Let’s have an uncomfortable conversation: How many of us can honestly say we were friends with a “Special Ed” student in school? And I mean real friends- texted them for fun, went to their house, hit them up after high school? I’m willing to bet that it’s a very small minority.
During high school, I worked as a martial arts instructor for hundreds of students, including students with learning disorders, and I spent a lot of time volunteering as a camp counselor at Camp Summit, a camping experience for children with differences. However, I still can’t say these relationships crossed over from “teacher” or “counselor” to “friend”.
These social differences have been well studied and characterized in students with ADHD. A study from Child Adolescent Psychiatry notes that “Parents of [ADHD students] reported fewer close friendships and greater peer rejection compared with the non-ADHD group”, even amongst students with a relatively moderate and common learning disorder like ADHD. According to the CDC, around 9.6% of children in the United States were diagnosed with ADHD in 2016. That number amounts to 6 million. Estimates today range between the 8-10% mark.
For more severe developmental disorders, such as autism, social impairment is an integral part of the disease. Autism was first characterized in a 1943 paper by Dr. Leo Kanner, describing young children who were “not learning to ask questions or to answer questions unless they pertained to rhymes”, “happiest when left alone”, and had a “disinclination to play with children and do things children usually [their] age take an interest in”. Again, autism diagnoses are also quite common in the US with 1 in 54 children diagnosed with some form of autism (according to a 2020 CDC report).
We now know a great deal more about the social problems faced by children with autism, yet their alienation remains a key part of their educational experience. Studies from 2000 indicate that “Although all children with autism reported having at least one friend, the quality of their friendships was poorer in terms of companionship, security, and help”, and this problem persists to the present day.
It’s flat out wrong to depict this issue as one that’s faced only by students with certain disorders. During my tenure as a high school science teacher, I had a brilliant student with a genetic ear disorder, which meant that his sense of hearing would gradually deteriorate over the course of his life, and he would eventually be functionally deaf. He reported feeling excessive alienation in class because he preferred to use lip reading in conversations with other students and could not participate in class discussions since he often could not see the speaker’s lips. His alienation was compounded by his natural intelligence. He had skipped a grade, distancing him from his friends. A person speaking to him for the first time would have no idea of his differences, but the label of “Special Ed” followed him throughout the school and no measure of intelligence or friendliness could compensate for its inherent stigma.
To return to the big picture, we can look at the National Bullying Prevention Center’s Top 10 Facts for Parents, Educators, and Students with Disabilities. They clearly state that “Students with disabilities are more likely to be bullied than nondisabled peers”. This bullying results in a host of consequences, such as absenteeism, lower grades, loss of interest in academic achievement, increased dropout rates, etc. Even those students who don’t face direct bullying are often excluded from classroom and social activities, stunting their social development and ability to make human connections.
Humans are inherently social animals. Social interaction improves our performance on almost every known intellectual metric, protects from many diseases like depression, and simply makes us happier. To exclude members of our community from social interaction is synonymous with calling them less “human” and has extreme implications for their performance, health, and happiness. No disorder or difference justifies this ostracism. Let’s open the discussion to how we can be more inclusive to those with differences, not just in the classroom or in the workplace, but in our hearts.