24 Feb

Speaking as someone who has worked in Special Education for 30 years—and as a man with dyslexia, and publisher of the leading neurodiversity journal—we must take up the crusade to fundamentally reform Special Education law. The legal paradigm of "Individuals With Disabilities" is a fallacy. Modern neuroscience suggests that minority neurological subtypes—Dyslexia, ADHD, ASD—are only “disabilities” in the context of a school system that privileges neurotypical learners. 

The research is clear: early intervention and specialized instruction significantly improve outcomes.  Despite this, the current legal structure requires families with neurological minority traits to fight a system designed primarily to deny services and pathologize behavior. Rather than applying the science, Special Ed mostly amounts to twelve years of humiliation and failure, ultimately throwing children into the world without the tools or credentials to survive.  The damage inflicted by these structural failures is measurable throughout society.

Despite spending anywhere from two to ten times as much per student in special education, the outcomes for targeted children are terrible. It’s not just in the poor acquisition of academic skills and drop out rates, both of which are well-documented statistics. Higher rates of psychiatric disorders are linked to so-called reading disability, autism, and ADHD. The research shows it is one’s experience in school, not inherent neurology, that produces these mental health issues. Once you accept that divergent learners are not disabled, the inclusion model begins to look unusually cruel. We need different approaches. 

The neurological fallacy permeates the culture. Neurotypical students are often hostile to the inclusion model, believing it is legitimate to exclude students with autism and/or learning disabilities from classroom activities that will be graded. Students with autism are bullied at a significantly higher rate. Girls with ADHD experience more social challenges and difficulty with peers than neurotypical girls. In general, people with ADHD will experience a negative stigma across their lifespans. And, incidentally, the Bureau of Justice reports 40% of the incarcerated population were previously diagnosed. This is just a quick glance but taken all together it becomes clear: the paradigm of Special Education has failed. We are damaging between 14% and 30% of our children at significant cost to society.

Imagine if we aligned our legal framework with the research. Rather than pathologically targeting minority families on an individual basis—“Individuals with Disabilities”—we could design a system that recognizes that at least 20% of students will need a different approach. 

I propose five simple reforms to significantly improve student learning experiences and outcomes while cutting the price tag. They are:

  1. Neurodiversity: Like cultural diversity, neurodiversity should be respected and valued for what it can offer the human species overall. If children learned from the first day to celebrate neurological differences and recognize each of our strengths, we could significantly reduce the anxiety of being “normal.”
  2. Teacher training: Require an understanding of neurodiversity as part of teacher training.  Teachers, especially in the early grades, should recognize different neurological profiles and work to ensure that their needs are met. 
  3. Lower barriers to instruction: We must plan educational systems that recognize the different needs of different students. In my experience, most special ed money is spent either blocking people from getting services or providing band-aids for the people who didn’t get the services they needed.
  4. Universal Design: Follow Universal Design principles starting in preschool so that all students can experience success from the start. Rather than perpetuating systems that privilege the neurotypical “norm,” Universal Design seeks to create a context that is accessible to students regardless of profile.
  5. Reorganize Classrooms: Classes should be organized by skill level, not age. We know that 14% to 30% of the population needs different interventions. We can worry about “Inclusion” after we actually teach them to read.  The neurotypical majority would continue to progress as they have, but kids with minority profiles could actually receive appropriate instruction.  

So I implore you; please, we must lead a task force to review all special education laws through the lens of neurodiversity. The “Special Education” paradigm has failed. It didn’t work when my parents were fighting the school system 50 years ago, and it continues to fail today. How many more generations must we damage? The damage is measurable and the cost of this failure is felt all through our society.  Until we shift the paradigm, our schools will continue to inflict permanent damage on families with minority neurological profiles, at great cost to society.


Ben Mitchell

Publisher - Divergents MagazinePhone: 



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