Today I had the great good fortune to work with fifty special educators, administrators, regular classroom teachers, parents, specialists, and others interested in helping students with special needs succeed in the classroom and in life. The workshop was held at the Regency Hotel in Portland, Maine, a beautiful setting (on a lovely day) for exploring a strength-based approach to special education issues. The workshop was sponsored by Transdisciplinary Workshops Inc. (see photo of me with the director of Transdisciplinary Workshops Inc., Barbara Baum Freethy, M.Ed.).
We spent a wonderful day together exploring how the concept of neurodiversity can transform the way we look at kids who have traditionally been viewed in terms of their disabilities. We looked at strategies and tools for empowering these students, including using assistive technologies and Universal Design for Learning strategies, strength-based instructional strategies, enhancing student’s social networks, providing inspirational examples of positive role models of people with disabilities/diversities who have become successful in life (e.g. Temple Grandin for people with autism etc.), understanding the importance of matching a student’s gifts to careers out there that make the most of what these kids have to give, and a number of other tools, strategies, and resources.
For those who would like copies of the handouts used in this workshop (plus slides that were not included in the handouts, and mind-maps that we generated in the course of the workshop) click here.
I think for me the most personally meaningful part of the workshop was when the group started sharing stories of how they have used a student’s strengths to design learning strategies that have helped them succeed. There was a success story, for example, about a student with autism spectrum disorder, who was having difficulty independently making a transition from one area of the school to another. One strength of this student was his love of and ability in using video, and so he was given a video camera and asked to shoot a movie of his journey from that area of the school to the other. On replaying the video, the instructors noticed that he spent a lot of time in an area where there was a vending machine. In fact, he took close-up shots of each of the thirty or so individual cubicles that displayed the items available for purchase. This was what was keeping him from getting to the new area of the school. Interestingly, it was his interest in the mechanism of the vending machine and his fascination with the details of the items for sale, that hindered him in this practical task of moving from one area to the next (during the workshop we actually reviewed research showing how people with autism are often very good at focusing on details and have preferences for interacting with machines and other ”systems”). After looking at the video, and treating it as a social story, (in other words, as a sequence of steps that can be learned for getting from one area of the building to another), he was able to make the complete journey without difficulty.
Another student with emotional and social difficulties who was unable to talk directly about her problems, but who loved cartooning, was able to work out some of her emotional and social conflicts through the cartoon characters that she drew.
A third student, who, like the first student, was on the autistic spectrum, related better to animals than to humans. A therapeutic pet was introduced into her life at school, and this experience opened up new levels of communication for her that hadn’t been seen before in her interactions with human beings. The teacher was then able to teach specific academic skills using the dog as a bridge for communication. So, for example, the student demonstrated her proficiency in understanding the functions of prepositions in English grammar, by holding an object “over” the dog, ”under” the dog, etc.
I want to thank all the members of this workshop for their terrific sharing during the course of the day. For me, it was an affirmation that these ideas are not simply ”pie in the sky” but are real, lived experiences, and that by embracing a perspective in special education that puts the greatest emphasis on these students’ strengths, we’re able to facilitate significant transformations in their lives.
For people interested in further exploring the ideas covered in this workshop, get my book Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life.