Higher Education

OPINION: Want to help college students with special needs to succeed? First, stop saying ‘disadvantage’

Landmark College’s president explores the advantages of neurodiversity

When most people think about diversity, they tend to mainly consider race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and nationality.

I would like to believe that as a society most people agree that strengths accompany such diversity.

That is why many companies and colleges have been taking deliberate efforts to increase diversity in their organizations.

The rationale for such efforts is not purely symbolic. It is not a box to check off which shows that the organization “gets it.” This rationale is due to the fact that organizations often perform best when made up of those with different voices, different perspectives and different lenses.

There exists another example of diversity that is often overlooked, but which is finally gaining more visibility and attention in higher education and in various industry sectors: neurodiversity.

Neurodiversity describes a natural variation in our species, typically in terms of how one learns and/or operates.

Related: Special education’s hidden racial gap

Those who are neurodiverse often learn and think differently compared to neurotypical individuals, and that should not be construed as a deficit or disadvantage.

Neurodiverse individuals often possess strong cognitive abilities in specific areas, which can make them particularly skilled (and therefore particularly effective) in a given discipline or vocation.

However, it is important to remember that neurodiverse individuals, such as those with autism spectrum disorder, are not “predetermined” either to be successful or to fail in any particular field.

Such people are often as gifted at computer science and coding as they are at the visual and performing arts. You don’t have to search far and wide to find examples of tremendously successful and influential people with dyslexia, ADD/ADHD or autism spectrum disorder.

Related: How one district solved the special education dropout problem

Society must first give neurodiverse citizens a chance — we must not pre-judge them due to this difference. Fortunately, we as a society are overcoming our biases and assumptions about neurodiverse individuals, particularly those with high-functioning autism.

Landmark College has always enrolled only neurodiverse students, e.g. those with learning disabilities and difficulties related to dyslexia, ADD/ADHD, and ASD.

Landmark runs a dedicated model and program and we know empirically that neurodiversity can be a challenge but can also be a considerable advantage – whether in the classroom, laboratory, business setting or other environment that requires and rewards those able to think differently about problems and opportunities.

Related: Almost all students with disabilities are capable of graduating on time. Here’s why they’re not.

Our students bring the same level of curiosity, commitment and ambition found in neurotypical college students, but in addition they bring capabilities potentially ideally suited to some of the most challenging problems facing our world today.

As a member of the National Science Foundation’s Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering, I know how important it is to bring more attention to this rarely discussed manifestation of diversity, and I’m proud of the role Landmark College is playing in helping provide the opportunity.

That’s why we’re partnering with some of the country’s leading businesses to generate a more neurodiverse workforce, and why we’re working with SAP and other companies involved in Autism at Work-type programs. We are undertaking this effort not only to provide a pipeline of neurodiverse college interns and graduates, but also to educate and train others about the learning and living variables often seen in neurodiverse people.

Related: The vast majority of students with disabilities don’t get a college degree

We urge more companies to follow in this auspicious trend of hiring those with learning differences due to neurodiversity.

We need more partners to realize the neurodiverse population’s value as powerful and important workers, leaders and change agents.

Who else will join us and have the courage and foresight to more intentionally access such an asset?

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.

Peter Eden is the president of Landmark College, one of the few accredited colleges in the U.S. designed for students who learn and achieve differently.

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While saying not to use negatively skewed words like "disadvantage," you use a faux pas in today's disability lingo right in the headline...

"Special Needs" is a term that suggests that the needs of a student with differences in learning are "special" and not "normal," and therefore it is bad. As an alum of Landmark College, I would encourage you to use humanizing terms. Saying "a student with dyslexia" is much better than saying they have "special needs." This article has the chance of reframing the negative associations that learning differences can bring, and yet it is undermined by the use of this pas-sé term.

- from Neal Sorensen, Dec 07, 2017