by Liza Citron
As teachers are going back to school, many might have an autistic or otherwise neurodivergent child in their class -- perhaps for the first time. Educators might reasonably wonder where to begin in tailoring the classroom experience to that child -- connecting to the child as an entirely new experience for the teacher. How different is the autistic experience to the neurotypical one? How does autism affect a child in their formative years? What changes should be made for the child to help them connect to the curriculum and the teacher, and to help them succeed? These are all questions teachers might be asking themselves as the “mad rush” to prepare for the school year comes into full swing.
All these questions may seem daunting to the teacher, especially ones new to their classroom. Everything comes down to paying attention to and carefully observing the child -- and, of course, listening to what they may tell you. Careful observation can tell you what the child’s most significant struggles are, and conversely, what their greatest successes or strengths are or maybe in the future.
As an autistic adult, I don’t personally know the neurotypical experience. I can, however, compare my autistic experience with descriptions from neurotypical friends and family members. My perspective helps provide insight into neurotypical and neurodivergent experiences that impact the classroom.
One of the main differences I have noted is the capacity for sensory input and susceptibility towards over-stimulation. Things neurotypicals might not even notice can be “deafening,” if you will, to an autistic individual -- and can cause either shutdown or meltdown, depending on the situation. As such, the best learning/work environment for many autistic people, and neurotypical people is one with the least sensory stimuli possible. In such a situation, it is easier to maintain concentration, and much easier to lower anxiety levels, both of which provide a more productive mental state.
Another difference to consider, especially with young children, is the theory of mind -- seeing situations from another’s perspective. Theory of mind is an aspect of human behavior and neurology that is important in relationship building and learning. Contrary to what some may think autistic people are not insensitive to what others need or want. However, it can often be difficult for us to see those needs and wants in the context of a situation. Providing an environment for role-play, or anything that requires “characters” can often help develop a person’s understanding of the theory of mind.
Every individual, autistic or not, will have their levels and specifics of needs, struggles, and strengths. The above are just two of the multitude of ways in which the autistic experience can differ from the neurotypical one. Taking the time to learn, understand, and account for these individual aspects allows educators to set themselves and their students up for success in the new school year.
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