Written by McAlister Greiner Huynh
In this insightful piece, US-based educator, McAlister Greiner Huynh, also known as the Neurodivergent Teacher on Facebook and Instagram, shares her presentation from our Autistic Flourishing Symposium on how we can help Autistic students flourish in their education.
I am a US-based educator and have been learning from Autistic individuals professionally for the last decade. I’m excited to talk to you today about helping Autistic students flourish in their education. So often Autistic students are taught to blend, adapt, mask and fit in while very little is asked of their non-autistic peers to accommodate for Autistic classmates. This leads to Autistic burnout, detrimentally impacting the wellbeing, mental health and overall happiness of our Autistic students.
Education should not force the Autistic identity of our students to wilt, wither and shrivel away. We want them to flourish and thrive at the intersection of all their identities, Autism and disability included.
The problem herein lies not with our Autistic or otherwise neurodivergent students but rather with the way the educational system treats them as exceptions to a desired standard.
The only way we can expect Autistic students to flourish as their authentic selves in education is by designing our classrooms, schools and places of learning with the understanding that neurodiversity is the rule, not the exception. By that I mean that all spaces we enter are filled with a wide variety of people whose brains all work in different ways. When we create spaces with that variety, with neurodiversity in mind, we allow all people to find success and flourish. Neurodiversity, therefore, should not be an afterthought, but instead it should be at the forefront of our planning for educational spaces.
Before we go any further, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page with a few terms and definitions. First, neurodiversity is a term that was coined in the late 1990s by Judy Singer, an Autistic Australian sociologist. It refers to the many natural variations that exist within human brains. Neurodiversity describes a group of individuals that includes both typical and atypical neurologies. Neurodivergent was coined in the early 2000s by Neurodivergent K of Radical Neurodivergence Speaking. It includes all neurological variations that diverge from typical, including Autism, ADHD, epilepsy, mental illness, learning disabilities and others. And finally, the term neurotypical arose among the Autistic community shortly after neurodiversity became a common term. It includes those neurologies that fall within the realm of typical.
So, when I say that we must plan and design educational environments with the understanding that neurodiversity is the rule, it means we must account for neurotypical and neurodivergent students in all spaces.
Because spaces are already designed with neurotypical students in mind, we must intentionally reflect and redesign learning environments to include the needs of neurodivergent students.
There are five pieces that I believe need to be in place to begin setting our Autistic students up for success in their learning spaces. We want to be:
So let’s take a deeper look at each of these five concepts.
The rules, expectations and procedures of many classrooms are so often founded in ableism and classism and racism and heterocentric norms. We cannot support our Autistic students if rules are inaccessible or if rules go against their very neurologies.
Here are some suggestions for establishing classroom expectations that work with and not against Autistic neurology. We must recognise that all brains and bodies learn in different ways. Adults cannot tell children what their bodies should be doing in order for them to listen. Often classroom expectations for listening are based on a neurotypical-centric, ableist view. But brains listen and learn in many different ways, and educators must recognise that all ways of listening and learning are valid and valuable. We can accomplish this by decentering neurotypicality and engaging in introspective conversations with students about how their bodies and their brains listen and learn best.
We also want to write classroom rules that prioritise meeting individuals’ needs.
Classroom expectations should encourage students to listen to their bodies and brains and advocate for those needs. Establishing rules that prevent students from responding to the needs of their bodies, such as only allowing students to use the bathroom at specific times, not allowing students to get up and move when they need to, or not allowing students to take a break when they feel overwhelmed, all those types of rules should really be avoided. Instead, we want our rules and procedures to teach students how they can get those needs met, listening to their body and advocating for their needs.
We also want to make sure we define abstract words or phrases in our rules, procedures and classroom expectations.
Often rules include phrases or words that are abstract and undefined, such as “Be kind”, “Do your best work”, “Treat others with respect”. Some students, depending on age, might have a clear understanding of what these concepts mean. Many students, though, will not understand or will have a different understanding of what kindness, respect or doing your best might look like. It is important to have discussions with students about what your expectations are for those rules, as well as allowing them to express how they interpret those concepts.
Finally, we want to avoid rules that police students’ bodies, tones, feelings, social and communication styles or thoughts.
Rules like “Always stay positive”, “Sit with quiet hands”, “Greet people when you see them”, “Ask for things politely”. These rules are centred around neurotypicality and non-disabled experience and they fail to account for neurodiversity amongst students.
The next piece of intentionally planning for neurodiversity by keeping neurodivergent students and their needs kind of at the forefront of our planning is increasing accessibility.
For education to be successful and impactful for our Autistic students, it must first be accessible. They must be able to access it. This means that we have to work to ensure we are not creating any barriers to learning for our Autistic students. Here are some ways we can work to increase accessibility for all. We can support multiple modes of learning. We can provide opportunities for students to learn concepts in a variety of ways and provide opportunities for them to express knowledge in a variety of ways. Students should not be limited to a single method of demonstrating content mastery, such as on a written test, but rather given ways to show their understanding in a way that makes sense to them.
We also want to focus on using strengths-based approaches. So often we determine how to support a student based on their deficits rather than assessing their strengths and using them to determine the real trajectory of instruction and intervention.
When we focus on strengths-based approaches we reflect on the skills and areas students are successful with or already interested in to drive their learning and supports. While strengths-based approaches should always reflect an individual’s specific strengths and needs, some general strengths that might apply to many Autistic students include visual processing, focusing on passionate student interests, implementing explicit learning and explicit instruction and honing in on attention to details.
We can also increase accessibility by having lots of communication supports.
Neurodiverse classrooms will be filled with students who communicate in diverse ways. Building communication supports into the classroom framework gives all students increased opportunities to practise communicating with teachers and classmates. Modelling communication in a variety of methods, including oral language, sign language, written language, pictures, core word boards and other methods and supports has a number of benefits. It exposes students to the many ways people in the world communicate and their equal validity, it gives students increased access to communication methods and supports that might be helpful for them and it shares the burden of learning alternative communication methods with all students, rather than only expecting Autistic students and otherwise neurodivergent students to learn neurotypical communication styles without any reciprocation.
And finally we can increase accessibility by providing sensory support.
A student will not be able to access their learning if they are constantly over or under stimulated or bouncing back between both. A student’s sensory regulation can be supported in learning environments by encouraging exploration of self-stimulatory behaviours, by incorporating movement into learning, by providing sensory-based accommodations, by teaching students about different ways to engage their senses while learning and by allowing students to advocate for their sensory needs. The next step for really planning for neurodiversity in mind and really decentring neurotypicality is focusing on mindfulness within our classrooms. Mindfulness is an important tool when teaching a neurodiverse group of students. When we teach students to be introspective and reflective on the needs of their bodies and brains we also open conversations that both allow students to recognise their own needs and also recognise that different people have different needs.
First students have to recognise what their bodies and brains need to be successful at any given moment.
We do that by teaching students to check in with their bodies and brains throughout the day, assessing what they might need at any given moment. Am I thirsty? Am I hungry? Do I need to go to the bathroom? Am I hot, cold or comfortable? Do I need to relax any muscles? Am I taking deep breaths? Are my sensory needs met? Teaching students to check in with their bodies regularly helps increase their awareness of their own needs and can prevent overload and meltdowns brought on by ignoring or not recognising their bodies’ signals. We also want to model mindfulness to students. My mouth is dry so I think my body is telling me it’s thirsty. I’m going to drink some of my water. Does anyone else need some water right now? I’m feeling a bit frazzled after that fire drill. I’m going to take a few moments to focus on taking slow, calming deep breaths. Would anyone like to take some deep breaths with me? Let’s do them together. Ready? One, two, three. I feel much better.
Showing students that all people, adults included, need to check in with their bodies and brains regularly serves to both normalise meeting our bodies’ needs and as a reminder to check in with their own body throughout the day.
We can also label mindfulness as we see it in others.
Similarly to modelling and narrating our own mindfulness, we can label when we see mindfulness in others, such as students and staff, characters in books that we’re reading, TV shows or movies that we’ve watched with students or people and stories your students share about from their own experiences.
Finally, we should affirm when students make mindful choices for themselves.
Acknowledge when you notice a student making mindful choices and encourage further student reflection. “I saw you take a deep breath while you were working on that really hard math problem. How did that make your body and your brain feel?” This helps make students more aware of how they’re already responding to some of their bodies’ needs and signals and it encourages them to check in with their choices and reflect on how those choices made their bodies feel in that moment and later.
We want to make sure we’re prioritising self-advocacy skills for our students.
We all want to encourage our Autistic students to develop strong self-advocacy skills that allow them to request accommodations and support, to stand up for themselves and to ensure their needs are met as they grow into adulthood. Disabled individuals face alarmingly higher rates of abuse and this is often impacted by a lack of self-advocacy skills. However, becoming a self-advocate does not happen overnight. It takes time to grow and solidify these skills.
First, we can discuss readily available accommodations, including ear defenders, weighted items, flexible seating, space to move and pace, light filters or sunglasses and any other accommodations available for students. We can also suggest or recommend an accommodation to individual students or to the entire class. When we have a fire drill a loud alarm will go off. If you don’t like loud noises, you might want to grab a pair of our ear defenders. Or, I noticed you’re picking up and putting down a lot of items on your desk while listening. Would you maybe like to use a fidget that can help you focus?
Providing these prompts can help remind students that there are accommodations and tools available to them and it also encourages them to once again practise mindfulness, checking in with their bodies and brains.
Another way we can prioritise self-advocacy skills is by honouring and acknowledging all communication including refusal.
The development of self-advocacy begins at a young age with a word many educators and parents don’t necessarily want to hear: no! If we want students to be able to self-advocate we have to begin by respecting what they do communicate, including their no. Does this mean students get to do whatever they want? No, of course not. But it does mean that we cannot force students to do anything that they are refusing to do. When a student is communicating refusal, try responding with wonder – I wonder why they don’t want to do or can’t do this – self-reflection – how can I change the way this is presented so the student might want to do it – and accessibility – what barriers might be preventing this student from completing this activity?
When we honour students’ communication, we teach them that their voice has power, which is an imperative step in self-advocacy growth.
We can also accept a variety of communication methods, even if the student typically communicates in a different way. All communication methods are equally valid and valuable, so don’t force a student to use a particular style or method of communicating, because they know better. Different communication methods might be easier based on a variety of factors, including energy level, stress level, regulation status, hormones, hunger, illness, unfamiliarity with a person or a place and others.
Honouring all methods of communication enforces the understanding with your students that they deserve a say in what happens to them, no matter how they communicate that.
Finally, we want to maintain the bodily autonomy of all students. This means avoiding hand over hand prompting and instruction and it means seeking consent from the student before using any type of physical prompting or touching them in any way. This means teaching students that they shouldn’t do anything that feels bad or wrong to their bodies. And it means not policing how their bodies need to move to help them feel comfortable, safe and regulated.
The last piece that is imperative in building educational spaces with neurodiversity in mind is teaching self-regulation and coping strategies.
Teaching how to manage big emotions is helpful for all students, but it is particularly important when intentionally creating space for neurodivergent students, because they’re navigating a world that isn’t always designed for them. They process emotions and experiences the world differently than most people, and they often don’t have exposure to neurodivergent-minded methods of regulating. There are a few things we can do that can help with that. We can provide direct instruction with regular practice. Recall that Autistic students have a strength in explicit learning and instruction. Self-regulation skills are so often taught and expected to be learned implicitly, but this doesn’t necessarily work for neurodivergent students.
To ensure all students are gaining these imperative social and emotional skills, teaching coping and regulation strategies directly and explicitly regularly with scheduled practice while students are well regulated can help that mastery.
It allows students, all students, to learn these skills when they are calm, so that they can refer back to them when they are stressed and dysregulated. Self-regulation and coping strategies should also be taught in fully accessible ways utilising a strengths-based approach and accommodating any lagging skills or areas of support. Core academic content is not the only area we need to assess for accessibility. Self-regulation and social-emotional instruction must also be accessible. We also want to teach a wide range of strategies that are representative and reflective of diverse neurologies.
Decentre neurotypical definitions of regulation, self-care and coping strategies to explore a variety of beneficial tools and skills, such as sensory regulation strategies, including stimming, concrete and visual regulation strategies or interest-driven regulation strategies. And finally, we want to make sure we begin with co-regulation. Before we can expect students to self-regulate which includes identifying when you are dysregulated, determining what you need to cope or feel better, remembering possible strategies that will help, selecting an appropriate strategy based on how you feel, and using that strategy correctly to regulate yourself is a lot of steps. First we want to support them through co-regulation.
Co-regulation occurs when we share our well-regulated nervous system with a student’s dysregulated nervous system to help ground and steady them. I like to think of it kind of like a lightning rod. We help share the weight of stress, we provide consistent calm, we guide self-reflection, and we can model strategies.
Without that foundation of co-regulation, students cannot learn to self-regulate. This also means that we need strong regulation skills ourselves, because dysregulated adults cannot deescalate or co-regulate with a dysregulated child.
So, those are the five cornerstones of creating learning spaces with neurodiversity in mind: intentionally creating space for our neurodivergent students, designing neurodiversity-affirming rules, practices and expectations, increasing accessibility, focusing on mindfulness, prioritising self-advocacy skills, and teaching self-regulation and coping strategies.
When we create spaces that are designed with neurology and neurodiversity in mind, we set students up for success, rather than waiting for them to fail. Autistic students shouldn’t have to experience failure before systems are put in place that offer them success, growth, respect, acceptance and belonging. Building our educational environments with neurodiversity as the rule, and not the exception, demonstrates to our neurodivergent students what every student deserves to sense when they walk into their learning spaces: you belong here, you are enough, you are not broken, you are worthy, you are valued, you are loved. Thank you.
The Reframing Autism team would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we have the privilege to learn, work, and grow. Whilst we gather on many different parts of this Country, the RA team walk on the land of the Birpai, Awabakal, Wattamattagal, Whadjak, Amangu, Bunurong and Kaurna Yarta peoples.
We are committed to honouring the rich culture of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of this Country, and the diversity and learning opportunities with which they provide us. We extend our gratitude and respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and to all Elders past, present, and emerging, for their wisdom, their resilience, and for helping this Country to heal.