Many of us are quite familiar with the story of the creation of Prophet Adam. God taught the names of things to Adam, and the angels fell into awe upon the demonstration of his ability to know things by their names. What is so special about the names of things? Names are given to objects/beings based on their unique characteristics. Simply uttering the name of an object/item will flood your thoughts with its features and functions, without you realizing any effort going into it.
Names are powerful things, with positive and negative connotations. Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, instructed us to give names to our children with good meanings, because a name or a title has a strong effect on the personality and human condition.
Where am I going with this?
There is also an expectation of students’ abilities and capacities to learn in the educational setting with how students are identified as learners. Over the past decade, we have witnessed the evolution of terminology for identifying students with different abilities, often referred to as disabilities.
The current public education system is designed to address the labor needs of an industrialized society. The system was intended to produce a worker who can easily fit into a mold to work in a factory or office cubicle setting. Many of us have benefited from this system and have become contributing and valuable members of society. Many students thrive and there is room for creativity and remarkable innovation. For some.
In this system, there is little room for anyone to veer off the standardized definition of a learner who possesses unique learning abilities. Kindhearted and well-meaning educators and policymakers have tried and are still trying to be inclusive of and make the system work for all types of learners. And finally, they have arrived at the correct terminology forged in compassion, inclusiveness, and a better understanding of the workings of the human mind.
Neurodivergent. It is a powerful word and allows society to fully embrace a learner who experiences the world in his/her unique ways. The concept of neurodiversity was first promoted in 1990 by Australian Sociologist Judy Singer (herself on the autism spectrum) and is changing the way developmental disorders are defined and understood in the medical and education realms.
“There’s a growing push to focus on our brain differences, not deficits. This wider view of "normal" is a big part of something called neurodiversity. Advocates hope the idea expands how we think of developmental disorders, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). If the concept goes mainstream, it could lead to big changes in education and workplace norms.”1
People who are neurodiverse have varying abilities, originally defined in relation to autism spectrum disorder (ASD), however now include conditions such as ADHD and/or learning disabilities: dyscalculia, dyslexia, etc.2
This understanding of the human mind, derived from the advancement in the field of Neurology, has far-reaching and revolutionary effects in the field of education and in the classrooms for parents, teachers, and students. The definition and expectations of the learner in K-12 are changing dramatically. The burden of responsibility clearly is shifting to the educators, as has not been the case traditionally. However, the task at hand is humongous, and changing the status quo may be an uphill battle, therefore slowing the progress that needs to be happening in leaps and bounds.
Our human population has always included neurodiverse individuals. I am sure that our beloved Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, had neurodiverse companions in his flock. There are so many remarkable anecdotes about the companions and their unique abilities, which came in handy in the early days to help Islam settle in the hearts and minds of the people. We know that companions and those who followed after them could memorize hundreds of thousands of the sayings of the prophet with the chains of narration in absolute accuracy. We’ve heard of companions mastering multiple languages, memorizing the entire lineages of all the Arabian tribes, etc.
Let us dream of an educational system where neurodivergent children are thriving in a learning environment catered to their needs and focused on their learning potential and strengths. The classroom would look and sound differently than what we know now.
However, we all have a role to play for this dream to come to fruition.
- Besides advocating for their children, parents should learn the best ways to provide a supportive environment where neurodivergent children enhance their learning by using their strengths. This would require playing an active part in educating our families, neighbors, and our leaders.
- Individual teachers and unions that represent them must think outside the box and should become the agents of change, depending less on traditional ways of treating neurodiverse children such as medications, and more on cognitive and behavioral therapy.
- School administrators and leaders should rethink the structural makeup of the schools to adjust to the needs of the students, and fund it appropriately.
I strongly believe that making structural changes for inclusivity in society and in education benefits all children, not only the neurodiverse. Our economies and societies are changing rapidly. Jobs are shifting to robotic workers and relying heavily on artificial intelligence with incredible speed. Neurodiverse children/adults can play an amazing role in the betterment and advancement of our society. It’s time to listen so that all of us have fulfilling lives and the progress made so far continues to move forward.
Tayaabah Qazi has a master’s degree in Educational Leadership, an AdminI/II Certification from the State of Maryland Education Department, and a Secondary Teaching Certification in Chemistry as well as a CPP certificate. She has served in the education field as a teacher and an administrator of schools. Recently, she served at Community College of Baltimore County as a Coordinator of Adult Basic Education program. Currently, Tayaabah is the Program Manager at the Office of Workforce Development at Maryland Department of Labor. She has been a long-time resident of Maryland for 17 years, with her family, but hails from Southern California. She is also a staunch believer of the 4 Cs: Compassion. Commitment. Conversation. Cultivation.