If you’re an educator, you’ve likely already taught an Autistic person. And if not, then you’re likely to very soon! And if you’re here, reading this page, chances are that you would like to know a little bit more about how to support your Autistic students to thrive in your classroom. So, thank you!
We appreciate you being part of the change, for wanting the very best for the Autistic students in your care, for being so invested in the wellbeing of your students that you are willing to search out new information to make their educational journey more fulfilling. We can’t support our Autistic community across the lifespan without people like you: committed, empathetic and curious!
Every student you have ever taught – and will ever teach – has a unique presentation of strengths and challenges, across social, emotional, intellectual and academic domains. Your Autistic students are exactly the same. They come to you with a unique profile of strengths and challenges, and although those strengths and challenges might seem quite different to your non-autistic students’, the principles you employ to utilise strengths to overcome challenges remains the same.
One thing that all students need in order to learn, is to feel safe. For Autistic students, feeling safe in your classroom might take a lot more conscious and concerted effort on your part. On this page we consider some of the core ways for you to foster a welcoming and safe learning environment for your Autistic students.
The best way to educate yourself about Autism is not through University postgraduate study or textbooks, but by listening to Autistic voices and testimonies directly. Autistic people are the pre-eminent experts in Autism and we can provide insights into what your students might be experiencing, and how best to support, respect and teach them. We understand what it feels like to be Autistic, what challenges we face, and what strengths we might bring to mitigate those challenges in the classroom, on the playground, and beyond.
So, it’s lucky that you’re here! Because a good place to begin is right here, on this site. We have many workshops, courses, free articles, and resources, the vast majority of which are Autistic-produced, delivered and led. You might like to start by learning more About Autism, or you might like to read some articles about specific challenges that your Autistic students might be facing, such as sensory issues, communication differences, or social differences.
We know from research that Autistic learners face many challenges in accessing school environments, including sensory, demand, intellectual, and social and emotional overwhelm. We also know from research that many teachers just don’t feel equipped or knowledgeable about how best to support their Autistic students, even though they desperately want to. If that’s you, you’re certainly not alone.
The more you learn from the Autistic community, the more empowered you will be to make informed, respectful and relevant decisions to support your Autistic students, and to help them to thrive educationally. The more you learn, the less likely you are to inadvertently “do harm” through misunderstanding, invalidating, or exacerbating your Autistic students’ needs and challenges.
Neuro-affirming education is that which doesn’t just include Autistic students, it’s education that actively welcomes and values Autistic contributions in the classroom. It is the type of education where students feel that their neurotype is understood, and is grounded in safe, respectful relationships with teachers and peers alike. Autistic children can thrive and flourish in schools, when they experience neuro-affirming education. Here are some first steps you can take as a teacher to establish a neuro-affirming classroom:
All of the above suggestions are underpinned by the principles of an ethics of care, as described by Nel Noddings (1984). Noddings argued that effective teachers should enact an ethics of care, by which she meant a deep, genuine connection and relationship grounded in care for self, students, and others. This care is not an obligation, but is seen as a personal responsibility, with the empowerment of students at its heart. Teachers who ascribe to an ethics of care commit to being and doing with their students. They validate, respect and accept their students’ needs, insights, and feelings, and these are considered valid, relevant and valued. Student involvement is thus paramount.
We believe that adopting an ethics of care is a vital way to frame teaching so that Autistic learners’ needs can be met, behaviours be understood, and they can experience welcome and inclusion in schools.
As an educator, you will already appreciate the how the use of language shapes our understanding of a topic. Using affirming language has real world implications for how all students understand Autism, and, importantly, for how your Autistic students think about themselves.
Generally, the Autistic community prefers identity-first language (“I am Autistic”) to person-first language (“I am a person with Autism”). Person-first language reinforces stigma by implying that Autism is a disease or illness. We cannot be separated from our Autism – it is integral to us and fundamental to our identity. At Reframing Autism, we actually capitalise the word “Autistic” because of our connection to this identity.
Functioning labels such as “high functioning” or “low functioning” or indications of severity of Autism are disrespectful, reductive and establish an “us and them” mentality which is not conducive to inclusion. Autism is a spectrum, but it is not a linear spectrum. Functioning is not static – Autistic people, like all other humans, have moments of being better equipped to self-regulate, and moments where they may be distressed. The use of functioning labels can be detrimental to Autistic people because individuals dubbed as “high functioning” are often denied supports and accommodations due to their ability to mask their needs, whereas those deemed “low functioning” are denied agency, dignity, strengths, opportunity and the presumption of competence.
If in doubt, ask your Autistic student what language they prefer.
Whether you’ve been teaching Autistic students for a long time or just a little while, learning is a lifelong journey for all of us – so naturally, questions are going to arise from time to time! Here, we’ve covered some of the more common questions we’re asked however, we’re always happy to help. Please feel free to send us a message with any queries.
Reframing Autism invites educators and educational support staff to join Dr Melanie Heyworth for an introductory workshop on teaching Autistic children. Very often, Autistic children find schools overwhelming and challenging environments. We will give teachers and other support staff Autistic-endorsed and practical strategies for including Autistic children in your classroom so that everyone, Autistic and non-autistic alike, can thrive.
Delivery: Online on-demand
Duration: 3 hours 20 minutes
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.