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.
Neurodiversity Rewires Conventional Thinking About Brains
We like to divide people into neat little categories. These categories serve as shorthand for getting to know others. In this case the people being divided up are autistic. People rely a high functioning/low functioning distinction to describe a person’s perceived place on the autism spectrum. High functioning is shorthand for “can pass as not autistic at first glance.” Low functioning is shorthand for “not passing as anything but autistic anytime soon.” These two categories also serve as stand ins for verbal and nonverbal respectively when is comes to communicating with others.
The high/low divide presumes that the autism spectrum is linear. It is not. The autism spectrum is multidimensional. It is as complex as people are. Thus far the best science tells us that autism touches on every aspect of human biology that we know makes us who we are. Autistic can’t be reduced to a linear division of function, but people try anyway.
The linear high/low gradient comes in handy for pitting the different needs of autistic people against each other. A focal point of the divide is communication. An autistic person able to utilize verbal communication is deemed to not have it that bad, not be truly autistic or to be “pretending to be just like those who have incredible difficulty.” Those who do not utilize verbal communication are portrayed in the worst light while at the same being venerated as truly autistic. Such an attitude of placing nonverbal autistic people on a pedestal while dismissing the needs of other autistic people serves only to disenfranchise all autistic people.
With the growth of internet access, smart phones, and the rise of social media autistic people, including many nonverbal autistics, have proven themselves blisteringly articulate with the spoken and written word. They hold nothing back in their criticism of what they’ve endured in the name of addressing their autism At the same time, they offer hope and encouragement to parents of the next generation of autistic people.
Yet the voices of autistic people continue to be set aside. Either because they are perceived as not autistic enough or too autistic to have an opinion of their own. As someone advocating for the respect and dignity of all people with autism this is a disheartening. What are people advocating for if the voices of autistic people aren’t engaged in their communities? Will my children be heard when they speak up for themselves? Or will they be dismissed because the gatekeepers deem them to be not the right kind of autistic?
Comparing autistic people to each other leading to the invalidating of another’s experience is unacceptable. High or low functioning is a measure of how much work a neurotypical person thinks they must do to relate or communicate with an autistic person. Every autistic voice needs to be included in the conversation about autistic people regardless of outside perceptions of a person’s functioning.
*From December 2007. This brilliant advertising campaign was supposed to raise the profile of autism or something. Still not sure why so many learned people thought this was an okay way to present autism and the people who live with autism to the world.
This is quite repulsive. In a society that seems to put self esteem above all else for children it seems that it is quite alright to degrade individuals with developmental delays and psychiatric disorders and perpetuate stereotypes about them under the guise of raising awareness.
The kids really did spend Christmas playing with the boxes the toys came in.
*Originally posted on my personal blog.
April rolls around every year and every year for autistic folks, their families, and friends we become the center of a media frenzy. Some welcome this some not so much. Lost in the hubbub though is the fact that life is precious and beautiful especially when me make conscious decisions to make it so for our autistic selves, family, and friends.
I kind of have a funny relationship with autism awareness month. I remember back when it first became a thing I was kind of hopeful that it would mean more awareness and better acceptance of and support for autistic people. Now every year I wonder what it is autism awareness month is actually making people aware of.
When I talk to people, nice thoughtful well-meaning people, who admit that they little to nothing about autism they invariably know three things about autism:
Here are a few things that I would like people to become aware of this autism awareness month.