November 9, 2023
Neurodiversity On Our Bookshelves with Danielle Merritt-Sunseri
Blue Orchard Bee Resource
A long-standing goal at the Blue Orchard Bee is to improve the accessibility of our resources for all of our listeners and readers. This year will are working toward this goal by republishing some of your favorite episodes with new, fully edited transcripts. Originally from the Fall 2022 series, we're re-releasing this presentation by Danielle Sunseri with this new and fully-edited transcript. In this episode, Danielle talks about how we can understand and care for each other through the books we keep on our shelves.
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Welcome back to the 2022-2023 series of the Blue Orchard Bee. Next year is the 100th anniversary of the death of Charlotte Mason. The Charlotte Mason Institute and the University of Cumbria are collaborating with the Centenary Conference to be held the third week of July 2023. The University of Cumbria is located on the campus of the old Charlotte Mason College, formerly the House of Education. You can learn more at the Charlotte Mason Institute website at www.cminst .org. Now is a good time to purchase your registration to get a better exchange rate because you will pay in pounds and since the dollar is stronger at the moment than the pound, the exchange rate benefits the US dollar. The University of Cumbria is providing affordable accommodations before, during, and after the conference, so that you can plan on some extra time in the absolutely gorgeous Lake District. It will be a time of celebrating Mason's life and work in the place where she started her work that has revolutionized education for many children. Again, visit www.cminst.org for more information.
Now for something a little closer to the season that is coming up. If you are looking for an Advent Series for the upcoming Advent Season, check out the CMI blog, also at www.cminst.org/blog. Again, www.cminst.org. You will find Advent activities for classrooms and families.
Now, let's listen to today's session entitled Neurodiversity on our Bookshelves with Danielle Merritt-Sunseri. Let's listen.
Danielle: If you have a neurodivergent student, you may have noticed that their experience with books is very different from their typically developing peers. Sometimes they don't seem to like books at all. Sometimes they seem to gravitate toward or even cling to twaddle.
Often they reject many books from the Mason community favorite book list. I want to talk with you a bit today about why that might be and why I think all students should have at least a little neurodiversity on their bookshelves. Being neurodivergent can be a distinct cultural experience.
We're in the habit of thinking of neurodivergences as medical diagnoses and I don't want to downplay the fact that we are physical creatures, but I do want us to always keep in mind that we're talking about whole human beings. These are human beings that experience and interact with their world differently than the typical, human beings that sometimes process language differently. Both of these factors influence the meaning a person makes of language. So, many times they understand and interpret language differently and they may interpret different meaning from a text. Sometimes a text may be inaccessible to them and other times there may be texts that are more accessible to them. Psychologist Lev Vygotsky saw that people can only communicate with someone effectively, can only grasp their meaning, when they share understanding of language, ideas, motivation. The less they share, the more formal and explicit the communication will need to be.
Being neurodivergent can be a distinct cultural experience.
We've seen autistic research in the last few years that demonstrates this, that it's not so much that autistic people don't communicate well, but rather that no person communicates effectively with someone of a different neurotype. I've talked a little bit about this idea in nearly all of my workshops and videos over the last several years, but now that it's been researched formally it has a name. It's called the double empathy problem. So, when we're thinking about neuroatypical children reading narrative literature, that means that we cannot expect them to grasp the author's ideas if they do not share the language, ideas, and understanding with the author. I've shared in teacher training about choosing books specifically for school. Here I want to think more broadly about why neuroatypical students need authors that share their language, ideas, and motivation. Authors that resonate with their experience. From Home Education on page 330, we read, 'I am, I ought, I can, I will.
These are the steps of that ladder of St. Augustine, whereby we rise on stepping stones of our dead selves to higher things. I am. We have the power of knowing ourselves. I ought. We have within us a moral judge to whom we feel ourselves subject and who points out and requires of us our duty. I can. We are conscious of power to do that which we perceive we ought to do.
I will. We determine to exercise that power with volition, which is in itself a step in the execution of that which we will.' Notice that knowing oneself is the very first step to developing a conscience and accessing the will. From School Education, page 86, we read, 'Another preparation for his relations in life, which we owe to a young person, is that he should be made familiar with such a working system of psychology or philosophy, whichever one likes to call it, as shall help him to conduct his relations with himself and with other people. This knowledge is the more important because our power to conduct our relations with other people depends upon our power of conducting our relations with ourselves.' So, this is actually a very fundamental problem because we develop this self-knowledge by finding reflections of ourselves in the world around us and in the literature that we're reading.
Inaccurate reflections lead to inaccurate self-image. This is what our neuroatypical students are facing because they are so different from those around them. Compared to their peers, they are bound to be more dependent for self-knowledge on authors with whom they resonate. Our literature is also supposed to be helping us to develop our knowledge of other. For typically developing students, neurodiversity in their literature gives them the opportunity to encounter other with an open mind.
There were studies recently published that demonstrate that autistic people are typically rejected by others within seconds, and once that first impression is made, it's nearly impossible to change. By encountering such people first in literature where they have the opportunity to develop empathy, our typically-developing students can become more magnanimous individuals. Literature provides an opportunity to experience a particular type of human connection and understanding that may be lacking. It can guide the reader through social interactions by directing their attention to what's important and making sense of things that in reality are much more complicated. In short, literature can help to build and heal relationships between real people. Reading to understand other also builds academic skills because theory of mind is critical for developing reading and listening comprehension.
People can only communicate with someone effectively, can only grasp their meaning, when they share understanding of language, ideas, motivation.
This has been shown in several studies at this point, but in this particular study by Kim et al, it was found that theory of mind, grammatical knowledge, and working memory have the greatest total impact on listening comprehension, while theory of mind actually has the greatest direct impact. So, how do we find literature that will serve us best? Well, just as Mason said, there isn't one set of books that's going to be best. Some books identify a character's diagnosis, or even teach about the diagnosis directly. And there is a place for those, although I would argue that that place is limited. But many books, and many of the best ones, don't.
In fact, in asking my kids to help me find great books and excerpts to use for this workshop at conference, they were at first confused by the request. They don't think of these people and characters as different. They're simply like them. They feel and think like them. It matters very little whether the character is identified as neurodivergent, or even whether the student consciously perceives them as such. In fact, calling too much attention to the diagnosis can disrupt the natural resonance. If you had a deaf child, or had adopted a child from another culture, you wouldn't take the child into that cultural community and say, tell my child what it means to be deaf. You would say, share with my child, tell them your stories.
What matters is that resonance. And so we're looking for authors that will do this very same thing for our children, to give the child a bit of cultural resonance. At a very basic level, I recommend looking for the traits and experiences of the person or character, rather than their diagnosis. We're not talking about a focus on stereotyped behaviors. We're talking about a noticing and an understanding of the person. They might be rejected, or punished, or alienated for these different traits and behaviors, but they might not be, especially in picture books. Van Gogh and the Sunflowers by Lawrence Anholt and Nothing Stopped Sophie by Cheryl Bardot are good examples of this. Scientists, and many biographies in fact of artists, musicians, scientists, and mathematicians, are likely to have some of these very same traits and experiences. The experience of rejection or alienation because of the differences will often become more prominent as the developmental age increases because children are starting to notice and feel these things themselves as they get a little bit older.
Beethoven Lives Up Stairs by Barbara Nicol and Armstrong by Torben Kuhlman are favorites here in this more text-dense category. Sometimes the person may not be neuroatypical at all as far as we know, but still has this shared experience that is so important. So again, it's not a diagnosis that we're after, it's a shared experience with others that our kids desperately need.
We develop self-knowledge by finding reflections of ourselves in the world around us and in the literature that we're reading.
This opens up the beautiful possibility of connecting as a neuroatypical person with people and characters from cultures that are different from our own and might think about neurodivergences differently. Talking Leaves by Joseph Bruchac comes to mind as a really great example of this. Oftentimes others might look at a book and find the characters to be too eccentric, too obnoxious, too rebellious, too rude, it's twaddle. But neurodivergent readers are drawn to these characters because they engage empathically in a way that they don't always get to in real life. These stories inspire them, give them hope, make them believe that there is possibility and purpose. The Ramona series by Beverly Cleary is a good example of this.
Many, though certainly not all, autistic people find themselves in the science, fiction, fantasy, fairy tale genre. There are a lot of authentic reflections of neurodivergent characters and neurodivergent thinking, typically without needing to be put into a diagnostic box. There are a lot of truths about neurodivergent culture and experience in these because many of these authors are neurodivergent themselves or are very close to the community. In these books you will find the challenges of navigating relationships when you're different or finally finding a place where you're not.
Literature can help to build and heal relationships between real people.
You'll find the reality that life is just more complicated than happy endings. You'll find characters who are trying to make sense of a confusing world or existing in a constructed world that is highly ordered and well-defined. And you'll find a strong sense of justice in these books.
Mrs. Frisbee and the Rats of Nimh and A Wrinkle in Time are classics that fall into this category. Among modern writers, Brandon Sanderson is very well known and well respected within the neurodivergent community for providing us with many authentic and varied reflections. And experimenting with many reflections is what is needed because different students will be fed by different books even if they have the same diagnosis. Some students will find many books that all contain little pieces of themselves. Others will find one very special book that is read over and over.
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