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Neurodiverse Students Teach Educators Through Shared Lived Experiences

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

The following article was written by a summer intern through the Wisconsin Student Diversity Summer Internship project. Thank you to Emily Janicik for her internship with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

Supporting the social and emotional needs of students is one of the most important goals an educator can have, which the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction does in part by funding the Supporting Neurodiverse Students Professional Learning System (SNS) grant. The SNS grant supports educators by providing training for “a skills based approach to challenging behaviors that will improve social understanding and self-management skills of students.”

Katie Berg, the SNS Statewide Coordinator, says that the grant is “tasked with bridging the gap in adult learning and understanding of students that are neurodiverse.” This includes students who receive special education services through an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) and have been identified with Autism, Emotional Behavioral Disability, and other disabilities.

One way that the SNS grant is trying to bridge understanding of neurodiverse students is by creating the Understanding Root Cause Analysis animation video that depicts fictional characters based on real life student experiences. This video was created in collaboration with Islands of Brilliance, a nonprofit organization that serves children and young adults on the autism spectrum. At IOB, students on the autism spectrum are paired one on one with a creative mentor, and develop professional design skills, personal communication skills, and work on interview preparation. IOB strives to create the perfect environment for students to learn, grow, and build their skills. View the video created by the students below:

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee was recently awarded a research grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to establish a research lab studying the IOB’s model. Specifically, how the use of creativity and creative technologies can positively impact the lives of autistic individuals. Additionally, IOB recently launched a career readiness program for individuals entering adulthood, and the timing could not be better. When Berg was looking for an organization to help animate this project, IOB turned out to be the perfect fit.

With DPI, the SNS grant, and IOB working together, they created a visual explanation of the imperative process of root cause analysis, part of step two in the CCR-IEP process. The purpose of the video is to give adults an opportunity to work through the process of a root cause discussion to summarize a student’s disability-related needs. The animation enables adults to observe a student experiencing a challenging situation and begin to ask “why” in order to provide better support or instruction to meet the student’s needs.

Morgan, the main character depicted in the video, is based on the lived experience of young adults on the spectrum and members of the creative team at IOB. Danielle, Harry, Mackenzie, Shayne, and Jonathan are all IOB students either in high school or college, are passionate about art, and hope to pursue careers in design or creative in the future. Mark Fairbanks, co-founder and executive director for IOB, said there is a “little bit of each of them in the video, and they were very excited to share their experiences.” Fairbanks believes that “if they could share their stories, it can help others share their stories.” All of the students that worked on this project had IEPs in school, so it was especially important to highlight the lived experience voice from someone who engaged in the IEP process in public schools.

Harry Fairbanks, the lead animator on the project, said, “My experience with DPI was quite an adventure. I was nervous at first because I hadn’t done an animated video as long as this one within the amount of expected time, but with the help of my creative teammates, we developed a story that the DPI team was very happy with. It was exciting to discuss the directions we wanted to take the project during Zoom meetings and see how the video would evolve as time went on. It was my idea actually to make the video’s main character, Morgan, gender-neutral and I’m thankful everyone seemed to enjoy that idea. Making the project was a welcomed challenge as I got to try experimenting with different software. I liked putting the characters together and seeing the story come to life!”

Berg says that “it is important to get people to be curious and learn about the ‘why’ we see behaviors.” This video challenges educators to not make assumptions about a student’s behavior, and break down the causes of why they are acting that way. Eva Shaw, an educational consultant on the special education team at DPI and director of the SNS grant, states that root cause analysis is similar to the phrase, “don’t judge a book by its cover. We have to look deeper in order to meet students’ needs by identifying a skill that can be taught, practiced, reinforced or supported.” All three organizations hope that this video helps educators understand the importance of understanding student behavior at the root level.

For more information on how to support neurodiverse students, check out the Supporting Neurodiverse Students Professional Learning System website. To view the video, click on the following link or go to the DPI Resources to the Field YouTube channel and search for SNS Root Cause Analysis: A Problem Solving Process.