‘Let Them Be Who They Are’: Discovering Special Education Teachers’ Perceptions of Oppressive Normativity and Their Practice of Celebrating Neurodiversity
Autistic students are faced with ableism and oppressive practices daily in their school environments. Special educators can mitigate this problem by celebrating the neurodiversity of the students in their classroom. Utilizing a critical disability theory lens, I conducted an instrumental case study through observations and interviews with six special education teachers at a special education school. The research objective was to understand how special education teachers approach oppressive normativity in their classroom and adapt their practice for neurodiverse learners. The findings revealed that special education teachers who work strictly with neurodiverse learners do not perceive oppressive normativity in their classroom because the acceptance of neurodiversity is the standard. The findings showed that special education teachers celebrated neurodiversity and approached oppressive normativity by using sensory techniques, social support, student differentiation, and choices for learning. Yet, there is also evidence of oppressive normativity through the use of planned ignoring, prompting, and deficit-based teacher language. The findings of this study can lead to further development of the special education practice, which I call neurodiverse communication empowerment, by highlighting student voice and strengths, understanding oppressive normativity, and developing strong teacher-student relationships with autistic students. This study adds to the scholarly research in the field of autism education and critical disability theory by considering the perceptions of special education teachers on neurodiversity. The findings have implications for increasing training in developmental, relationship-based, strength-based, and passion-based pedagogy; receiving feedback from neurodiverse learners; and providing mainstream and inclusion teachers with opportunities to observe in strictly neurodiverse classrooms to better their practice.