I am a special education teacher who happens to have an autistic teen and a recent autism diagnosis of my own. I’ve sat on multiple sides of the table; I’ve seen a lot. And we’ve all seen the headlines where professionals have demeaned or abused students in their care. We all think, “I’m not like that!”
But I’ve seen professionals limit or take away a child’s voice. I’ve seen students given mindless and meaningless tasks. I’ve heard terms like “pre-learner” and “so low.” I’ve seen students spend years without access to reading and writing instruction. And I’ve seen professionals doing all of these things without realizing the harm they are causing to their students.
We can be better.
We can be the teachers that our students need. We can celebrate neurodiversity while we hold ourselves to higher standards. We can provide robust education, equal access to the curriculum, and a life of autonomy and dreams.
It starts with this:
Believe your autistic students are capable
What do you believe about your students? What stories and stereotypes have you internalized? Because we cannot give our students what they need until we build a deep belief that they are capable and worthy as they are. They do not need to be fixed. They do not need to be ‘normal.’
You can start by filling your social media feeds and your library with #actuallyautistic voices. Research the social model of disability. Learning about your autistic students with this information is more important than lesson plans, data sheets, or IEPs. It is too easy to use new tools but continue old patterns. This shift allows you to begin seeing your students. You will notice the ways they problem-solve and persevere. You will notice their knowledge—and you will believe it without needing to test it. You will see the joy and celebration of joining a child in the pursuit of their passions, just because.
You will be committed to communication systems with all the words. You will realize no one needs neurotypical joint attention before having a voice. You will realize this because you will hear their voices all day, even when they are not speaking. You will want to explore literacy, math, and creative writing. You will realize that no one needs to surpass some number on an IQ test or hold a pencil to gain access to a well-rounded education; you only need to support their access to it. Each of our students can be valued members of their communities—as they are.
Empower student voices
Supporting autistic students’ voices is the most important job we have.
Our first priority must be giving the students access to a full language system. The system can be high-tech, low-tech, or mid-tech, but it needs to be more than a few choices, more than only nouns. Our students need nouns, verbs, pronouns, actions, feeling words… all the feelings. They need words to protest, words to complain, and words to tell us that they do not like what we are doing. They need access to the alphabet. They need systems that can be used today, and adapted for tomorrow. They need support staff who don’t limit their words based on harmful stereotypes or bigoted beliefs. They need us to listen to what they are already saying, to elevate and expand their current voice, to stop believing that speech—or even words—are the only valid ways to communicate.
I have supported dozens and dozens of students in using AAC (augmentative and alternative communication), and in accessing assistive technology to expand their communicative options. I have never regretted it. I have learned that my own daughter believes she’s the boss. I have heard students compare water beads to the texture of jelly. I have seen the sheer joy that lights a child’s eyes when they finally find the exact right word for what they were thinking and feeling. Learning about AAC transformed everything about my teaching.
It comes down to this: there is zero harm in providing access to all the words. There is zero harm in modeling language all day every day in a form students can access and output. So this is what we do: provide access to multiple ways to communicate. Model vocabulary and messages without expectation, without drilling, without losing the autonomy that is inherent to having a voice.
Respect every student’s no
All too often, our students are told, “we don’t say no to teachers” or, worse, they have their bodies manipulated to do an action when and if they resist. We need to recognize that “no” has many forms: pushing items away, falling to the ground, and sometimes—when we have refused to listen—aggression. All of these “behaviors” are resistance to the stripping away of a student’s autonomy. Wouldn’t we all do the same thing?
Children and adults with disabilities are abused at higher rates than neurotypical or able-bodied individuals. When we ignore a student’s refusal, when we manipulate their bodies without consent, we are telling them that saying “no” is acceptable. We are telling them that their bodies are not their own.
Students must be allowed to say to say no. And we can also help students craft compromises, because there is almost always a way to meet the needs of both teacher and student. But if there isn’t, then the student’s needs come first. Perhaps you take a break and come back to the activity. Perhaps you realize that you need to increase accommodations, or adapt the activity. Perhaps you realize that you were wrong or need to apologize. All of things make you better, not weaker. Real classroom leadership comes from respect-filled relationships, not from authoritarian rules.
Meet sensory needs
Sensory needs are not a choice.
We need to create an environment that allows for sensory differences, with a variety of tools for all students to use. Basically: get out of their way. I don’t think I can ever create a plan that meets a child’s needs better than they meet them themselves. And I am wary of an unintentional emphasis on convenience to the neurotypicals. Staff discussions turns to “shaping” a student’s sensory need into something comfortable for the rest of the group. Then the adult decides what, when, and where it is acceptable for the student to express their need. This isn’t okay. This is asking our autistic students to mask for us.
In my classroom, we have spaces in our rooms that students can access on their own time table. We have spaces for being quiet. We have spaces for being loud. We have a wide variety of items for fidgeting or chewing or manipulating. We allow standing, sitting in different chairs, pacing, and being in the space in whatever way works for their body. For students who don’t yet know what they need, we explore and play with these items as they discover what makes them feel safe, and how to advocate for themselves.
The biggest fear is that these things will be distracting. Or: “But then everyone will want to use it!” So? This was also the fear when classrooms started using flexible seating, but quickly teachers learned that this helps all students. If we change our classroom culture to one of acceptance and accommodation, then we can focus on meeting the needs of our students instead of eliminating distractions. I promise that this is so much more fulfilling.
This is one of those things that can be hard for a non-autistic brain to understand. So many people crave change and novelty, but our students are typically not those people. I understand the anxiety that comes with schedule changes or misplaced classroom items. These seem like little things to my friends and family, but they don’t feel little to my body.
When we structure our classroom routines, we increase our students’ ability to show their skills. We create spaces where our students can feel more in control of their world. This doesn’t just mean predictability in our daily schedule, though that’s important. It means predictability in how we respond to our students. It means predictability in our work expectations. It means establishing clear beginnings and ends to the assignments we give. It means that we prepare our students when change will occur. It means that we empathize with them when change is anxiety-producing or frustrating. It means we never say or think, “get over it.”
Visual and text-based structures can be an incredible asset in establishing these routines, and they tend to be my most used accommodations. It can help to walk yourself through your day, your lessons, your student projects. What can be made explicit? What visual reminders can we offer? Pictures of expectations? Models of completed work? Written directions to correspond with our verbal ones? It can be as simple as a drawing on a post-it note, or as high-tech as a digital planner. It’s not about the tool itself. It’s about assessing our student’s needs and meeting them.
Adults adapt and accommodate, not students
Educators need to be the ones who change. In a world that asks autistic individuals to adapt all the time, our classrooms can be safe spaces where the adults adapt to the students for once. We can adapt the way we give directions. We can adapt our work. We can adapt our physical environment. We can meet our students’ needs first.
For example, when my students are climbing on shelves or tables, I realize that this is a sign that I need to change something. So I move furniture. I increase opportunities for proprioceptive input. I create visuals to clarify where we can climb and where we cannot. When my students are not able to stay engaged for the full duration of a thematic story, I create an adapted text. I increase opportunities for active responding. I allow students to stand and move while listening. When a student is in fight-or-flight, I don’t fall back on “but they need to accept ‘no’!” I think through what I can change to decrease this stress response. I change, adapt. That’s being the adult in the room.
Teachers need to study universal design, assistive technology, and accommodations. The list of options is expansive, ranging from wait time and timers, to e-books and digital writing supports. Accommodations are about changing the physical environment through ramps, lighting, and seating. They are also about adaptations in presentation, expectations, and performance. Many of us went to school in a non-accommodating culture, making it difficult to think outside that box. Let these explorations expand your tools to meet your students’ needs. Accommodations and assistive technology are a core of my classroom; they provide equity and access. Access to general curriculum, to general education classrooms, to community activities, and so much more.
The future is accessible—if we work to make it so.
Ask yourself: why?
This question is crucial.
Before you decide which skill to teach or that a “behavior” must be changed, ask yourself why.
Unfortunately, when many of us dig deep, the answer is too often tied to neurotypical norms of behavior or development. There are still research dollars being spent to eliminate stimming. Why? Because it looks different. Social skills groups exist. Why? Because we want social interactions to look more ‘normal.’ Years are spent on “greetings” or vocal imitation. Why? Because neurotypical children talk. Because neurotypical children say “hi” to people in the store.
These reasons are not valid. It’s okay for our students to stim. It’s okay for their conversations to look different. It’s okay for them to want to share their passions. It’s okay to not say hi.
We need to focus our attention on the skills that our students want, on skills that will increase their quality of life—while allowing them to be their beautiful, autistic selves.
Special education spends so much time on “functional” curriculum and “social” skills. Yet how much time do we spend on some of the most functional skills: real literacy instruction? Number sense? Self-advocacy? Projects that allow our student to explore and expand on their passions?
And—importantly—how much time do we spend teaching neurotypical students the skills they need to be better friends to their disabled peers? On creating a classroom where the neurotypical kids accommodate the neurodiverse ones? We have been asking our autistic students to accommodate us, for decades. It’s not fair. It’s not okay. It needs to stop.
“Behavior” means something’s wrong
Let’s be clear: I put “behavior” in quotes because that word is thrown around in harmful ways with students like mine. Special education culture labels everything it dislikes as “behavior” to be reduced or eliminated. I am talking about signs of distress, such as crying, aggression, self-injury, or shutdown. These are not things to eliminate. These are not things to reinforce or ignore away.
They are signs that something has gone wrong for our students.
Ross Greene wrote, “kids do well when they can.” If they are not doing well, it means that they cannot do well. This is not a motivation or willpower issue; it’s about the environmental expectations exceeding the skills and capacities our students possess in that moment. We cannot simply track “what happens after” and manipulate the environment to get rid of things that make us uncomfortable. Life exists beyond attention, tangible, escape, and automatic reinforcement.
We must empathize with our students. We must listen to their voices. We must take note of what they gravitate towards for self-calming. We must give breaks, reduce demands, and be present. This does not mean being in their space, unless they want us to. It means that we listen, instead of trying to figure out the fastest way past a “behavior.”
After the difficult moment passes, we work with our students to make the changes they need. We examine the student’s schedule, sensory environment, accommodations, and supports. We may realize that someone was not respecting our students’ voice, especially if they said or indicated “no.” We may find that someone was suppressing stims and other coping skills that our autistic students need. We may need to intersperse more frequent breaks, or provide access to a different tool (e.g., text-to-speech, AAC, flexible seating, priming, visual outlines, or a million other strategies). The bottom line is that we adapt and accommodate, not eliminate.
We also make sure that we work with their families to ensure they are getting the medical support they need. Autistic pain is all too often ignored. My own daughter spent a year with medical professionals ignoring her needs, before a team was willing to hear her voice and treat her pain. Most autistic children and adults go far too long before someone listens.
We must do better
I have been a student in a system that didn’t hear me. I remember crying on the floor. I remember that ache from having unmet needs. I remember the exhaustion of masking so intensely, every day. And that was with the privilege that comes speaking and doing well academically… It is all the more painful for our students who are excluded completely from both school life and academics.
So this is how we be the teachers our students need: listening. Listening to autistic voices. Listening to their voices. They will tell us what we need.