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Home » Educators: How Understanding Autistic Identities Can Help You Help Your Students

Educators: How Understanding Autistic Identities Can Help You Help Your Students

Educators: How Understanding Autistic Identities Can Help You Help Your Students

What is autism, you may ask? When you search on Google, you may find dozens of articles telling you many different things about the neurological difference. Essentially, autism is a neurodevelopmental disability that affects the way speech, coordination, language development, and motor skills are structured in someone’s life. The Latin word for autism is autismus, derived from the Greek word autos which means ‘self.’ But how should educators approach autism, and how can understanding autistic identities help educators better support autistic and non-autistic students?

The way autism structures someone’s view of the world is vastly different from those who are not autistic. This is why most educators try to better understand autism through the realms of development, and must be understanding of the intersectionality of identity and learning. Many autistic people see autism as an identity since it determines most of how they interact with the world around them.   

According to the medical model of disability and the DSM-5’s diagnostic criteria, autism is a neurodevelopmental disability that impacts many factors such as sensory input, motor skills, coordination abilities, communication difficulties, ability to see from different perspectives, etc. But within education, that identity can be varied based on cultural background, or learning differences such as the ability to be strong in one area and weak in another, sometimes called “spiky profiles.” 

Understanding the complexities of autistic identity should not in any way limit the support needed by those who have this lived experience, yet it allows educators to view the world through a lens without which many non-autistic and non-neurodivergent folks would be limited. This world view that autistic and neurodivergent people have can build more connections within learning, one that should not be hindered by a wave of educators disallowing the student to succeed in the way that suits them best, and benefits not just their learning and development but the learning and development of the peers around them.  

Also, understanding the intersectionality of identity in autism and attributing learning will help an educator best understand what an autistic student is processing. Having a baseline of a student’s abilities in the classroom will benefit both the teacher and student, for instance if the student’s ability to carry out a task will be limited due to motor planning challenges, This knowledge will allow the teacher to better understand “challenging behaviors,” and how to figure out the cause of the behavior. 

Without an understanding of an autistic’s sense of being, the teacher, especially a non-autistic teacher, will almost always misinterpret what the student is saying, doing, and thinking. This is because of a disconnect between the teacher and student understanding how they both communicate needs and wants.  

When an educator gains the basic knowledge of what it means to be autistic, then they will be better equipped at how to handle meltdowns and other outbursts, should they occur. In gaining insights to a student’s knowledge and capabilities for specific tasks, the teacher must be aware of all and any sensory input disruptions and gains, interoception issues, inability to complete a task, comprehension skills, communication methods including the use of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC), sign language, some spoken words, etc. All these factors, including the difference between home settings and school settings, must be considered if the educator is to help an autistic student succeed.   

Should an educator find themselves unable to decipher what a student is telling them, they should try alternative ways to understand the student’s communication. For example, if a student is requesting to use the bathroom and uses their device to say so, the teacher may not understand the symbols the student uses. Maybe the student uses a picture of a watering can and a hose. The teacher may misinterpret what the pictures mean and will unfortunately misunderstand the student completely. This is why training in unknown communication methods and supports must be done by the teacher, to ensure that they can help their student in any way.   

The way an autistic person may communicate may look and sound vastly different from that of a non-autistic communicator. This is due to variations in how autistic people communicate their likes, dislikes, wants, and needs. “Autistic people are typically expected to need ‘social skills training’ to make friends even though the real issue is that autistic and non-autistic communication styles differ enough that both groups need guidance in how to communicate with the other effectively.” This is to understand the core ways that both non-autistics and autistics communicate amongst one another. 

Communication issues between autistics and non-autistics also stem from the “double empathy problem,” meaning the contrast in how communication varies between autistic and non-autistic parties. For example, a non-autistic person could say “it is raining cats and dogs” and an autistic person may take that saying literally, and expect to see animals falling from the sky. However an autistic person talking to another autistic person is less likely to have this kind of communication disconnect. An autistic person cannot always correctly processes the language and use of words from a non-autistic person, and vice-versa.

Communication of both non-autistic and autistic persons should be supported through naturalistic teaching, yet this  is not always the case for autistic people, because the way an autistic person communicates is often seen as a deficit to be changed in order to fit in with society’s expectations, instead of authentically supporting individual communication styles. No one communication style is superior.  

To understand identity in correlation with learning, one must understand that learning and identity often, while separate, can impact each other. No student should have to fight to be understood in a world which isn’t built for both diverse learning styles and development. For an educator to fully adapt to individual learning styles and identity, the educator must be willing to know when they have made a mistake with how they teach someone who has a different neurotype than they do. 

This is very important when it comes to behaviorism. (Behaviorism could be discussed throughout this piece, but it isn’t the focus.) Educators must understand that behaviorism in the classroom can have unforeseen detrimental effects on a student’s ability to learn in the way that best suits them. 

Having unrealistic expectations of someone who may learn differently may hinder the learning process and development of certain skills. Behaviorism as a construct was and still is a subject of controversy depending on the variants in degrees which it used. One example is how use of behavior charts in a classroom setting not only sets the students apart physically, but also socially, emotionally, and mentally. This will and can result in the feelings of rejection by others, not feeling like their work meets the standards of the teacher or guardian, feelings of isolation and other negative emotions. This means these systems can have the opposite impact that the teacher intended. Instead, educators need to set up systems to help students practice authenticity towards one another, ones that allow students to form lasting relationships not only to the teacher, but to peers and adults in their lives.  

Schools should be a place where autistic students can thrive and have support, but they often aren’t safe spaces for those who learn differently, and/or in a diverse way. Schools tend to  maintain a neurotypical bias towards kids who are autistic or otherwise neurodivergent. This is because schools set a standard of typical learning, and tend to ignore other ways of learning and adapting to information. 

Schools often remove the ability for neurodiverse students to explore creativity, deeper dives into their favorite interests, communication differences, etc all for the sake of normalcy, to have everyone learn the same way and at the same time. But doing this for many autistic and neurodivergent students, removes any self-recognition of one’s own abilities to learn in the way that bests suites their naturalistic learning styles (the way they learn–for example, if one learns through pictures, it would be best to teach through pictures to match the student’s way of learning and promote stronger developmental connections in the classroom). 

Education should—and can be—a safe haven for those that learn differently, yet it too often fails to do so due to use of behaviorism in an unethical manner, limits of communication alternatives, withdrawal of connections and community-based learning, and teaching among many other unfortunate mannerisms used to promote what amounts to robotic learning, over the enriched learning and development of all students in the classroom.  

 Overall, the rationale of having an education is to better society and to improve one’s own skills in mastering something valued as a future career path. If education is limited in the range of development, then how can students—especially autistic students—become diverse members of society? Autistic students are already diverse in the way they think, see, feel, hear, breathe, etc. so why must education be so limiting to their already diverse minds? 

To answer this would be futile. Words alone cannot move change forward in the realm of education. Change must occur with actions and words, allowing diverse students to learn and develop in the ways that will enable them to be successful in the future and allow for society to change its viewpoint on the way one learns. 

Supporting autistic students by having autistic teachers and autistic mentors will send the message that the autistic student isn’t alone in their endeavors. It just means they will have more support from those who have a similar lived experience as they do. This alone can benefit the learning and development styles of not just autistic students, but all students who cross the paths of those living diverse lives in this society we call home.  

A photo of Kaishawna Fleming, a Black woman wearing noise-canceling headphones and a black-and-gray top.
Kaishawna Fleming

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