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

Follow me on Twitter:  @Dr_Armstrong

Subscribe to my blog feed

Share This:
About the author

I'm the author of 19 books including my latest: If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education -

Related Posts

6 Responses
  1. Sandra Shoro

    A few thoughts in response to this post:
    •In an effort to be “data driven” the labeling issue allows for administrators to categorize diverse learners.
    •Mehan’s observations still hold true in that the data of test scores is easier to deal with as discrete units vs. the anecdotal evidence of students progress, that lived experience.
    •Finally, the reality that people aren’t disabled ALL the time in every situation and the dynamic interaction between ability and context have been themes in my professional conversations with my colleagues for some time now and has been a great intersection point for general educators and special educators in their collaborative work.

  2. Walter

    Sandra do you find that Dr. Armstrong’s concept of neurodiversity resonates with the discussions you reference having with colleagues? Does putting a name to the idea help to move the notion forward that all children can learn?

  3. Milagros Pabon

    When you label a student LD, ADHD, etc, they will be in disadvantage with the rest of the class, because sometimes teachers think that this students are not capable to do the work. If you give them the right tools, the help they need, and make them feel part of the group they will try their best to accomplish the work.

  4. Satendra Singh

    I strongly agree with Milagros. We should not seprate them rather empower them in the same group with an extra eye on their needs.

Leave a Reply

Article Archives