When you look at a Victorian crystal chandelier, what do you see? Just an outdated candle holder designed to illuminate a room? That might be what a neurotypical brain perceives. However, someone neurodivergent might see a jellyfish, a glass spider, or a galaxy of possibilities. Introduced in 1997 by Australian sociologist Judy Singer, the term "neurodivergent" initially referred to individuals on the autism spectrum. Neurodiversity now encompasses a variety of brain processing styles, recognizing that there is no single "correct" way to think, learn, or behave and that these differences are not deficits. Today, neurodiversity advocates for the equality and inclusion of "neurological minorities," functioning both as a social justice movement and a field in clinical research and education. This spirit of inclusion inspired the founding of Summit School in 1963, leading the way in Canada's special needs education. The school leverages the creative arts, including dance, music, and visual arts, to help students learn and forge their identities. We spoke with Jesse Heffring, Director of Development with over 20 years in media arts, and Armando Bertone, Associate Professor at McGill University in Education and Counseling Psychology and Co-founder and Director of the Summit Center for Education Research and Training, to learn more about how these programs impact students.

Hi Jesse and Armando, thank you for being with us today. Could you run us through the profiles of students who are admitted to Summit School?

Jesse: We have about 700 students, aged 4 to 21, on three campuses, and half of them are autistic, which makes us sort of the largest educational facility for autistic youth in Quebec. There's a broad range of diagnoses so there are learners with Down syndrome and other neurodevelopmental conditions. Currently, the Ministry of Education places students in three categories of intellectual disability: mild, moderate/severe and profound. We're coming up with these labels that the ministry has created based on IQ that differs from other criteria, such as that of the DSM. A lot of our kids have dual diagnoses which creates a really beautiful social dynamic. We call it trans-diagnostic. So Summit School is a wonderful place where everyone is always smiling. There's an honesty, there's a joy.

Photo: Justin and Vanessa in Flora

Can you tell us more about neurodiversity and how it affects the students at your school?

Amando: For young men and women, neurodivergence affects the way they interpret information around you, affecting how you communicate and behave, often leading to challenges in their lives. Your ability to communicate and socialize helps you create relationships. And when you struggle with this, creating relationships sometimes becomes more challenging. The school helps students manage their challenges by supporting different ways of communicating; not changing them but offering different ways to express themselves wherever possible.
What are some misconceptions we have about neurodiverse individuals?

Jesse: One major misconception is that they lack emotional depth or empathy. However, in my experience, I've never met an individual on the spectrum who didn't feel emotions or empathize with others. The real issues lie in communication and processing abilities. It's not that they have an internal block that makes them less human. Rather than jumping to some judgment, we need to ask why.

What kind of approach can we take to empathize with them?

Armando: Understanding and openness are key. We must create opportunities for those who process the world differently to thrive. It's important to embrace their unique behaviours, such as seemingly being unresponsive while actually listening, or engaging in stimming and hand-flapping, which are often beneficial to them. Instead of suppressing these actions, we should foster an environment that supports and accepts these differences. This approach not only aids those who learn differently but also enriches our collective understanding of neurodiversity.

Photo: Naquille and Winscott in Music Class

Regarding creating opportunities to flourish, Summit School uses arts to help kids express themselves. Could you elaborate on these programs and how they help build their identities?

Jesse: Art is a great tool for self-expression because it's a conduit to a different side of the person. Over the last 15 years, the emphasis on the arts has become greater and greater at our school. To the point now, we're actually building a creative arts center out back. So we offer dance, visual arts, media, which is like filmmaking, music, and performing arts. Whatever we offer, the focus is on expressivity, not technique. So it's not like can you draw a perfect circle? We don't teach how to draw a perfect circle. We teach, you know, to draw the sun. This also helps kids foster their confidence through art.

That's truly remarkable. Could you share a particular story about a student who really amazed you?

Jesse: I’d like to share a couple of stories from our art school, but one stood out. Last year, we staged a play called "Speechless," featuring two 12-year-old students, both nonverbal. Casting was a challenge, but Luca, a boy who has been deaf since birth and uses a cochlear implant, auditioned. His device translates sound into just 20 digital signals, compared to the natural range of 20,000 frequencies in an ear, so he experiences sound very differently. We were unsure if Luca fully understood the concept of being in a play, which raised concerns about consent. We worked with his speech therapist to create a visual story that concluded with him on stage. He seemed enthusiastic, but we were still unsure if he understood everything we said. The true surprise came during the performance. In front of 700 people, Luca was not just acting; he was improvising, embodying his role beyond our expectations. It was as if he was born to perform. He blew our minds.

Armando: I remember this play - I was there. It wasn't your typical end-or-year-school performance, it was a very high-level production. The level of validation that those student artists must have felt during those moments must have been incredible. It also allowed us to move into their reality and experience it with them, to learn their reality through the arts.

Photo: Luca in class

Luca’s story sounds like a movie. This is really eye-opening because it makes us realize that under the right conditions, those kids can truly thrive. This leads to our next question: What kind of environments are needed for those kids to foster?

Jesse: There are two types of environments: physical and social. We focus on creating sensory-friendly environments with appropriate furniture and decor to maintain an optimal stimulation level. However, as a 60-year-old institution, we can't continuously remodel, so we rely heavily on classroom teacher initiative to foster intellectual and emotional engagement. For the social part, we maintain a low teacher-to-student ratio, typically placing 12 to 14 students with a teacher and a teaching assistant, effectively making it a 1 to 6 ratio. Our classrooms aren't structured by strict grade or age levels; instead, we group students based on mutual benefits and social dynamics.

Armando: This setup creates an optimal and individualized environment for both teaching, learning, and socializing. Academically, students are not necessarily grouped by chronological age but rather by ability, with lessons and instruction with various teachers at their level. This flexibility is part of the innovative approach, where students learn in small, dynamic groups, enhancing their academic and social experiences.

How can organizations like Sid Lee apply your learnings about the environmental impact on neurodiversity?

Armando: Communicating the importance of adaptability is crucial. In any given room, what physical and social adjustments could you make? Simple changes can make a significant difference, such as having dimming lights or providing alternative spaces for both solitary work during part of the day and collaborative work during another. These adjustments can be easily integrated into typical workspaces, transforming them into more inclusive environments.

Are there other schools like yours around the world? Or in North America?

Armando: It's a tough question because schools across North America cater to the needs of specific learners. From what we gather, no other school is quite like ours. It's hard to give a definitive yes or no but the inclusion of an in-house research center at Summit School is very innovative and to our knowledge, is unique in North America. Working with the students and families on different projects, whether it concerns emotion regulation or cognitive interventions that are adapted to their strengths in a place that is familiar to them is really great.

Jesse: There are similar schools, but none as comprehensive as ours. We're unique not just in scale, with a broader age range and diverse programming, but also in our approach, integrating departments like occupational therapy and psychology. It's more than just having students; it's about a holistic educational approach.

What are your hopes for the future of Summit School and neurodiverse children more broadly?

Jesse: As for the future, I hope our school continues to lead in understanding and showcasing the strengths and beauty of neurodiverse children. The kids are capable of so many wonderful things. We can't solve every problem, but we can make a significant impact. I believe change in society can be driven by art and science, and it's exciting to see more interest and understanding growing in these areas. You know everyone has a role, whether as researchers, clinicians, artists, or educators. It's a gradual process, but with everyone's contributions, we can shift paradigms locally and globally.

Photo: Artwork by Summit Student Artclub 2023 

Armando: Working with the students and professionals at Summit School the last several years has re-shaped my research interest and approaches that are now more sensitive to the needs of neurodivergent learners; how to best define and then work with their strengths to improve their wellbeing both at home and school. For me, it is about expanding our mindset, whether as an individual or a collective.

It was an absolute pleasure having you both. We hope to learn more from each other and perhaps visit your school one day.

Photo Credit: Marlon Kuhnreich