What I Could Do for My Students as an Autistic Teacher
I am many things, but two of the “biggest” — that is, two that have a somewhat significant influence on what I do and how I live each day — are that I am a teacher of young adults with supported learning needs, and I am autistic.
Despite the overlap in experience, potential relevance and understanding, these two don’t, or perhaps I should say “cannot” co-exist. I feel I am not allowed to identify as an “autistic teacher” or “a teacher who has autism.” I hide the fact that in many ways I have more shared experience with students than with colleagues. But what if… what if I could?
As a teacher, I can use students’ passions and interests to support their learning. I understand just how motivating my own have been in helping me get to where I am today. I could use examples from my own experience to help students realize just how far their passions can take them.
As a teacher, I can acknowledge and support students’ sensory needs. I understand, just how distracting an uncomfortable label or a noise that others don’t hear or seem able to tune out can be. I could explain this to other students and colleagues who don’t understand and perhaps help them empathize.
As a teacher, I cannot “demand” eye contact. I understand how looking and listening are not an essential pair and how painful eye contact really can be. I could teach students strategies from personal experience to “trick” those around them and help them succeed in neurotypical interactions.
As a teacher, I can allow a young person to stim without accusing them of fidgeting, telling them to keep still or making them feel judged. I understand because I consider stimming as breathing – just as natural, just as important — and yet I suffocate myself to hide who I am.
But — I could stim in the ways that are natural to me and show students that in fact different does not need to be hidden.
As a teacher, I can allow a student to spend their break times on technology, without any peer interaction. I understand how exhausting simply being around others all day is and how socializing, which is viewed by many as a relaxing, fun break, only adds to that exhaustion. I could explain to my colleagues why I allow some students to “be rude.”
As a teacher I can acknowledge the small details and delights a student shares. I understand and can share the little things I notice I know they will appreciate. I could share in their delight with them.
As a teacher, I can use a student’s literal interpretation of language or joy in wordplay as a foundation for humor. I understand just how much fun this can be. I could explain to students and colleagues, without them shaking their heads, and help them to enjoy it with us.
As a teacher, I can welcome the thoughts and contributions of parents, hear their doubts and worries, and trust they know their young person the best. I understand how the unconditional support and acceptance of a parent can help through the toughest times. I could reassure that parent that for a young person growing up in a world that often doesn’t understand and accept them, their support as an ally through every battle will be appreciated, if not now, then in the future.
As a teacher, I can provide a safe space when it gets too much. I understand how a meltdown isn’t triggered by what others observe but by everything that came before. I could share that not only do I know how awful it is… but that I know it will get better.
As a teacher, I can suggest and model strategies to help overcome the challenges of executive functioning (or lack of!). I understand just how disabling and frustrating this aspect of autism can be. I could share that it’s OK to find seemingly easy things –like remembering $2 on Thursdays for lunch or following a two-step instruction — really difficult… because I do too.
As a teacher, I can present opportunities that extend and challenge students to their potential. I understand how limiting a diagnosis can be on others’ expectations. I could share my own experience and make that real, to both them and others who support them. I could tell them that possibilities are not limited with diagnosis, though the pathway may just be different.
As a teacher, I can help a young person to feel safe, understood and accepted, perhaps for the first time in education. I understand just how challenging school can be when you are not able to “conform” to “normal.” I could answer the questions I’m asked again and again by students who aren’t used to others “getting” them… “You are the first person to understand – why?”
As a teacher, I can share with colleagues what has worked for some of the young people I work with. I understand the strategies and approaches that may be helpful based on my own experience. I could share with colleagues and parents at meetings, conferences and in journals, and be respected for that both because of and despite my diagnosis.
As a teacher, I can tell my students that I believe in them, that they are unique, that they are smart and wonderful young people. I understand how it feels when different is judged as less and misunderstood, and you begin to doubt these things. I could believe what I tell them about myself also.
Perhaps most importantly I could help students and their families to connect with our community – to find, some for those first time, those that say “me too.”
Getty image by Nataliya Komarova