FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va. (DC News Now) — For Kristen Haynor, her work as the Neurodiversity Specialist for Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) is personal.
She is the first public school K-12 neurodiversity specialist in the nation, tasked with guiding FCPS educators in handling students with learning differences. This year, 16% of FCPS students are in special education, according to the VDOE. Hayder said many students learn differently, regardless of whether they’re in special education. She is a testament to that.
“When I was a kid, I would often be asked to empty the dishwasher and it would go in one ear and out the other, and it was perceived that I was being disrespectful or rude,” she said. “But my brain is constantly going and I genuinely did not capture or process what they’d asked me to do.”
As an adult, receiving an ADHD diagnosis brought her understanding of those frustrating scenarios from childhood.
Now, the former teacher instructs and guides other teachers in FCPS to help students with learning differences.
“Our world is changing. The outcomes and opportunities our students will have post-secondary are also evolving and changing. And so I think some might feel relieved to see things in a different way because if we keep doing the same practices over and over again and are expecting different outcomes, we’re going to drive ourselves into frustration,” she said.
As rates of ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder rise among students, Haynor said many students without those labels also have learning differences.
“Different is different, not less,” she said of students with learning disabilities. “They are valued, they are worthy, and they are enough.”
Haynor recently held an instructional session on neurodiversity for teachers at McLean High School. Teacher Rebecca Van Rankin said the session shifted perspectives on challenging student behavior.
“It heightened awareness for everybody to really think about who is in my classroom, what am I seeing for behaviors and why is that happening?” Van Rankin said.
Meghan Percival said the discussions have opened up new possibilities for in-classroom learning.
“I think one of the unintended consequences of this discussion has just been some growing empathy that I’ve experienced for my students, for their families, for other teachers. You know, it’s a lot of perspective taking and trying to put yourself in their shoes and figure out ‘Why is a student struggling or why is a student challenging me in this way?'” she said.
Haynor said that she hopes her work will inspire other school divisions to create neurodiversity specialist positions.
“It’s a cultural shift in education to see all of the identities and experiences that our students bring and that if there are neuro divergences that that just further creates a greater ability to see things differently, learn differently,” she said. “So this is really inclusive work and access and empowerment. And so I think I’m hopeful that this will, maybe not in the immediate future, but that in the next five, 10 years, I would hope that every school system is engaged in this work,” Haynor said.