Partnering with Schools for Inclusion (Part 2 of 3) with Dr Melanie Heyworth

Children in classroom

Partnering with Schools for Inclusion (Part 2 of 3)

In this second part of a 3-part series on partnering with schools for inclusion, we focus on conditions for inclusion.

Specifically, we explore the importance of the presumption of competence, an unrestricted rather than ‘least restrictive’ environment, social emotional learning for all, as well as universal design for learning.

The audience for this presentation is primarily parents and carers of Autistic children, though education professionals might also find the information relevant.

Note that this presentation will refer to Australian laws and to the specific Australian educational context.


We’re gonna move on to some of the conditions. What is it that the CRPG and you know, if we’ve talked about all these sort of very highfalutin ideas, what is it that actually makes inclusion? What are the conditions for inclusion?

So in a school or educational context, the kind of inclusion I’m talking about needs a number of conditions to be present, and actively pursued across the school community. The presumption of competence is one, and we talked about that in the CRPG, where all children, regardless of neurology, are taught on the presumption that they can, rather than the assumption that they can’t. And where a perception of an ability to learn and mature underpins all expectation. And this in turn drives rich and meaningful opportunities. And that in turn, drives the chance to achieve. And we’ll come back to that, we’ll come back to each of these.

A commitment to an unrestricted, not the least restrictive environment. That’s the next thing. You know, an unrestricted context that embraces a capabilities framework, and builds on that presumption of competence. And I’ll come back to talk about what I mean by that. That we experience or we promote social inclusion of our children, not just educational inclusion through the social and emotional learning of all children. Not only Autistic children need to learn social skills. And, you know, bidirectional social skills are gonna be important. And again, I’ll talk about this in a minute, but we have to build foundations of acceptance and respect. And our learning and social communities in schools have to be built on those foundations of acceptance and respect of diversity, not having any marginalising supports and things like that.

And the last one, which again mentioned in the CRPG, is Universal Design for Learning, or UDL. And UDL is the, one of the biggest principles behind UDL is that it does normalise those unique differences of every child. Not normalises as in trying to make them homogenous, but normalises the fact that everybody has a different need. So everybody’s needs should be met. It’s meant to be designed as an equitable, and simple, and intuitive, and appropriate, and accessible, and flexible approach to teaching and learning. In practise, it’s obviously a lot more difficult in the classroom, but what it does is it recognises that no child has special needs. All children have human needs, and that all children’s needs must be met in order to learn.

So let’s go through each of these conditions now so that you can understand a little bit more about what we’re talking about. So let’s start with the presumption of competence. ‘Cause that’s probably the biggest one. There’s a standard exercise that often we’re encouraged to do to help us to understand why the presumption of competence is so important. And, you know, some of you probably have done this in the past before, but nevertheless, it’s always a good one to revisit. So, without moving, using speech without moving your body, answer the following question, what’s your favourite colour? No speech, no body movement. Could you do it? I presume you felt it was rather unfair of me to ask, but how much more unfair if I presume that you had no favourite colour, or probably worse, probably, I assumed you were unable to comprehend my question because you weren’t, you didn’t speak, you didn’t move your body, you mustn’t have understood my question at all. Maybe I’ve assumed that you don’t know your colours and you need to be taught them. How frustrating and humiliating for you, if I use that assumption that you didn’t know your colours and needed to be taught them to form a curriculum of teaching you the primary colours because of your inability to answer or my inability to understand your answer, to mind read.

But what if though, I presumed instead that you had an answer to that question? What’s your favourite colour, that you either couldn’t communicate or I couldn’t understand the way you were communicating it, so I might be, you know, you weren’t able to communicate it or I might not have been able to understand that. This is why Anne Donnellan, all the way back in 1984, talked about the presumption of competence as what she calls the least dangerous assumption. She says the criterion of the least dangerous assumption holds that in the absence of conclusive data. “I don’t know what my colours are”, that’s conclusive data. If someone said, “I don’t know what my colours are”. Educational decisions should be based on the assumptions, which, if incorrect, will have the least dangerous effect on the likelihood that students will be able to function independently as adults. In other words, if you don’t have sufficient data or evidence to know, we actually as parents and as teachers have a duty of care to opt for the least harmful of the two assumptions. In this scenario that I’ve just given you, there’s actually far less harm in presuming that the person, you, has a favourite colour but hasn’t communicated it or that I’ve not been able to understand it, rather than presuming you are incompetence, infantalizing you, and which is going to be dangerous, it’s gonna undermine your self-esteem. It’s not gonna make for a mentally healthy you if I take, put the rest of this whole presentation on the fact that you don’t know your colours and so therefore you couldn’t possibly understand anything else I have to say.

So simply put, presuming competence simply means that we presume that a child or a person can, can think, can learn, can understand, rather than assuming that they can’t. It presumes that with the right supports an environment we are all innately able to do, to learn, to process, to grow, to mature, to think. And presuming competence is always the least dangerous assumption, why? Well, imagine, and I’m sort of projecting and I imagine that you felt some frustration, maybe you didn’t, maybe you weren’t that vested in it, but imagine that you were really vested in telling me that your favourite colour was pink, but you couldn’t use your mouth or your body to show me. Imagine that frustration you might feel at not being able to answer or be understood with one inconsequential question, just between you and me, which you couldn’t really answer anyway because we’ve got you on mute, you know. Imagine that though was amplified and experienced manifold times a day, that you were infantilized, that you were assumed that you couldn’t, that you didn’t know, and that you needed to be taught the basics rather than assuming that you were a person with desires, and preferences, and dignity, and humanity. It’s not gonna make for a mentally healthy person, it’s not gonna make for a happy person. It’s dangerous for our wellbeing to have that kind of presumption.

But what’s equally as dangerous, and hugely dangerous in the classroom is that this becomes then a self-fulfilling cycle of low expectations that occurs often for the teacher. So it plays into what’s often called the soft bigotry of low expectations. We call the presumption of incompetence. So when you don’t presume competence. We call that soft bigotry because it’s subtle, it’s nuanced, and it’s often really hard to see unlike, you know, sort of hard bigotry, which is things like prejudice, and discrimination, and marginalisation. That’s often easy to see and pick out. This soft bigotry is insidious, it’s subtle, it’s hard to pick out. And basically the cycle of low expectations that’s fueled when we fail to presume competence goes like this. You have these low expectations. There’s perception of incompetence that you can’t do, you can’t learn. And that drives really low expectations. Then those low expectations that our teachers might have limits the opportunities that they give to our children. When our children have limited opportunities that limits their, you know, the opportunity for them to achieve, to show something differently, to not fulfil, you know, the perceptions in the first place. Because the fewer of the achievements that validates that misperception of they can’t, they don’t, they can’t learn, they won’t, they don’t know, they can’t grow, okay? So presuming incompetence causes irreparable harm. And it’s worth noting at this point that the presumption of competence is going to be especially vital for our non-traditionally communicating Autistic children, our Autistic children with complex communication needs. And our Autistic children with an intellectual disability. But particularly communication is a big one because competence and communication are very often linked in our current educational opportunities. But actually, did you know that what we’re coming to learn is the way we test and understand the intellectual capacity, of non-speaking children is so totally flawed as to be totally help, you know, harmful and not helpful.

Because tests are fundamentally all about, you know, IQ tests, all of the sort of the whisk and the wispy, and the other things that you might, the SB5, anything that you might come across. Fundamentally, most of them are based on spoken language. And non-speaking children, their brains and their communication processes work very differently. And essentially what we’ve started to do is conflate an inability to speak with an inability to think, or learn, or process. And that is the crux of this presumption of competence.

So research is beginning to show that around half of non-traditional communicating children who would otherwise have been identified as having an intellectual disability actually didn’t have an intellectual disability. When they were allowed to communicate in their own time, in their own way, in their own space. It doesn’t matter, if your child has an intellectual disability, they do and they still have the opportunity to learn, to grow, to mature. And we should always encompass this presumption of competence for all of our children. But we also have to be aware that the measurement tools that people will tell us about our children are often invalid. So we have to be as parents really strong in our commitment that not having a means to communicate doesn’t equate to having nothing to communicate. No child needs to prove they can communicate or prove they can learn to be given the opportunity to be educated, to learn, and the opportunity to presume that they would quit communicate once they find their communication.

So how can we as parents defy this soft bigotry of low expectations? Well, we presume competence, we do the flip side. Because when we have high expectations and high perceptions of what our child can do, that’s gonna drive our high expectations, our high expectations are gonna drive lots of opportunities for rich learning and rich achievement. Those opportunities, as I said, drives the achievement of the child and the achievement underpins and drives that perception that they can. So inclusive schools acknowledge the innate competencies of all students and they demonstrate a respect for all students’ innate dignity and humanity. And this presumption of competence does have that legislative framework. It is embedded in Article 12 of the UN CRPG. It is embedded in the DDA, and it is embedded in this DSE. And the inclusive schools Projects Community project puts it like this,

“Providing opportunities is far better than not providing opportunities. Setting high expectations is far better than accepting low expectations. Providing a rich, inclusive learning environment is better than accepting less and discovering when it is too late that this students had capabilities and potentials that were missed. The opposite can lead to adverse outcomes for the student, such as fewer educational opportunities, inferior literacy instruction, and fewer choices in life, particularly as an adult.”

So another condition for inclusion, we’re gonna talk about what’s called the least restrictive environment. So when we talk about education for Autistic children, children with disabilities in general, we’re often confronted by the least restrictive environment. And in essence that’s a principle that says, “Our children, our Autistic disabled children should be educated in the same educational environment as other children.” So mainstream schooling. But then it says things like, “As much as possible.” “To the maximum extent possible.” Or “To the maximum extent appropriate.” I’m gonna come back to that in a second.

So actually the least restrictive environment first sort of came about and was enshrined in idea, which is the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act from the US. It’s US legislation, not Australian. Which requires, so idea requires that there’s a continuum of alternative placement options for children from the least restrictive, which is a mainstream or what they call a general education classroom in the US. Then you go to a special education classroom. So again, as I said, in New South Wales, we’d call that a support unit, or an aspect satellite class, to an ASSP. So that school for specific purpose, so the Autism school or you know, a special school. All the way through then to a residential facility, which is considered the most restrictive environment.

The principal in idea is that if satisfactory progress isn’t occurring in the least restrictive environment, then it’s appropriate to move a child to a more restrictive environment to ensure that they get an appropriate education. And this concept of the least restrictive environment absolutely undermines, totally undermines inclusive education because it allows schools to abrogate their responsibility to provide “Appropriate education” in a mainstream environment. Because there’s always an option to move to a more restrictive environment. The simple opportunity to move a child from a lesser restrictive to a more restrictive environment because they are not making “Satisfactory progress” against an arbitrary standardised neuro-normative norm erodes the whole ideology of inclusion. It allows schools and institutions to ignore the imperative to provide inclusion altogether.

Now in Australia, we obviously don’t have the US idea, the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, but the state and federal commitment to funding special education services like support units, like SPS, schools for a specific purpose, special purpose, marks our alignment with the principal of the least restrictive environment. And there are certain state policies, like if any of you in WA, the WA department’s policies on children in need of special support that does actually encode this idea of the least restrictive environment. So even though it’s not legislated, it is very much part of imagining of inclusion in Australia that we can always move our children to a more restrictive environment because they exist.

So what I’m saying is that the second condition, which underpins inclusion is actually an unrestricted environment. And in using unrestricted, I’m not meaning that the physical space itself is unrestricted, but we need to use language that loses the idea of there being an alternative, being a more restrictive environment. So when we talk about the language of the least restrictive environment, that’s comparative, it implies that a more restrictive environment exists. So when we go back to the idea of that, you know, general educational environment as much as possible, or to the maximum extent possible, or to the maximum extent appropriate, it’s ultimately the schooling system, the Department of Education or its equivalent that decides what is possible, what’s reasonable, what’s appropriate. When we have this concept of the least restrictive environment, they decide the extent of inclusion and whether inclusion is appropriate possible because there’s an alternative if it all becomes too hard. So inclusion really should be meaning that we make the environment work for the child, not have the option to remove the child when we’ve decided that they aren’t succeeding, or when we feel it’s just too hard or not reasonable enough, or no longer reasonable to keep them in that environment. So it allows people to aggregate responsibility for making their school environment, the only environment. It has to be inclusive, it has to work because that’s the environment that children are in. The language surrounding the least restrictive environment puts the onus of responsibility for learning on your child. But inclusion puts the onus of responsibility for inclusive education on the school. And that seems to me a much more reasonable thing.

Okay, so just before we finish on this kind of idea of least restrictive environment, we need to talk about teacher’s aides. And often we judge a school support by how much time they might provide a teacher’s aide to our children. How much of our, how much, you know, when will they… Will they have one-on-one support from a teacher’s aide? How will they, what sort of funding goes into that teacher’s aide? And I just wanna, before I start, I just wanna say that, you know, some of my kids’ best relationships at school were with the teacher’s aides and they often spent the time to get to know my children in a way that teachers didn’t. They fostered trust and safety. They they fostered this sort of secure attachment relationship. So the caveat for the next part of the conversation is not to say that teachers supports and aides don’t have a role. And remember that the CRPG enshrines, its supported teachers is important, but maybe not a role specifically attached to our children one-on-one. So when they are attached one-on-one to your child, teachers aides are actually not evidence-based to be inclusive or beneficial to your child. So that might be a bit shocking to some of you. In fact, it’s the opposite. So a teacher’s aide who is in a support role to support the teacher and not your child, that actually is evidence-based to be inclusive and beneficial. But when that teacher’s aide takes on responsibility for your child, their emotional, physical, mental, and often educational wellbeing, that’s when we see that evidence-based turnaround a little bit. Because what actually happens is that it’s shown to promote segregation and separation from an integrated environment. So actually the child, your child, my child becomes very dependent on them. And they often, because they’ve got this beautiful, often very deep, profound relationship, they do want to protect the child. And sometimes the way that they protect the child is to segregate, to remove, to separate. And there is always a level of separation. When there is an adult permanently attached to a child in a school environment. It often results in over-reliance and dependency on the teacher’s aide by the child. And this is a big one, when we go back to the presumption of competence. A teacher, it’s shown that teachers’ implicit biases of children who have teacher’s aides such that they have lower expectations, and lower expectations of their need to teach that child. So actually it’s got nothing to do with the aide themselves, but the biases that it creates in the classroom, for the classroom teacher that this child who has the aide doesn’t need me so much anymore ’cause they’ve already got a one-on-one support. So basically it allows teachers, and again, it’s an unconscious thing, it’s an implicit, not an explicit bias. It’s an unconscious aggregating of responsibility to teach that child and it results in quantifiably lower teacher engagement with the child who has a teacher’s aide support. Because the teacher can look and go, “Oh, thank goodness they’re sorted, I’ll just leave them with their aide.”

However, teachers’ aides are brilliantly qualified to do what they are meant to do as a support role, but they’re not qualified generally as teachers, and they’re not qualified to teach and to manage the complexities of our children. And so our child has limited access to trained instruction, to trained teachers. Often the child becomes very, as said, dependent and over reliant. And this can result in a loss of personal control and identity. Again, not on anyone’s, there’s not a conscious or an intended outcome, it just is. But a big one for our kids is that actually it’s shown to increase social isolation, bullying, and stigmatisation, and it can interfere with peer interactions. It can promote insular relationships. And finally, often it results in untrained decisions and implementation. What happens is that educational mental health and Autistic informed decisions are made by people without the necessary training to either make the decisions or implement them.

So that’s, these are all the things. So the DSE advocates for the least restrictive support options, but researchers beginning to show that, as I said, when teacher’s aides are attached to a child to take responsibility for that child, they’re actually among some of the most restrictive support options available to us. So just to think about that when we move through, you know, when we’re asking what our school’s going to do and how we want things to look for our child.

Okay, so the third condition for inclusion is social inclusion. We need to acknowledge that inclusion doesn’t just need to be educational, but it’s gonna be social and emotional too. And social inclusion falls under the label of social emotional learning or SEL. So SEL according to the Victorian department for education, SEL helps students to learn the competencies and skills they need to build resilience and effectively manage their emotions, behaviours in relationships with others. So nothing particularly concerning there. Social and emotional learning involves students to having the opportunities to learn and practise skills like cooperation and managing conflicts and making friends and coping, and being resilient, and recognising, and managing their own feelings and all of those sorts of things. And generally speaking, an SEL programme is going to have some broad areas of interest around self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. So as Joan Cole Duffel points out in this quote, “When schools commit to promoting students’ social-emotional learning, they become positioned to engage all education stakeholders and create a safe, equitable, and engaging school climate. So each student acquires and enhances their knowledge, skills and dispositions they need for interpersonal and life success.” So fundamentally, a commitment to SEL represents a school’s commitment to preserve the intactness or authenticity of a child’s organic identity. And this is where it often falls down because particularly for our Autistic children, much of what is often considered social emotional learning is about them learning to be, non-learning non-Autistic social skills, learning how to be not Autistic. And often for our children, SEL programmes become a way of normalising rather than what should be the cornerstones of SEL, which is to preserve intactness or authenticity of a child’s identity. We should be, SEL should be building autonomy and agency and self-determination. And it does so within the context of preserving and building other children’s capacity to do the same, but in organic ways that are organic to them. And there are ways to actively and proactively promote acceptance and respect within and across the school community.

Now in Australia, schools are encouraged to adopt SEL programmes and to explicitly promote and build these schools in the students. But as I said, the idea that SEL, what usually happens in a school is that they are neuro-normative and it becomes less about acceptance and more about establishing a prescribed set of skills, you know, around eye contact-. What does friendship look like? Friendship needs to be peer, it needs to be reciprocal. This is what a conversation looks like, this is how you do eye contact.

Those things are often what become part of an SEL programme rather than, you know, things that are gonna fit with an organic Autistic identity. And so that the net results of many SEL programmes is that actually they appear targeted at making Autistic children conform. So when you talk to your schools about their SEL programme or how they’re going to implement it, a good question that you can ask is, “What opportunities will my child have to share?” What is about their, what’s important to them about their identity? “What opportunities will my Autistic child have to teach others about their Autistic social skills?” So you know, your child might be interested in talking, you know, talking about the social skill of info dumping, and generosity of knowledge. You know, we have to understand that SEL just on its own is not gonna equate with social inclusion.

We need to encourage our schools, we need to open a dialogue with our schools who probably will never have even considered this because the people at the top are not Autistic, and they won’t see the ableism that kind of underpins this. We need to talk to our schools about multi-directional, bi-directional SEL, in which children and adults are all seen as learning partners with responsibility not only for developing their own social emotional cognition, but also full learning, the social emotional cultures and norms of others. Autistic social emotional culture.

So good SEL is about sharing cultural, cross-cultural knowledge. So I talk about Autism as a culture here, you know, Autistic and non-Autistic cultures need to come together and share the differences in our cultures. It’s about meeting halfway and it’s this kind of SEL, that kind of SEL that says, “This is an or non-Autistic social skill”, and names it as a non-Autistic social skill. But here is the flip side. Here’s an Autistic social skill so that the non-Autistic children can see that we’re not, you know, saying that Autistics don’t have social skills, but that they are different and that you kind of meet halfway and we naming these things and giving language explicitly to them. So here’s an Autistic social skill. Here’s a non-Autistic social skill.

It’s that kind of SEL that’s going to gift our kids the feelings of belongingness, and mental health and wellbeing, and safety and security, and self-determination. That’s what it’s going to help them to build to experience social inclusion. And you know, it’s just worth noting here that those ingredients, the belongingness, the safety, and the self-determination, the things that we’ve been talking about, these are absolutely necessary ingredients for learning. Without these, our children don’t learn. And so they’re not going to learn necessarily in that, you know, least restrictive environment if they’re scared of bullying, or if they are concentrating on masking, or if they’re exhausted from performing. So it’s really important that we have all of these pillars concurrently standing, otherwise the whole inclusion collapses.

So, oh, I have a coffee delivery, that’s excellent. It’s about time, not that it’s about time for my husband to deliver it, just that I could do with it. He probably can’t even hear that. But anyway, so how do we know if a school is really committed to SEL? One of the best examples that you can look for is acknowledgement of accomplishments beyond academics.

So if you see a high complex hierarchy of awards and extreme extrinsic motivators, these are not actually a hallmark of social inclusion. They’re not a hallmark of good SEL, ’cause we want to see accomplishments being acknowledged and celebrated, but not necessarily in that sort of really hierarchy of awards because that’s often very exclusionary for our kids.

Some other questions we could ask of schools, some other ways that we might assess school social inclusion of a school is by observing or asking about how students and educators build awareness of their own implicit biases. You know, is ableism, often schools now talk about racism and other sorts of “isms”. Are they aware of their own implicit ableist biases?

Are they, is this something that’s in their conversation? How do teachers and students exercise a growth mindset? And if you’re not sure about this concept then you know, you can look up Carol Dweck, her idea on growth mindset. How welcome did you feel? Was there a focus on inclusiveness and acceptance? Was there a focus on strengths and capacities? You know, you might ask the school leadership how they’re supporting teachers in expanding their own mindsets regarding their students’ capabilities. You know, how are they supporting presumption of competence? You know, always asked to look at discipline policies. Is there a strong emphasis on disciplinary practices that are restorative rather than punitive? What happens when things go wrong? How do teachers and schools and how do teachers and schools support students who have experienced exclusion, or are having conflict or acting out? ‘Cause this is a really telling aspect of an inclusive school. Do they just exclude? You know, are they punitive? Or do they have these kind of restorative practices that bring children back in?

So these are just some ways that you might kind of be able to identify some schools that are really working on their social inclusion and their SEL, rather than just paying lip service to it. And just finally, you know, it’s not enough to say that, you know, as I said, I’m not, you know, presuming that all teachers are gonna be able to do this and understand, it’s an important thing. And also if there’s a punitive leadership and management approach in a school, then it’s probably going to be incompatible with social inclusion. So, you know, it really needs to be across the board. It’s, you know, your child is not gonna experience inclusion if they have a teacher who wants to do this and a teacher who wants to do that, or a teacher who thinks this is important, and a teacher who thinks that this is important. It really needs to be across the board. And, you know, this is a big ask. And it is actually about asking people to change in a pretty fundamental way and to change quite a lot, quite quickly and quite substantially. So yeah, you know, I think we need to be really prepared to be part of that conversation and to help schools make this change.

Co-regulating, social problem skills to address injustices when they encounter it. And how does the school, harness young people’s innate sense of justice and activism? How does it enable them to build their and our capabilities to address inequities in schools and communities in the broader society? In other words, what we’re really looking for is, are our Autistic children’s peers being taught to be effective and respectful allies? And because that’s what we need actually. And you might notice then that in a genuine social inclusion, social emotional learning programme, there’s actually as much emphasis on teaching, learning, and demonstrating as there is on student learning and demonstrated. And that these sorts of programmes are targeting everyone, not just a few, not just our Autistic children.

So if you feel that your Autistic child is being singled out for an SEL programme or something like that, because they don’t have social skills, that’s not inclusionary, that’s exclusionary. Good SEL programmes are gonna acknowledge the strengths that our children can bring to the learning and social communities. And this is a very long quote, and again, it’s this Joan Cole Duffles, but “At its foundation, equity and education requires a physically and emotionally safe and positive school climate in which students are respected and encouraged by adults who hold high expectations.” This is a beautiful summary of everything we’ve talked about. “This culture of achievement saturates all aspects of the school featuring an environment for learning that is culturally responsive.” And we can think about Autism as a culture in that sense.

“And that challenges adults and students to have a strong sense of self-efficacy. In addition, such school climates encourage students and teachers to bring thoughtful debate, listen to and learn from others’ perspectives, and disagree with one another as well as adults without fear of reprisal or recrimination. This process is neither clean nor straightforward; inviting students to engage in justice issues can be messy and fraught with difficulty for students and adults alike. But when student agency is unlocked, including providing students with the skills to follow up their newfound voices, authentic engagement is usually the result.”

“SEL cannot solve the social inequities that affect our students. These are structural issues to which all educators must be attentive and about which strong advocacy is needed. While this is taking place at a wider ecological level by linking SEL to equity in schools now, every day, we and our students hone the skills to become the architects of a better world.” And my gosh, wouldn’t we love that for our students? I just, I needed to quote that in full ’cause I didn’t know how to cut bits of it out to make it as strong as it was. So that’s what we’re looking for.

Now I can see that my time is ticking away. So I’m going to quickly go through UDL before we go onto the partnership part. The fourth and final condition for, you know, inclusion is UDL, Universal Design for Learning. So despite the name Universal Design for Learning, the emphasis of UDL is actually on individual and personalised learning, not on a universal one size fits all approach. So it’s kind of a misleading name in some ways. Perhaps you go, you could talk about the only one size universal approach for teaching and learning, is that you have to accept every single child is gonna be unique and have very different needs, learning needs, educational needs, mental, social, emotional needs, and capabilities, and merits, and the only thing you can assume is that there is no one size fits all approach for any child.

Mike Marotta puts it, “UDL is not a special ed thing or even a general ed thing. It’s just an ed thing. It’s the way to connect every student to the learning experience, and a way at looking at learning that is fully inclusive and promotes success for all learners regardless of ability.” So that is kind of the essence of UDL. So how is UDL inclusive? Well, partly it’s grounded in choice and the aim of the choice is to increase our learners, our Autistic learners’ engagement and accessibility. But every learner’s engagement and accessibility. UDL argues that learners have the right to be taught using multiple means of engagement. So that’s how we learn and how we sustain interest in a topic or in an activity. How we’re motivated and how we maintain, sorry, yes, sorry. How we maintain our effort to finish a programme, a project.

We also have multiple needs of representation. How information is presented to a learner in a way that’s understandable and relevant and meaningful to them. And multiple means of action or expression. So how learners can demonstrate what they’ve learnt, their mastery of the subject, and their response to their learning. So what UDL is recognising is that all learners are variable across engagement, representation, and action. And that our ability to learn is gonna be highly dependent on context. So UDL recognises that actually not just, you know, we often talk about Autistic children having a spiky profile, but all learners have a spiky profile of interest and capability. Some things we’re gonna be naturally interested in, some things we’re going to have natural strengths in, other things are less motivating and relevant, and other things we’re gonna need more support.

So UDL is a set of principles for curriculum development that gives all individuals equal opportunities to learn. Not a single one size fits all solution, but rather flexible approaches that can be customised and adjusted based on individual learner needs. UDL develops expert learners who are purposeful and motivated, resourceful, and capable, and knowledgeable, and strategic, and goal directed. And the joy of UDL is it’s specifically designed to meet all student needs. So when it’s well implemented, it means that children are genuinely invested in what they’re being taught. They can disengage and re-engage in learning during activities. It’s flexible and accessible for all learners. It recognises that different children are gonna absorb information in different ways and that explicit spoken or written instruction is actually the purview of the few, not the many children.

And for our kids, like it means things like handwriting, which is a bane for so many of our children. Like I feel like if I had you all in a room, I’d ask you to put your hand up and say, “Which of your children likes handwriting?” I don’t think there’s many of us. Autistic kids as a general rule hate handwriting. They just become unnecessary because kids are gonna direct the way they express or act upon their learning. So in this kind of UDL framework difference is normalised. So you can see how nicely aligned it is with inclusion. It’s not really a recipe, it’s an approach. It’s acknowledgement that you know, for some children’s structure, for others, flexibility, for some other structure and flexibility are required. It acknowledges that learning experiences that depended on experiences outside of the classroom, cultural, and racial, and religious identities, all of those intersections are going to play in the way a child learns. And that’s really important for our Autistic kids who do have different intersectional identities.

And it acknowledges that different children have different neurologies, So it really fits beautifully into the neurodiversity paradigm. But the big thing is that in a UDL classroom, Autistic needs are simply needs. And there’s the same obligation to acknowledge and meet those needs as there is for any other child’s needs. So here’s something that has come from actually a lived example of how it might look for an Autistic child. So this was a very high level before we got to sort of breaking down into subjects and matters. But essentially in order to have the sense of engagement, this little person only related to topics, have only learned from topics related to his passions. But he liked the choice in the topic, and how broadly or narrowly the topic was defined. How was it taught? Well, actually this child liked to flipped classrooms. So he actually liked to learn through lectures, and YouTube, and podcasts and things like that, documentaries. And then after learning from an external source to his teacher, he liked to come back to his classroom and discuss what he’d learned with a knowledgeable teacher or adult. So that is called a flipped classroom where the explicit instruction doesn’t happen from the teacher, it actually happens from other environments and other contexts. And then you come back and actually do the learning in the classroom after you’ve gained the knowledge. And how did he like to action and express his learning? Art, dictation, oral debate with a knowledgeable partner, but he needed to move while he was thinking and speaking. So this was kind of a high level recipe before we got to or approach, sorry, before we got to the kind of granular, what that might look like for different sorts of things.

Basically, what I’m saying is if you are going into a classroom and seeing 20 copies of the same worksheet or 20 artworks that are substantively the same, you are not looking at a UDL classroom. So you’re gonna be able to see lots of different things going on. And before we’ll go on to the last little bit about partnerships, one of the things I just wanna say is that there is a caveat to inclusion. Every piece of research that people quote will tell you that everyone, Autistic, disabled, non-Autistic, non-disabled children and adults benefits from an inclusive education, so everybody. The research is absolutely overwhelming. That inclusive education supports all children to become more committed to social justice, to build a sense of community and belonging, and that it’s beneficial in terms of the learning and the academic outcomes, the social emotional development, increased awareness of diversity, and access to higher quality and personalised teaching, education and care. And that’s for all children, disabled and non-disabled. For our children, specifically for Autistic children, inclusive education improves academic and social outcomes. That’s for students with disabilities. It increases their feelings of wellbeing, self-efficacy, and self-concept. And it gives them access again to higher quality, broader learning opportunities. But because inclusion isn’t the simple matter of including children with disabilities, the research is only valid when you are comparing segregated and genuinely inclusive education. Mainstream education, mainstream schooling that’s not inclusive can actually be just as damaging as any other type of education to our children. And there’s this quote, “Even its fiercest advocates say that full inclusion must be executed properly or it can cause harm to those it tries to help. They say full inclusion must be put into practise by coordinated, well-trained, and well-paid professionals and backed by administrators and sufficient funding.” Clearly American.


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Always was, always will be Aboriginal land.

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 Amangu, Awabakal, Bindjareb, Birpai, Whadjak, Wiradjuri and Yugambeh 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 and present, for their wisdom, their resilience, and for helping this Country to heal.

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