
- Give Students Access to Success Stories: Sometimes students with learning differences end up feeling like the world isn’t made for them and it can feel confusing and frustrating. It can help to have examples of books, videos, and even guest speakers who talk about the hidden strengths of their learning differences. Here, they can highlight how these hidden strengths gave them a unique advantage in their careers.
- Accessible Learning Environments: Ensure that the physical and digital learning environments are accessible and conducive to various learning needs, including sensory-friendly spaces and assistive technology. But this flexibility should impact things like assessment methods as well. As educators, we can use varied assessment methods that allow students to demonstrate their understanding and skills in different ways. For me, that meant moving beyond timed tests in math.
Recognizing these unique strengths moves us away from a deficit-based view and towards a more inclusive and empowering perspective.
Empowering All Students with Universal Design for Learning
When I was a new teacher, I had a goal of differentiating instruction for every student. I would provide additional directions, project sheets, tutorials, and small group instruction for any student who needed help. My main focus was on providing the necessary accommodations on IEPs and 504 plans. I kept a list of specific strategies I would use in every phase of a lesson to help ensure that all students had access to their necessary accommodations. I also included language supports for ELL students, including sentence stems, vocabulary, and visuals.
This process was sometimes overwhelming in classes with 8-10 students who needed specific accommodations. I often had a nagging sense that I was failing to help some of my students who were not exceptional learners or English Language Learners but who still needed supports. At one point, I made a goal of providing specific scaffolds for every single student based on their mastery of certain standards. But this became even more overwhelming.
Eventually, I shifted toward empowering students to own the learning:
However, as I made the shift toward empowerment, I still felt like I had to differentiate all the learning for my students. I hadn’t considered what it might mean to let students select the scaffolds until a Special Education teacher named Crystal introduced me to Universal Design for Learning (UDL). I soon realized that I hadn’t given students the opportunity to advocate for themselves and find the scaffolds that they needed. When I made this shift, I found that students were more aware of their mastery. They seemed to persevere and continue more easily and they grew more confident as learners.
UDL is a strengths-based approach that focuses on student empowerment in every aspect of the learning process. Here’s a quick overview video of the core ideas:
Built around cognitive neuroscience, UDL is an inclusive educational framework that seeks to remove barriers while also keeping the learning challenging for all students. A UDL approach includes a paradigm shift from a deficit mindset to neurodiversity; from singular accommodations to universally accessible scaffolds and supports; and from a teacher-centric view to a student-centered approach centered on student agency. If you’d like to learn more about the topic, please check out this interview I did with Katie Novak.
This is why I believe that all students deserve access to project-based learning. PBL is the perfect context to allow students with learning differences to demonstrate their hidden strengths. The flexibility in PBL means students can find unique ways to solve complex problems. As educators, we can design PBL in a way that reduces cognitive load so that students with executive function challenges can thrive. We can empower students to self-select scaffolds they need. We can leverage AI to help design the necessary supports that we provide to all students.
The concept of neurodiversity brings a much-needed shift in how we view and talk about learning and neurological differences. It encourages a more inclusive society that values and supports all forms of neurological diversity. By moving away from a deficit mindset and embracing a strength-based approach, we can create environments where everyone has the opportunity to thrive according to their unique strengths and abilities. This paradigm shift is not just about being politically correct; it’s about fundamentally changing how we understand and value human variation.