The Educational Tyranny of the Neurotypicals

“As you read further into the above article please keep close to your thinking why is information so important or how does it relate to my family. Over the few decades starting with the 2001 Bush administration proposal of how our children should be taught changed. Their push to teach by testing was very critical and many education experts deplored this concept. During the Obama administration his secretary of education tried changing that approach but he was also criticized for the reversal. The article below is very critical of both educational thought process. Read closely and keep your thought process open.”

Structured learning didn’t serve me particularly well. I was kicked out of kindergarten for running away too many times, and I have the dubious distinction of having dropped out of two undergraduate programs and a doctoral business and administration program. I haven’t been tested, but have come to think of myself as “neuroatypical” in some way.

“Neurotypical” is a term used by the autism community to describe what society refers to as “normal.” According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in 59 children, and one in 34 boys, are on the autism spectrum—in other words, neuroatypical. That’s 3 percent of the male population. If you add ADHD—attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—and dyslexia, roughly one out of four people are not “neurotypicals.”

In NeuroTribes, Steve Silberman chronicles the history of such non-neurotypical conditions, including autism, which was described by the Viennese doctor Hans Asperger and Leo Kanner in Baltimore in the 1930s and 1940s. Asperger worked in Nazi-occupied Vienna, which was actively euthanizing institutionalized children, and he defined a broad spectrum of children who were socially awkward. Others had extraordinary abilities and a “fascination with rules, laws and schedules,” to use Silberman’s words. Leo Kanner, on the other hand, described children who were more disabled. Kanner’s suggestion that the condition was activated by bad parenting made autism a source of stigma for parents and led to decades of work attempting to “cure” autism rather than developing ways for families, the educational system, and society to adapt to it.

Our schools in particular have failed such neurodiverse students, in part because they’ve been designed to prepare our children for typical jobs in a mass-production-based white- and blue-collar environment created by the Industrial Revolution. Students acquire a standardized skillset and an obedient, organized, and reliable nature that served society well in the past—but not so much today. I suspect that the quarter of the population who are diagnosed as somehow non-neurotypical struggle with the structure and the method of modern education, and many others probably do as well.

I often say that education is what others do to you and learning is what you do for yourself. But I think that even the broad notion of education may be outdated, and we need a completely new approach to empower learning: We need to revamp our notion of “education” and shake loose the ordered and linear metrics of the society of the past, when we were focused on scale and the mass production of stuff. Accepting and respecting neurodiversity is the key to surviving the transformation driven by the internet and AI, which is shattering the Newtonian predictability of the past and replacing it with a Heisenbergian world of complexity and uncertainty.

Ron Suskind tells the story of his autistic son Owen, who lost his ability to speak around his third birthday. Owen had loved the Disney animated movies before his regression began, and a few years into his silence it became clear he’d memorized dozens of Disney classics in their entirety. He eventually developed an ability to communicate with his family by playing the role, and speaking in the voices, of the animated characters he so loved, and he learned to read by reading the film credits. Working with his family, Owen recently helped design a new kind of screen-sharing app, called Sidekicks, so other families can try the same technique.

Owen’s story tells us how autism can manifest in different ways and how, if caregivers can adapt rather than force kids to “be normal,” many autistic children survive and thrive. Our institutions, however, are poorly designed to deliver individualized, adaptive programs to educate such kids.

In addition to schools poorly designed for non-neurotypicals, our society traditionally has had scant tolerance or compassion for anyone lacking social skills or perceived as not “normal.” Temple Grandin, the animal welfare advocate who is herself somewhere on the spectrum, contends that Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Mozart, and Nikola Tesla would have been diagnosed on the “autistic spectrum” if they were alive today. She also believes that autism has long contributed to human development and that “without autism traits we might still be living in caves.” She is a prominent spokesperson for the neurodiversity movement, which argues that neurological differences must be respected in the same way that diversity of gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation is.

Despite challenges with some of the things that neurotypicals find easy, people with Asperger’s and other forms of autism often have unusual abilities. For example, the Israeli Defense Force’s Special Intelligence Unit 9900, which focuses on analyzing aerial and satellite imagery, is partially staffed with people on the autism spectrum who have a preternatural ability to spot patterns. I believe at least some of Silicon Valley’s phenomenal success is because its culture places little value on conventional social and corporate values that prize age-based experience and conformity that dominates most of society and most institutions on the East Coast. It celebrates nerdy, awkward youth and has turned their super-human, “abnormal” powers into a money-making machine that is the envy of the world. (This new culture is wonderfully inclusive from a neurodiversity perspective but white-dude centric and problematic from a gender and race perspective.)

This sort of pattern recognition and many other unusual traits associated with autism are extremely well suited for science and engineering, often enabling a super-human ability to write computer code, understand complex ideas and elegantly solve difficult mathematical problems.

Unfortunately, most schools struggle to integrate atypical learners, even though it’s increasingly clear that interest-driven learning, project-based learning, and undirected learning seem better suited for the greater diversity of neural types we now know exist.

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