I Have A Dream

These words were once spoken regarding the integration of races in American culture. As we understand more about autism, we understand that integration is much needed. A neurodiverse classroom provides growth and social development in both directions. Neurotypicals learn valuable skills through their interactions with the neurodivergent students and vice-versa. Temple Grandin, a pillar of the autism community has been very clear in her activism that the world needs all kinds of minds. My dream is that my children will be integrated into a neurodiverse classroom. To help express my views on this I will begin with a piece of my narrative.

Since I Was Five

Step back with me to 1996 in Mesa, Arizona. I was too young to grasp what was happening. I had no idea the impact he would have on my life. In many ways, he is the reason I do what I do. In an afterschool program I first met Seth, he was in a walker, he talked a little differently, but he had the most infectious laugh. We became fast friends over the next year and a half, but due to behavioral complications on my part, I was enrolled in another school. We lost touch for almost seven years. Then one day I recognized him in an afterschool program my sister was enrolled in. I crashed his speech therapy session with his speech and language pathologist. We picked up right where we left off. By now Seth’s muscular dystrophy had progressed so that he now needed a wheelchair. There was one special thing about Seth, though, he had this indomitable spirit of joy. No matter what the day brought, he would always say that “Today was the best day ever” when it was time to go to bed.

Seth was my best friend. He was the best man at my wedding. Despite the differences in our neurology, disabilities, and capabilities we learned so much from each other. I firmly believe that no one could have taught me how to be not only content with what one has, but to be joyful about it. Despite all the hardship, surgeries, and complications of his condition. Nothing broke that spirit even as his time with us came to an end he never lost that joy. How many people do you know that could lay in a hospital bed, in the intensive care unit, fighting for their life that would still say “Today, this is the best day ever.” and mean it. That is not a lesson a neurodivided classroom could ever teach. Even seven years later, I still cry. He was my best friend, like a brother to me, and the depths to which I miss him cannot be expressed by the guttural groans of our vocal language. Yet this friendship that defines so much of my life, and helped mold me into the man I am today, would not have been possible outside of a neurodiverse classroom.

My Dream

For my twin sons who are on the spectrum, and my daughters who are not, it is my hope and dream that they would be able to experience a neurodiverse friendship like that which Seth and I had. To help realize this dream, I advocate for an integrated classroom. I am not blinded by hope. I am aware that this presents some challenges of integrating various abilities in the classroom. If you will stay with me I will share some ideas on how to integrate neurodiversity in a way that not only builds up the neurodivergent but also the neurotypical.

Classroom Leaders

Growing up you may have seen some people that are naturally gifted with leading and teaching other students. It seems like a no-brainer to identify these children and draw out their leadership skills. This is not something exclusive to neurotypical children. The neurodivergent kiddo, who has an affinity for World War II military equipment can help instruct a peer group through a packet provided by the teacher. Teachers will be able to identify each students’ strengths and then have the students assist in teaching their peers. The desks could be divided into pods. And the teacher will oversee the day’s classroom work rotating through each pod, assisting where they are needed while cultivating interpersonal skills in the students. Each student will be given the opportunity to demonstrate their strengths and receive support from the teacher and their peers in areas where they may struggle.

At the Henderson Inclusion Elementary School, they practice what is called a strength-based model. This model focuses on the strengths of the individual. Whether a child is academically advanced or has a developmental disability the school calls each student to do their individual best. Even though a student with cerebral palsy may not match the pace of their top runner, they support and encourage each runner to do their best (Armstrong 2012).

You always hear the phrase “it takes a village” being thrown around in regard to raising a child. Whoever said that village was entirely composed of adults? I for one think that we can integrate the children into that village.

Benefits For Everyone

My narrative and ideas for integrating the classroom have served to evidence the benefits for the children, but there are benefits for the teachers as well. Teachers will undoubtedly appreciate the support these student assistants bring, not to mention the paraprofessionals that accompany the exceptional needs students who are integrated into the classroom. As Bill Henderson stated in his memoirs of being a school principal and losing his sight

            “Including children with significant disabilities helped remind us of the importance of taking delight in the students’ daily efforts and growth. Celebrating accomplishments, both small and large, helped fortify us in our quest for continuous improvements and excellence for all” (Armstrong 2012)

With that quote, I can’t help but point out that while integrated classrooms help the teacher appreciate each students’ efforts more, the students will learn this as well. Not that they will pity their peers, but in the sense that they will be exposed firsthand to how hardships are different for everyone. So, they learn that we must celebrate every step of growth no matter how big or little it is.

It’s Already Working

The William W. Henderson Inclusion Elementary School has a student population of about 230 with one-third of the student population being exceptional needs students. That’s nearly 80 exceptional needs students and their typically developing peers that spent most of their academic days fully integrated (Armstrong 2012).

Assistive technologies have been a staple in integrating neurodiverse students. From assisted reading devices that read written content aloud and blend visual learning with audible learning to supports for sensory issues with writing or speech. The school integrates technology to help each learner reaches their maximum potential (Armstrong 2012). One trait that stands out is that in any given classroom at any given time, you won’t find the entire class learning the same things at the same time in the same way. Teaching methods are varied to meet each student where they are. With so many advancements in how we understand the learning process of the brain digital education media and educational games have exploded. It seems foolish not to integrate these cutting-edge, empirically supported alternative teaching methods into how we teach students.

Beyond the technology aspect, Henderson Inclusion Elementary gives extra attention to the classroom environment. They include various styles of chairs, stools, and cushions to ensure each student can feel comfortable in the classroom. Various sensory toys can be found in classrooms readily available to students with ADHD, autism, emotional disorders, and even typically developing students that may need the support. Henderson also includes the parents of the exceptional needs students in classroom development. Tapping into this plurality of minds helps ensure that they are meeting the unique needs of every child. They even have areas of the campus that are exclusively available as a reward for positive achievements (Armstrong 2012).

Actionable Steps

Now you may be asking how you can integrate this strength-based model into your own classroom. It begins with looking for as many talents, aptitudes, interests, and intelligences as you can in every student. For this part, I like the idea of keeping a notebook with one page dedicated to each student. When a child demonstrates an ability or interest, make a quick note of it. I think having a schoolwide database for this would be a great help, if not essential, with upper grades that have multiple teachers and classrooms every day.

Then as you identify these positive traits in each student, incorporate them into various activities using their strengths. The student with ADHD may be an excellent reading assistant by bringing big energy to an eccentric character in a story. The autistic student who excels in math may have a knack for helping other students learn new math concepts. The student with down syndrome may be a charismatic leader that can direct an activity or task as a peer leader. The student with an emotional disorder could be a natural teacher, patient and adaptive in helping their peers learn something new in any given subject.

When you go hunting for the good in students, you will find it. When students feel the positive impact that their strengths bring to the group, they get to see the struggles of others. This helps them lose some of the fear about sharing their difficulties. Which in turn brings an opportunity for someone else to practice their strengths and feel more comfortable admitting their weaknesses. This is the dream. A classroom where everyone is open about their strengths and weaknesses and has every opportunity to use their strengths and strengthen their weaknesses. It all starts with looking for the positive in every student.

In Conclusion

As I read about Henderson Inclusion Elementary, I can’t help but get giddy with excitement. During elementary, middle, and high school. I hated feeling isolated and different from my peers. With inclusion, the division that fuels feelings of being different, not good enough, or just plain isolated, is greatly reduced. If not eliminated. With the obvious success of Henderson Inclusion Elementary, why are we not incorporating these models into schools across the nation? Maybe it’s because the information isn’t as talked about. So, let’s talk about it. Let’s speak up for the inclusivity of students and educational technologies. Let’s equip the next generation to reach a height greater than we ever imagined they could.


Armstrong, T. (2012). Neurodiversity in the classroom: Strength-based strategies to help students with special needs succeed in school and life. ASCD.


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