Think Out Loud

Neurodivergent educators reflect on teaching in the Pacific Northwest

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Jan. 9, 2024 6:28 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Jan. 9

Teachers with ADHD or autism are able to understand and advocate for the specific needs of their students. But, they can also face challenges when seeking resources to teach those same students. And, it can be difficult to get accommodations that help neurodivergent teachers do their best work at school. Alex Newson is a doctoral candidate in special education at the University of Oregon. Kathy Paxton-Williams is an English as a second language teacher in Portland. Madeline Numbers is a student support teacher in Vancouver. They join us to discuss their experiences with the education system.


The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller:  This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Teachers with ADHD or autism are often able to understand and advocate for the specific needs of their students in ways that their neurotypical colleagues are not. But it can be difficult for them to get accommodations for themselves, meaning the supports to help them thrive as neurodivergent teachers. We’re gonna get three perspectives on this right now. Alex Newson is a former classroom teacher who is now a doctoral candidate in special education at the University of Oregon. Kathy Paxton-Williams is an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher in Portland Public Schools. Madeline Numbers is a student support teacher in Evergreen Public Schools. They all join me now. It’s great to have all three of you on the show.

All: Thank you.

Miller: Kathy, first. Our K-12 education reporter Elizabeth Miller did a great article about this topic, talking to a number of you a few weeks ago. Folks can find that article on our website. She talked to a teacher from Vancouver who had a hard time focusing. She says when she was young, and she was only diagnosed with ADHD recently, she said this: “I’m trying to be the teacher that I needed as a student.” Does that ring true to you?

Kathy Paxton-WilliamsYes, to a certain degree it does because there are things like deadlines. I mean, they’re difficult for everybody, not just neurodivergent teachers. But they’re really hard for people with ADHD. We have a hard time starting projects. You hear a lot about people who say, “Oh, I have all these projects that I never finished.” And you hear that about ADHD. And that’s very true because our brain is always seeking novelty. And so we can really get into something. People will see someone hyperfocusing and say, “They can do that. So obviously they can do that all the time.” But that’s not true.

We have to be interested in what we’re doing. And then once we lose the interest, we kind of stop doing it. So deadlines have been a problem because all of a sudden we have a driving need, and it’s tomorrow, to finish. And so when working with students, we have to keep that in mind about them too, that they also may not see the need to start their project. Now it’s not due until next week. And how can we teach them what we’ve been learning about how to get things done? Does that make sense?

Miller:  It absolutely does. Madeline, do you mind telling us a story from your first year as a teacher? This was when you had a third grade class, if I’m not mistaken. And one student who had a special interest in the movie, “Cars?”

Madeline Numbers:  Yes, so I had a neurodivergent student in my class and he had a special interest in “Cars” and also “Thomas the Tank Engine.” At the start of the school year, a lot of the students in the class were like, “That’s like what babies are into,” and [there was] a lot of teasing. So I was able to work with my class, as part of our morning meetings and our end of the day routine. And we started talking about that and how people feel when you’re talking about things they like. And the students started sharing about their own instances.

And it was really great to watch that class grow. By the end of the year, when we were voting on what we wanted to do for our end-of-the-year party, that student was absent. And the students nominated the idea of having a “Cars” theme, like watching “Cars” and having a “Cars”-themed end-of-the-year party. And so we got to surprise this student who, at the start of the year, had been teased for this interest. And it got to be something that the whole class bonded over and got to celebrate with this student.

Miller:  How much of your approach to that student do you think was tied to your own experience of the world?

Numbers:  I didn’t get diagnosed with ADHD until I was 26 and I didn’t get my autism diagnosis until last year, at 28. And I think I spent so much of my childhood being misunderstood, that I work really hard to meet students where they’re at, and to understand their perspective. Like if somebody is doing something and it’s interrupting, I’m not thinking, “Oh, they’re trying to interrupt class,” or whatever. Nobody’s going out trying to do that or if they are, there’s a reason behind it. So what’s the motivation? What is the need that’s not being met? And how can we meet that? And how can we equip the student to do that problem solving in the future?

So with this particular student, one thing we used in my class was we had a fidget library. And students could use a fidget at any time. We talked about how they were tools, not toys, and how some fidgets might be louder and that might not be good when people are taking a test. So what fidgets to use when and how some fidgets might be too distracting. And so we were able to use these strategies to help all of the students be successful in using different tools and understanding that some tools are right for some students and some tools aren’t going to be a good fit for that.

Miller:  Alex Newson, you taught in special education in public and private schools in Eugene for a number of years. What were the best things about those jobs for you?

Alex Newson:  The students. The students have always been my passion. I’m working with students with a range of abilities and needs, listening to their stories, their interests, their ways of looking at the world and then finding a school community. I had wonderful teammates and staff that made it so that we focused on safety and relationships and thinking about how we can bring the best out in our students.

So often in special education there’s a deficit perspective towards these students, that there’s something lacking or there’s something wrong. If you come into an IEP (Individualized Education Program) meeting, often the first thing is present levels of what they cannot do. And my school community was all about what they can do, their growth edges, and ways that we can make spaces for them to be exceptional.

Miller:  And yet you left the classroom in 2020. Why?

NewsonSo there’s a multitude of reasons. 2020, I expect for a lot of folks, was a difficult time. But I was teaching for a while in a space that had a lot of trauma in the classroom. I worked with students who had high levels of behavioral needs, mental health needs, et cetera. And just like in many schools in Oregon and around the nation, there just wasn’t enough support and not enough resources.

And I had a lovely team of people who were extremely talented.  But I felt like I wasn’t able to do my best, even putting in the time. I had a wonderful principal and leadership. But I felt the responsibility to be there because bad things did happen when I was gone. People were injured. Students were injured. And so I put a lot of myself into my work. I hyperfocused on my work. It became my main passion because it was student lives and family lives at stake.

So I put a lot of myself into that job and experienced an immense amount of burnout. And when I talk about burnout, I don’t just mean teacher burnout, but autistic burnout, which is different. My experience of burnout was very visceral, very deep and it made it difficult for me to function outside of my job. And it made it difficult for me to be a full human being.

And I also wanted to be able to find supports for my staff and for my students around neurodivergence, around trauma, around finding spaces for them to flourish. And in my position and in the space that I was in, I was unable to do that. So I made the decision to go to the University of Oregon and pursue my doctoral degree to find answers to those questions and bring resources back to the people and to the students.

Miller:  Alex, we heard from Madeline that she was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 26 and autism at the age of 28. How old were you when you were diagnosed?

NewsonI was diagnosed when I was 29 with autism. So it was after I taught, actually, when I had time to really think and reflect. [That] is when I got diagnosed.

Miller:  Did that change the way you understood your time as a classroom teacher?

Newson: Definitely. Most of the time I found that neurodivergent folks flock to other neurodivergent folks. And so when educators often say, “I have an affinity for working with neurodivergent students,” that makes me feel like you must know them at a deeper level than maybe neurotypical teachers do. And that’s not to discriminate against anyone. But it’s just an inherent knowing that comes with being a neurodivergent teacher. And once I came to that realization, it made sense why I felt so comfortable in my classroom with my students and with my colleagues. It was because it was a very neurodiversion affirming space.

Miller:  It’s not at all uncommon for people, especially women in American society, to be diagnosed later in life with various versions of neurodivergence. Alex, why can it happen so late?

NewsonResearch shows that there is a pervasive stereotype of what autism and neurodivergence is. When we’re talking about it, specifically around autism, it’s usually white boys of a certain type. Maybe nonspeaking, maybe [they] love trains, et cetera. And there hasn’t been this renaissance of what is the wide spectrum of neurodivergence.

When we talk about neurodivergence, this doesn’t just include autism but it includes mental health needs. It includes dementia, epilepsy. It’s this wide range and constellation of things. And a lot of folks don’t know or are misdiagnosed with multiple other mental health needs before they reach what they find to be affirming to them. This is especially true for women like you mentioned, but also People of Color and gender diverse and sexually diverse folks. And so it can be difficult to find a person and a psychiatrist who understands the multidimensionality of all of those identities to be able to find a diagnosis or identification that resonates with people.

Miller:  Kathy, I understand that you too got a diagnosis relatively late in your career. You’ve been teaching what, for over 30 years now?


Paxton-WilliamsI started teaching in 1990.

Miller:  Did being diagnosed with ADHD change the way you thought about teaching?

Paxton-WilliamsYeah it changed. So I was diagnosed in my mid-50s. There are things that I noticed about myself that I learned. The more I learn about ADHD, there are more things I learn about myself. And then that helps me translate that out to my students. For instance, people with ADHD tend to put things on top of our desks. Anything we put in a drawer, it’s out of sight, out of mind and we forget about it. And so my desk always looks like it’s about to cascade in on itself. And then I clean it out and then we start all over again. And so I’m aware of that kind of tendency.

Then when I’m working with kids we’re like, ok, how can we help to organize this space or what kind of coping strategies can we use or how can we communicate this to other people? But it’s not that I’m a messy, sloppy, lazy person. Lazy is what’s tacked on a lot that someone is. They can’t do these things therefore they must be lazy. It’s not that we’re lazy. We work hard. It’s just not in our forte to be tidy, much as I would like to be, or that we say, “Oh, we should have everyone set goals.” Goals similarly don’t work as well because it’s a time-based thing and time management is difficult.

Miller:  Madeline, a researcher at PSU, this was one of the things that was reported by Liz Miller, our colleague. She found that employees who disclose autism in the workplace, workplaces including in education, that resulted in both positive and negative outcomes. Has that been the case for you?

Numbers:  Absolutely. I got diagnosed last year and part of what triggered me seeking a formal diagnosis for autism is I was really struggling with the job I was at. It was a different district and a different position than I’ve had before. And I found that when I was advocating for myself, I was still having a lack of support in areas I needed. So I went out seeking the autism diagnosis, getting it with the idea in mind that I would be getting a 504 accommodation. And even after getting the 504 accommodation, I found the process really frustrating.

In my 504 meeting, the very good-natured HR person was like, “Oh, you must be really high functioning.” And one cool thing about being in my position now is when I hear that, at my current district in Evergreen, if somebody says that I can say, “We actually don’t use functioning labels.” This is why I said we would say somebody has higher support needs or lower support needs.

Miller:  That language I think is still very common. What is the problem with that language?

Numbers:  It’s basing somebody on what they can’t do. It’s going back to what Alex was saying about that deficit model with the functioning labels versus focusing on what support people need.

Miller: Alex, what are you focusing on in your research right now?

Newson:  That’s a great question. Currently, I have a funded study focusing on autistic educator’s experiences with burnout. So it’s titled “Double Burnout: Exploring the Experiences of Autistic and Educator Burnout Among Autistic Educators in the United States”. So, what we are doing is interviewing autistic educators about autistic burnout, if it’s different from educator burnout, but also finding spaces for autistic flourishing. Because we’ve mentioned this deficit mindset of folks only in burnout. It can be a both/and. People can be experiencing burnout but also have spaces in their classrooms where they’re feeling like they’re thriving, they’re excelling, and they’re doing well.

Miller:  What kinds of accommodations do you think would be most helpful broadly? And if not accommodations, then mindsets of administrators, because we’re talking about a very diverse population here.

Newson:  I love that you said “mindsets,” Dave, because I think that’s the main thing. Individuals have to push for accommodations and individual champions. That leads to individuals burning out. And that’s what we see. We see folks pushing for accommodations and trying to find things and some people have the resources to do that and others don’t.

So I think it needs to be a broad systems-level change where we think about how we incorporate systems-level mental health services for the autistic community, moving away from acceptance of neurodivergence to celebration, addressing ableism in spaces, not just towards students but toward staff and thinking about how we create neurodiversity trainings where we talk about the tenets of neurodiversity and the differences in disability models. Because when you’re coming from a medical model perspective, it is hard to understand and find the positives or the strengths, if you will, to look at neurodivergent students and staff.

Miller:  Kathy, you told our education reporter Liz Miller that you don’t like to be bored. And you actually mentioned something like that on the show recently. How do you think that’s affected the way you teach, the way you design your lesson plans?

Paxton-WilliamsI like using activities that are often interpreted as games. And sometimes they are games for practicing whatever we’re doing for practicing language or in teaching. I’m not trying to get kids to be competitive at all. But it gets them more interested in the lesson and they don’t realize they’re learning. Because when I have my ideal lessons, for instance, I have an animals unit I used to run with second graders. We would do the work at the beginning and at the end they do play, practicing games such as playing “Go Fish.” It’s a fantastic game and you can use it for speaking and listening and reading, everything but writing.

And then they follow up with writing and they really love to play it. They’re really competitive and what they’re learning is the vocabulary or past tense verbs or whatever it is I’m trying to teach. And they’re not bored and I’m not bored and that’s fine. I teach in a room and share a room with a colleague who’s very methodical. I wish I could be like that. I’m just not. So I just try to spark, find out what the students are interested in, spark that and do activities where they can practice. And I mean, it’s not all games all the time. It can’t be.

Miller:  But if you asked a bunch of kids who are doing something difficult, learning a second language, if they would rather have a methodical teacher or a teacher who gets them to learn vocabulary by playing a game, I think I know what they would say.

Paxton-WilliamsRight. Well, I’m not in a competition for a favorite teacher of the year. But I’m just trying to think what I would like and how I can get them interested and get them to participate, even the quiet ones?

And how can they demonstrate that they understand the words? Well, if they can demonstrate it by acting it out so the rest of us have to guess it, it’s working. It worked this morning.

Miller:  How much have any of the three of you talked about being neurodivergent, talked about having ADHD or having autism with your students?

Paxton-WilliamsI do when it pops up. I, particularly, don’t really get that with my students so much. But I get that out on the playground when I have recess duty or when I push into some fifth grade classes.

Miller:  And how might it come up? And what might you say?

Paxton-WilliamsWell, some kids will actually tell me they’re ADHD or I’ll see them doing the classic tapping the pencil on the desk, which personally drives me crazy. And I’ll say, “Hey, you know what, I have ADHD, I don’t know if you do, but I do. And so this is what I do. Instead of tapping a pencil on the desk, I’ll just tap my hands on my lap.” I can move and I’m still making noise but it’s not enough to drive people around me crazy.

Miller:  And you’re doing a number of things there. You’re saying, “I have this thing. Maybe you do, maybe not.” But you’re also redirecting their energy because what they’re doing could be disrupting the class.

Alex, how do you think about this question of sharing information about various versions of neurodivergence with students?

Newson:  I think it’s important but I also think that it’s difficult for educators to do, because it’s not just you sharing it with that student, those students, and then it stays in that space. There’s so much stigma around neuro- divergence and disclosing. It can have ramifications beyond just telling students.

So I think it’s really important because we know that when you have a model, when you see a person who’s like you, as an educator, as someone in a position of power, that brings so much power to that student. At the same time, it can lead to disclosures to parents who may have different ideas of, [whether] they want an autistic educator or neurodivergent educator teaching their child, to leadership, your principal, or school district. And that’s what I tell educators, to be wary of, to think about the consequences. Because as much as I would like to say that it wouldn’t be, there are some ramifications that can come.

Miller:  Alex Newson, Kathy Paxton-Williams and Madeline Numbers, thanks very much.

All: Thank you.

Miller: Alex Newsom is a doctoral candidate in special education at the University of Oregon. Kathy Paxton-Williams is an ESL teacher in Portland. And Madeline Numbers is a student support teacher in the Evergreen School District in Vancouver.

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