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How Schools Can Support Autistic Learners


A couple of years ago, I was part of a discussion where a  special education teacher suggested that autism should be renamed “badism.” I just about choked on the coffee, and no, I didn’t hold my tongue.

While this extreme and ignorant comment in no way represents the kindness and effort most teachers extend to our autistic learners, it does speak to an unfortunate myth — that autism and naughty behavior go hand-in-hand.

To be abundantly clear: autism is not a behavior diagnosis. Inappropriate supports, ineffective teaching approaches, and constantly shaming our children for being autistic rather than addressing any gaps in their skills or understanding cause the difficulties. They cause our children to struggle, and sometimes to be triggered into fight, flight or freeze as stress hormones course through their veins.

Autism is not a behavior diagnosis. Autism means we are different in the ways we learn, communicate and experience the sensory environment.

When an autistic person shuts downs, bolts, becomes immobilized or even lashes out — these are ways of coping with demands that are not matched to their current skills and ability. The child is protecting themselves from fear, embarrassment and anxiety — and why? Because in schools, the speed and the volume of the curriculum, along with the sensory and social demands, are Just. Too. Much. These are expectations fashioned for typical learners and autistic children have unique learning profiles that are anything but ordinary.

There are a few things that anyone working with our children must know in order to avoid doing harm to the autistic child. At present, the lack of relevant support is hurting our autistic children, manifesting in sky-high rates of school anxiety and clinical anxiety disorders including complex PTSD from bullying, depression, negative self-talk, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts that are up to 28 times more prevalent in or children than in those who are typically-developing.

I wish all teachers could have the opportunity to learn about the autism culture and teaching approaches that can lead to academic success and increased social competence. The opportunity to learn those things doesn’t really exist in our province yet, but there are many extraordinary teachers who are finding ways to help our children. While policymakers figure out how to provide this education to teachers, it is critical that anyone tasked with teaching an autistic student have a basic level of understanding — understanding that goes way beyond tossing a fidget toy and a visual at the kid.

Here is a non-negotiable, must-know, learn-it-or-don’t-work-with autistic-kids list.

• Until you know how a child learns, any plans you come up to teach them are a guess — and very often, those guesses miss the mark by a long shot. Autism is a very unique way of learning. Every child with autism should have a comprehensive psychoeducational assessment. It will tell educational psychologists and others with expertise how the child learns, and thus how they must be taught. We’ve got to stop demanding that autistic kids navigate the same curriculum in the same way as typical kids.

• Until you know how a child experiences their physical / sensory environment, your ideas about why they are struggling are very likely to be wrong. We know now that 90 percent or more of those on the autism spectrum have sensory and motor differences that contribute to their emotional or behavior responses. This essential information  must be understood as school plans and programs are developed.

• Autistic learners often have an intolerance of uncertainty. Given that we never know what to expect of the physical environment, or what others are going to demand of us at any given moment, we just don’t do well when we can’t anticipate what is going to happen. This means visual schedules, calendars, social stories, advance notice, slow and gentle introductions of new people, places and things are often essential in order to tamp down anxiety. Always help autistic students to know what is expected — and always build in a plan to teach flexibility.

• About flexibility: the need for routine and predictability goes hand in hand with the intolerance of uncertainty. The (ineffective!) way our system of support used to deal with this was to strive for sameness, but this causes problems if you change the routine or have something unexpected crop up! These days, we know that was the wrong way to help children. A better idea is to have predictability (use your visual), but build in and teach about Plan B. Plan B is the backup plan. She wants to go the library and borrow the hot new graphic novel. What is the Plan B if the book is not available at the moment? Will she go on a waitlist? What will she borrow instead?

• The fact that the child is average intelligence or higher and verbal has nothing to do with getting an autism diagnosis. This is a social communication diagnosis, meaning autistic students will need to be taught how to ask for help, how to advocate for what they need, how to initiate appropriate social approach, how to share the conversation, how to predict the impact of their actions on others, how to read all forms of nonverbal communication like body language, tone of voice, gestures and facial expressions and know what they are communicating with theirs, how to resolve conflict etc. This is a terribly maligned and misunderstood aspect of the autism culture. We may have gaps in our social communication skills. There needs to be a plan to teach them.

• On that note: the plan for teaching our children social and communication expectations right now seems to be to catch them not knowing — catch them being autistic — and then shaming them for it. We shame them for hogging a conversation when we have not taught them, step by step, how to share it. We shame them for being blunt when we have not taught them the art of white lies. We shame them for policing their classmates when we haven’t taught them why they should not. This is autism. This is just a tiny part of the impact of the social communication challenges.

• Processing speed is a big part of how we experience the world. We might be described as 10-minute people in a two-minute world. Autistic learners, due many reasons that can include motor issues, executive functioning issues, anxiety or misunderstood instructions, often take longer to get through their responsibilities. The rule of thumb? Half the work in twice the time. It is essential to figure out how to match the expectations to the child’s processing speed. Reduced volume of work to demonstrate mastery, oral testing, check boxes, demonstrations tasks, extended time for test, exams and assignments can all help the autistic student keep up and move forward.

• Autistic learners often don’t like to be incorrect. Perhaps a lifetime of being overseen in every area of functioning has made them a little sensitive. Perhaps they did their best and were so proud to hand the work in, then were surprised to find out they did something wrong, which causes anxiety to spike. When this is the case for the autistic student, find a different way to coach them toward the correction. Tell all students in advance that it is your job as a teacher to find ways they can improve on their essay, or give them a mark for the draft, and then a separate mark for addressing any suggested edits you made. This can make the corrections relevant — the student might see the value in doing the change. These are just two examples of how this can be done, but understand that errorless teaching methods are appreciated by many autistic students.

The approaches and teaching methods that are helpful for autistic learners are not rocket science.  It really only takes acceptance of our neurodiverse community, along with an open mind and some creativity, to help autistic kids thrive.

Getty photo by Monkey Business Images.