Let’s Ask the Experts: Neurodiversity & Natural Genius

Recently I was able to interview Dr. Thomas Armstrong , an author and a key speaker, on  neurodiversity and learning. On his website, “Dr. Armstrong argues for a radically new approach to special education based upon deep respect and the celebration of natural brain differences “, his positive attitude and ability to see diversity in learning as strength rather than a hindrance really intrigued us at RiSE.  Here is an excerpt for the interview:

1. You have designed a 156-item Neuordiversity Strengths Inventory. Can you tell us about what it assesses? What types of strengths can it identify? Is it scientifically tested/proven to accurately identify strengths? How?

Actually, I recounted and it’s a 165 item inventory!  It assesses strengths in a variety of areas including strengths in personality, sociability, communication, literacy, logic, dexterity, creativity, and more.  I’ve tried to be exhaustive in my inventory because I really want educators to look comprehensively at a student’s abilities – if we put as much attention into discovering students’ abilities as we do their deficits, they’d be so much better off!  It’s not scientifically tested, and that doesn’t worry me a bit.  The point of the inventory is to joggle the minds of educators and get them thinking in a ”strength-based” way about their students with special needs.  I really don’t see much point in having a ‘test” with lots of graphs and charts and inter-rater reliability coefficients and that kind of thing.  Just keeping it very down to earth..  No science is required to do that except perhaps the science of common sense.   

 2. Can you elaborate on different types of UDL’s so that our readers can find aid in these tools? (Universal Design for Learning)

There are a lot of different UDL tools out there and more coming every year.  One group is augmentative and alternative communication devices like Proloquo2go, where a student with autism, for example, can punch buttons and get a synthesized voice to communicate for him or her.  There are text-to-speech apps like the Kurzweil 3000 that translate printed text into the spoken word for kids with dyslexia, and the reverse as well, speech-to-text apps like Dragon Naturally Speaking, that translate voice into text, so that the student with dysgraphia, who has a lot of trouble getting their words down on paper, but has a strong oral communication ability, can succeed in writing.  These are just a few of the many tools that are out there to enable kids with special needs to get around obstacles so that they can learn alongside their typically developing peers. 

3. Can you tell us about some of the positive traits associated with LD categories? Specifically, with ADHD, dyslexia, dysgraphia, AP, dyscalculia, sensory?

Well, kids with ADHD are often novelty-seekers.  They don’t like to get bored.  That’s actually a good thing, because it spurs innovation and creativity.  Kids with dyslexia often have entrepreneurial abilities, and also good three-dimensional visual spatial skills – they’re LEGO experts in early childhood, and later on, they become engineers and architects!  The others I’m not as informed about, but I think a lot of language disabilities have their counterpart in visual-spatial skills – thinking in pictures more than thinking in words, and we’ve got to create a curriculum that is picture-based for a lot of these kids.  

 4. Which of your books would you recommend to parents of High school students diagnosed with LD’s?

I would recommend either You’re Smarter Than You Think, or 7 Kinds of Smart.  The first one is a little easier to read and has some good graphics.  The second one is a little more difficult to read (although not much more difficult!) and more comprehensive and oriented more toward an adult population, but high school and college aged kids can still get a lot out of it.   

5. Can you explain to our readers, the perspective of neurodiversity and the importance of integrating its recognition into the classroom?

Yes, we focus too much on disability and not enough on diversity in our special education programs.  You wouldn’t say that a calla lily has ”petal deficit disorder” – you’d appreciate it for what it is.  So why do we say that a student with a different style of paying attention has ”attention deficit disorder”?  This doesn’t make sense.  We should understand HOW that student pays attention and create a curriculum that works with how they think.  Otherwise, we’re just stuck in a deficit-oriented way of thinking and can’t really help these kids become successful on their own terms.  So much of special education is about fixing what’s broken when it should be about finding out what really works and then taking it to the bank, so to speak, to help kids be successful.  So many kids in special education have skills, abilities, talents, intelligences, strengths, that are going unnoticed and undeveloped because everybody’s focusing on what these kids can’t do.  If we integrate a strength-based neurodiversity approach into special education services, we’ll really take a giant leap toward helping these kids realize their true potential!   

Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of the American Institute for Learning and Human Development, and an award-winning author and speaker who has been an educator for the past forty years. Over one million copies of his books are in print on issues related to learning and human development.  His clients have included Sesame Street, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the European Council of International Schools, the Republic of Singapore, and several state departments of education. He is a member of the American Psychological Association, the National Speakers Association, the Authors Guild, and ASCD.

To find more information on Dr. Armstrong , visit his website at: http://institute4learning.com/index.php

Dr. Armstrong’s books are as follows: 

1.       Neurodiversity in the Classroom:  Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Achieve Success in School and Life

2.       The Power of Neurodiversity:  Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain

3.       The Best Schools:  How Human Development Research Should Inform Educational Practice

4.       The Multiple Intelligences of Reading and Writing: Making the Words Come Alive

5.       Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom, 3rd Ed.

6.       7 Kinds of Smart: Identifying and Developing Your Multiple Intelligences, Revised and Updated with Information on 2 New Kinds of Smart

7.       In Their Own Way: Discovering and Encouraging Your Child’s Multiple Intelligences, Revised and Updated.

8.       You’re Smarter Than You Think: A Kid’s Guide to Multiple Intelligences

9.       ADD/ADHD Alternatives in the Classroom

10.   The Myth of the A.D.D. Child: 50 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Behavior and Attention Span without Drugs, Labels, or Coercion

11.   Awakening Genius in the Classroom

12.   The Human Odyssey:  Navigating the 12 Stages of Life

13.   The Radiant Child

14.   Awakening Your Child’s Natural Genius: Enhancing Curiosity, Creativity, and Learning Ability

15.   Creating Classroom Structure

Article by Liz Blue.

Liz Blue is a graduate of University of Georgia with a B.S. in Psychology. While attending UGA, Liz worked for two years in the cognitive neuroscience lab, with a specialization in the processes of neural correlates. She is currently a cognitive trainer at Learning RX and is a contributor for RiSE Scholarship Foundation, Inc.

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