The Inspirational Story of NASCAR’s Armani Williams
Most 17-year-olds are excited to get their driver’s licenses to gain a little freedom. For Armani Williams, driving is less a rite of passage than a passion. In 2017, he made his debut on the NASCAR circuit.
Armani also has autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In an interview, Williams described his biggest challenges as communication and social interaction. Like many with autism, he says he struggled with sensory processing issues that were overwhelming at times. A screaming loud race track could seem impossible to deal with, as could the complexity of his studies — but he has learned to step back to take stock of his surroundings, search online for what he needs assistance figuring out and proactively work with others to avoid misunderstandings.
Armani also pointed out that ASD isn’t only about deficits and credits his ability to concentrate for hours behind the wheel to the intense focus that is often an attribute of autistic individuals. According to Autism Speaks, an individual with ASD may display varying degrees, and a combination of, sensory processing challenges, social-emotional difficulties and speech-language deficits impacting functional communication. These challenges could profoundly interrupt health, learning and skill attainment without adequate support and intervention.
STEM For Students With Special Needs
When Armani and I had the opportunity to initially connect at a local leadership event, he inspired me to draw upon my experience as an educator and think deeply about how to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) accessibility for students with special needs. I have always been passionate about leveling the playing field to bring STEM to all, but much of my work up until now has focused on socioeconomic and gender inequality in STEM education. This is a worthy goal, of course, but we’d be remiss not to include students with special needs in our efforts to make sure every child gets a solid background for success in STEM.
I believe students with ASD and other challenges can thrive in fields as complex as collegiate-level mechanical engineering (Armani’s current passion) and beyond. But how do we make sure all students get the support that they need to excel?
Making STEM More Inclusive
There are many approaches I think we should explore to accommodate special needs students in the classroom, and many of these strategies could overlap to help make STEM subjects easier to grasp for those with special needs.
• Growth Mindset: Change the language and reward systems in STEM classrooms to recognize grit and the ability to keep trying to solve problems in the face of failure, a concept explored in a 2017 EdTech interview piece. After all, the scientific method is all about experimentation, and the only failed experiment is one you don’t learn from. Praising kids for effort rather than achievement is a great place to start building a growth mindset that could be beneficial for those who learn in different ways.
• Hands-On Work: The best STEM teaching I’ve seen offers plenty of real-world opportunities to observe forces in action and ways to experiment with everyday items to understand how thing work. Whether it’s by offering coding opportunities or getting outside to explore nature, tangible learning can make STEM come alive for all students — but it could be especially valuable in helping those who learn differently internalize abstract concepts and develop a deeper interest.
• Flipped Classrooms: Homework can be a real struggle for students if they’re sent home to practice concepts they don’t fully understand. In a flipped classroom, however, background information is given ahead of time in the form of videos or articles to read at home. Students can come to school with questions and then put new concepts into action under the direct guidance of their teacher — support that could make a huge difference in comprehension for students who learn differently.
• Embrace Technology: As the EdTech interview discussed, well-designed learning apps could make STEM subjects more accessible to special needs students by providing targeted, individualized practice. Voice-to-text software could make writing easier so students can flourish in STEM even if their writing skills or fine motor skills lag. Text readers and video lessons might also help students with reading difficulties keep up and make sure that a learning difficulty doesn’t derail success in STEM.
• Regular Movement And Flexible Lesson Plans: Sustaining self-regulationand focus may be typical challenges for children with special needs — though fidgeting is pretty much universal. That means that all students could benefit from movement breaks (as described by MiddleWeb) during lessons and the opportunity to move around the classroom for a change of pace. Staying flexible and creative with learning centers and differentiated activities in the classroom could help everyone participate. By making the most common accommodations available to all instead of making them something special, you can normalize varying learning styles, set them up for success and decrease stigma.
The Final Lap
When I learned about Armani, it became clear to me that it’s easy to assume we know what ASD looks like or what a student with special needs is capable of. In reality, however, there is no single type of student with special needs. Every person is an individual with a full range of challenges as well as unique strengths. I believe our job as educators is to support all students as individuals and make sure they get what they need to thrive.
To make this happen, we first need to erase some of the stigma surrounding challenges like ASD. I believe it’s a myth that these students can’t succeed in STEM or other academic subjects. Armani is one example; for another take on life with ASD, I strongly recommend the series Atypical on Netflix. It does an excellent job of putting a human face on a condition that isn’t well understood but must be if we are to succeed in making STEM education truly accessible to all.
This article was originally featured in Forbes Community Voice™ on February 26th, 2019.
“Democratizing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education through sound policy & practice…”