Labeling of Neurodiverse Students in Special Education

As one participant in a 2010 cyberconference put it:   ” Nobody experiences disability 100% of the time, in every situation; nor is someone ALWAYS “gifted and talented”.   Consequently, from a lived perspective, from a contextually rich perspective, labels don’t really have a place.  There are just unique students with their unique strengths and weaknesses, which change dynamically when they are applied to specific situations.  The idea of labeling, then, is an artifice.  It’s something that we place ON TOP of the contextually rich child to accomplish specific agendas.

These agendas can be administrative. For example, it might be said that we need to have labels so we know how to sort kids into different educational programs.  These agendas can also be political.  One argument: we need to have labels so that we know there are programs in place to help kids in need.

Also, there are emotional agendas.  Many parents breathe a sigh of relief when they hear their kid is LD, ADHD, etc. It’s a way of packing up a lot of complexity by giving it a simple name, a simple explanation. In a sense, the process of labeling a student in special education is itself a contextually rich process.  Sociologists can have a field day with all the social values and rules which are followed as part of the official diagnosis of a child in special education.

In fact, one sociologist, Hugh Mehan wrote a book in the 1980’s called Handicapping the Handicapped.  He would sit in IEP meetings and notice things that nobody else was looking at.  For example, he noticed that when the psychologist spoke about test results, everyone paid attention and asked lots of questions.  But when the homeroom teacher or parent spoke anecdotally about the lived experience of the child, nobody paid attention, they just went on to the next item on the agenda.  We don’t value lived experience in this culture anymore.

Nuances, shades of meaning, subtleties, seem to be missing in a large part of American culture (compare, for example, American films with those made in Europe), and so perhaps its understandable why we have so much difficulty in “blurring the categories” among students in special education.  Is it possible to think about an educational world that has no special education, but where the needs of every student are understood and addressed?  Is it possible to imagine a neurodiverse classroom without labels, but where lots of learning is going on?  Any thoughts?

For more information about de-labeling kids and implementing neurodiversity in school settings, see my book Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life

This article was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and

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I’m the author of 20 books including my latest, a novel called Childless, which you can order from Amazon.

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