These students behaved differently because they thought differently. They thought differently because they were different, and therefore should be taught differently.
I realized then that schools were doing an enormous disservice to students with autism. Children cannot be forced to think the way we think they should. We shouldn’t suppress their strengths and interests because they’re different from the norm. And we absolutely should never dismiss or underestimate a child because they speak, act, or think differently.
And yet this is exactly what happens sometimes, especially with children on the autism spectrum. These children are in our classroom because they have special needs, or rather, different needs.
If a student has special needs, we need to provide an individual education program to fit those needs. Wait, hang on. An IEP? We already have those. So then, what’s the problem? </span
Well, as Grandin points out, some education programs are not meeting the needs of students with autism. Some schools are so caught up with testing, standards, and peer comparisons that they miss out on their students’ strengths and needs.
One Size Doesn’t Fit All.
Grandin once said that “rigid academic and social expectations could wind up stifling a mind that, while it might struggle to conjugate a verb, could one day take us to distant stars.” We’re shortchanging our students if we give them a one-size-fits-all education and judge their progress only by test scores and peer comparisons.
“Parents get so worried about the deficits that they don’t build up the strengths, but those skills could turn into a job,” states Grandin. “These kids often have uneven skills. We need to be a lot more flexible about things. Don’t hold these math geniuses back. You’re going to have to give them special ed in reading because that tends to be the pattern, but let them go ahead in math.”
It seems that so many teachers and parents are trying to force children with autism into some kind of mold… a mold they may never comfortably fit into. But this is exactly why special education exists. These kids don’t need the same thing as everyone else. They need education individualized specifically for their needs.
In fact, that day, I found my boys wearing their book bags overflowing with stuffed animals. When I asked them what they were doing, my older son told me that they were squeezing their animals into the book bags “to comfort them.” They were modeling an idea mentioned in the children’s book, The Girl Who Thought in Pictures. He was so inspired by her story, he spent the day drawing animals and chattering about how we could invent things to help them.
Temple Grandin: The Girl Who Thought in Pictures
That day, we spoke about how some people think differently. We talked about how Temple Grandin says she thinks in pictures. I told my children that she struggled in school because she was different from the other kids, but later grew up to be a successful woman. She went from being a nonverbal child to a famous motivational speaker. Although she had a difficult time in early on in school, she went on to receive three college degrees, including a doctorate. Dr. Grandin built up her strengths and interests to become a published author, a respected animal activist, an autism advocate, and an accomplished inventor.
Dr. Temple Grandin set her sights and achieved her goals. She actively encourages others on the spectrum to do the same.
Autism: Seeing the World from a Different Point of View
I explained to my children that Grandin thought differently and saw the world from a different point of view. Because she felt that she understood how animals thought and acted, she was able to design machinery and techniques to help them. She felt that the techniques and equipment used at the time was scaring and harming the animals. Dr. Grandin wanted to create machinery and techniques to help corral cattle in a more humane way. Her unique way of thinking led to inventions that improved living conditions for livestock. My older son spoke up and said, “She sounds smart. I’m glad she learned to use her thoughts.” His comment cracked me up and I realized that he was right. That’s exactly what she did. Temple Grandin didn’t push away her tendencies and interests because they were different from her peers. She worked at them, pursued them, and strengthened her skills. Had she been forced to squash down those strengths, Temple Grandin’s accomplishments in her fields surely would have been limited. If she had been forced to learn and do things like her peers, her potential may have been stifled.
As a self-contained special education teacher, I’ve always tried to encourage students to identify their strengths instead of only focusing on weaknesses. Too often in special education, teachers and parents focus on what students can’t do, won’t do, and never did. How can we expect them to rise up when all we do is attach labels, site statistical averages, and compare them to others? Why attach that weight to the foot of a struggling student?
Diverse Learners Require Diverse Methods
Not every child will progress in exactly the same way or at the same pace, so these standards and expectations can be unfair to differently- abled children. Instead of suppressing autistic tendencies, Grandin urges parents and teachers to allow these characteristics to flourish.
In her TED Talk, Grandin says, “The world needs all kinds of minds.” After all, it is with different points of views that we take on new territory, create new inventions, and come up with new concepts. Diverse learners are invaluable to our world and it is our job to help them succeed.
Exceptional Thinkers are Different But Not Less.
I chose the name Exceptional Thinkers for my brand because, while it is a nod to special education, it does not necessarily imply a deficit, a problem, or even a disability. The word “exceptional” simply means different from the norm. It can refer to students with special needs, but it can also mean brilliant and outstanding. I kind of love that ambiguity.
“Different but not less” is a quote that Grandin uses in her books and speeches. It’s a powerful saying and it speaks to my outlook on special education. Just because a child learns differently does not mean that they are less capable. We all know this in our hearts, but sometimes people need a little reminder.
“The Girl Who Thought in Pictures” Book Companion FREEBIE
The free resource is a differentiated story graph designed to be used with “The Girl Who Thought in Pictures.” I also offer a larger resource that includes a reading passage about Grandin along with a character graph, flip book activity, and writing prompts that can be used with or without the book.
All images used in my “The Girl Who Thought in Pictures” resources were created by Daniel Rieley are used with permission from The Innovation Press.
I designed these activities to be used with a diverse group of students. Students who are nonverbal or have limited writing ability would benefit from the cut/ paste picture answer choices, while typically developing peers could write out their answers directly onto the activity sheets. So if you’re interested in that, here ya go:
Other posts from Exceptional Thinkers that you may like: