Written by Kami Rep Alex Samia, an Early Childhood to Secondary teacher specializing in ELAR, Math, Science, Social Studies, and Functional Skills (Special Education).
“If you know one person with autism, you know ONE person with autism.” – Kluth, 2003
A classroom is a challenging place for all learners. From day one, the novelty of a new environment is daunting—to say the least—for any child who walks into the room. Creating an environment where students feel safe, cared for, and comfortable enough for genuine social interactions breaks down many of these initial obstacles. Concerns about what comes next seem to be less of an issue and class becomes a place where students feel safe. For students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), these obstacles can be more challenging to overcome and therefore need much more consideration.
But how does a teacher create a classroom environment that’s approachable for some of our most diverse learners: those who have special needs, physical disabilities, or those who are autistic? How can they build a setting where even students on the spectrum feel valued?
Online, there are plenty of helpful tips and teaching activities for teaching students or autistic children. Suggestions for special education programs, sensory corners, labeled bins, and visual schedules usually pop up as solutions to creating an accessible classroom for students with autism. But before you drop this discussion—thinking that you’ve read enough and are now ready to start adding drawers of fidget spinners in the corner of your room for your autistic students—I ask that you continue to read with deep consideration to your own experiences in life and use it to develop a space for everyone. Teaching children with autism means constantly learning and adjusting how you support students; as well all know, learning styles often differ hugely, and this is especially true for autistic students. Some might need more obvious social cues and visual aids, while others might need a learning environment that allows them to develop their motor skills or provide more sensory stimulation. Or the whole lot!
A wider perspective
Consider this; there was once a time when you did not belong. Albeit for the best, as every decision has led you to be where you are today (and you’re doing incredible things), I’m willing to bet that there was once a time when you felt out of place.
Historically, we’ve been trained to believe that this feeling is a reflection of ourselves and not the group. (Ponder the insert trendy, relatable fad you’ve given into).
But 👏 things 👏 are 👏 changing 👏.
Societal values are beginning to see a shift in trends. I mean, think about #DressLikeAWoman, #YouAintNoMuslimBruv, #HeForShe, #BlackLivesMatter, and most famously, #Pride. We’ve come a long way from the idea that in order to belong, we need to somehow change the fundamental values of who we are.
One of the most recognizable, but largely unmentioned examples of assimilation, relates to the early educational demonstrations with cultivating Native Americans in the classroom. Christopher Emdin highlights the instance best in his book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too. When educators forced Native American students to sit still and listen, they were faced with “behavioral” challenges that had an everlasting impact on the educational attainment of the learner. Unfortunately, the drive to create a collective culture didn’t stop there. A more comical example is Dav Pilkey’s experience as a student. The author of Captain Underpants, Dog Man, and more, was once kicked out of the classroom for his “behavior.” Lo and behold, Dav, like many of our behaviorally different students, has dyslexia and is open about his ADHD. Instead of creating a space where he could thrive, Dav’s teacher excluded him from the classroom and sent him in the hallway to work.
And you’ve been there (metaphorically, or maybe literally). You’ve been such an outsider to the group, that you two had to “sit in the hallway.”
But we can change that.
We have the power to.
We have the responsibility to.
Evolving the status quo
Autism acceptance is not about accepting autism as a single entity. Rather, it’s a reminder that there is another group of learners who don’t fit the bill when it comes to traditionally accepted values in the dogma of learning.
“We have a social responsibility.” – Dr. Cynthia
This isn’t only about being able to provide educational support but mental health support, too. When students on the spectrum are lost amongst neurotypical students in public schools, they’re at greater risk of sensory overloads, leading to stressful and often misunderstood meltdowns. So teach how to quickly identify, accept, and provide for the needs of those living with autism—as you would any learner’s diverse social skills or sensitivities—with a fundamental goal to provide high-quality education for every child. After all, isn’t that what it’s all about?