Eight Keys to Supporting Autistic Students at School (from an Autistic Person)

Few traditions are as time-honored and universal than the yearly return of kids to school and the flurry of excitement, nervousness, and perhaps too many school supplies that come with it. And though the start of the 2020 school year is a bit different in some places than in previous years, the fact is that one way or another classes are starting again soon.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that in most places schools are required to provide support for autistic students, the ”supports” provided aren’t always geared towards helping the autistic student themself be as happy and successful as they can. Often, autistic students are put into exhausting “compliance training” type programs in an attempt to make them appear non-autistic, not given appropriate accommodations that support their needs, punished for things they have no control over (such as meltdowns or social misunderstandings, or even drugged into a stupor so they aren’t “disruptive” in the classroom.

As I would hope should be needless to say, such “supports” do little to practically support the autistic student themselves and frequently seem to only have the goal of making the autistic student more “manageable” and like a typical student so they can be moved onto the next grade level as efficiently as possible. A few weeks ago I wrote about my experiences through school and how I lacked support through much of it. Many autistic people have experiences similar to mine.

Lecture Room Or School Empty Classroom With Desks Chair Iron Woo
A side view of wooden school desks in a classroom.

The question then, of course, is what can be done to truly support autistic students at school. There is no one set techniques that apply across the board and each individual will need to be supported in a unique way as a unique individual. However, here are some things that I, as a recently-graduated autistic student, think can be done to better support autistic students. This article is partially for parents, teachers, and others involved in education, but it’s also for all the autistic students out there themselves, so that someone might pass this info on to their parents or teachers or get a better idea of what they can advocate for themselves.

Without further ado, here’s seven ideas for better supporting autistic students at school:

Embrace Neurodiversity

This was a game changer for me personally. When I managed to be enrolled at a school that viewed me through the neurodiversity lens my experience and success at school improved massively. Neurodiversity is a little bit of a buzzword, so let me define the term as I am using it. Neurodiversity is a paradigm that views certain neurological conditions like autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and others as natural parts of human diversity akin to diversity in things like skin and eye color. It is not a political position, rather it is a way of thinking about oneself and others. According to the (unfortunately) usual paradigm, autistic people are just broken versions of non-autistic people and need to be fixed, while according the neurodiversity paradigm autistic people are not broken, but simply different and do not need to be changed. The usual paradigm sees autism as an inherently negative trait that must be suppressed or erased at all costs while the neurodiversity paradigm does not see autism as inherently bad, and as something that is an important part of someone’s identity as a person. The neurodiversity paradigm does not, contrary to a popular misconception, claim that autism is not a disability. It does, however, view disability as being caused by a lack of support and understanding for the disabled person rather than by the sole fact that the person is autistic.

The rainbow infinity symbol to represent neurodiversity.

Accepting the neurodiversity paradigm means viewing autistic students as valuable pupils to be supported rather than “problems” to be dealt with. Neurodiversity means looking to support a person within their own framework rather than trying to change them. Neurodiversity means not viewing autism as an inherently bad trait but rather as an integral part of the autistic person’s being and identity. The neurodiversity paradigm is an important viewpoint to have if one wants to truly support autistic students, and most of the rest of this list will be colored by it.

Seek First to Accomodate

If a person cannot walk, common wisdom holds that they should be allowed to use a wheelchair, and that public society should be accommodating of people who use wheelchairs. If someone suggested instead that this person should be subjected to hours of intensive and painful physical therapy every day of every week in the hopes that someday they might be able to crawl without a wheelchair, the suggestion would rightfully be looked as cruel. People understand this concept for every disability except autism it seems. Often times what passes for autism “support” in schools are attempts to get an autistic person to externally appear “more normal” instead of actual accommodations. Instead, a school should look to support a person based on their individual needs rather than trying to change them.

For example, if a student cannot sit in a desk for more than ten minutes before having to get up and pace, the accommodation should be to have them sit towards the back of the classroom so they can pace without getting in the way of other students. What should not happen is a behaviorist attempt to get the student to stay still for longer in exchange for gummy bears as “rewards” for sitting at their desk for longer. The first solution supports the student and facilitates learning, while the second solution will cause unnecessary frustration and likely impair learning. Seek first to accommodate by providing a tool or changing the environment rather than trying to change the person. Also, accommodations should be accessible at all times. If a person needs stim toys for focus and regulation, they should be allowed to use these when they need them, not just during pre-planned breaks. Needing fewer accommodations should never be a measured goal with a time limit. It’s OK for autistic people to need and use accommodations, just as it is OK for a blind person to need and use a cane so they can navigate by themselves.

Ask “Why” not “How.”

Very often, people tend to ask the wrong questions when it comes to working with children generally, and especially with autistic kids. Specifically, people tend to focus on “how can I get this child to stop doing XYZ” when the question they should be asking is “why is the child doing this thing.” As psychologist Ashleigh Warner put it “Beneath every behavior is a feeling. And beneath every feeling is a need. And when we meet that need rather than focus on the behavior, we begin to deal with the cause and not the symptom.” I’ve written an entire blog post on this topic which you can read by clicking here.

Encourage Self-Advocacy

The ability and confidence to advocate for one’s desires and needs is perhaps one of the most important lifelong skills for anyone to develop, and this is doubly important for autistic people. Self-advocacy can be encouraged in even very young children, as perhaps one of the simplest and most effective ways to advocate for oneself is by saying “no,” either through the word or by communicating it another way. Autistic students should be included as much as possible in determining their educational pathway, and their concerns and feelings should be given a priority of consideration.

Presume Competence

Colorful schools supplies such as scissors, pencils, and paper.

Autism “deficits” are talked about so much that often times people lose sight of the fact that every autistic person has strengths as well, and that autistic people are typically far more capable than people assume they are. Presuming competence means taking the default mindset that a person can do something rather than that they cannot do something. Don’t assume that a concept will go over a student’s head. Don’t assume a student won’t be able to handle a field trip. Don’t assume that a non-speaking student can’t listen, think, and comprehend. I hope you get the picture.

Recognize Communication

Behavior is communication. Behavior is communication. Behavior is communication. Do you have that stuck in your head now? Good, because this is important for everyone to realize. Autistic people often have trouble communicating in typical ways, but this does not mean that autistic people are uncommunicative. Often times, we communicate in other ways that non-autistic people may not pick up on. A big means of communication (for all people, but especially autistic people who often have trouble communicating with non-autistic people) is through behavior. If a kid frequently bolts out of the classroom, this can be interpreted as communicating that the classroom environment is too overwhelming. The next step would be to find ways to accommodate the student’s sensitivities to make the classroom more accessible. As another example, stimming (far from being a “non-functional” behavior) can be a way of expressing emotion, in addition to its uses in sensory regulation.

Be Vigilant of Bullying

Autistic students are far more likely to be bullied at school, as is anyone perceived as “different” unfortunately. However, not all forms of bullying are as obvious as loud verbal taunting and physical abuse. A common form of bullying reported by many autistic people is where the bully will slowly push and push at their intended victim with known triggers until the victim “lashes out” or does something else the teacher finds “disruptive,” at which point the bullies typically play innocent and the victim gets in trouble. This form of bullying typically goes unnoticed, and often even more obvious forms of bullying is overlooked. Be carefully attuned to bullying, and take claims of it seriously to ensure the school environment is emotionally and physically safe for all students.

Stray From the Path if Necessary

More people than ever are being forced to embrace this point, as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people into online school options. Regardless, it is still important to recognize that receiving a good education in any form is more important than sticking to the “traditional” K-12 school system. What I mean by this is don’t shy away from taking other paths than your standard in-person district-assigned public schools. Go online if the classroom environment is too overwhelming. Move to a charter school or a different district if your current one won’t meet your needs. Don’t worry about repeating a grade if it’s necessary or entering school a year late (a year isn’t that long in the scheme of things). On the other hand, don’t be afraid to skip a grade if school is unchallenging or boring. Don’t be afraid to homeschool if you can manage it and it seems like the best option. Don’t be afraid to try schools with alternative educational techniques like the Montessori Method. Older kids might benefit from taking classes at the local community college rather than high school (I know I did!). Don’t be afraid to take a year off, or even drop out all together and get a GED after learning independently.

The point I’m trying to make is that it’s perfectly OK if someone’s educational journey doesn’t follow the standard path. Everyone is an individual, and sometimes that means creating an individual plan to best suit them. Don’t let tradition or peer pressure to be “normal” get in the way of pursuing what’s best.

So, there are my keys to supporting an autistic K-12 student based on my experience as a recent high school graduate. Hopefully these will make the life of an autistic student somewhere that much better, and if this is the case than my mission has been accomplished.

6 thoughts on “Eight Keys to Supporting Autistic Students at School (from an Autistic Person)

  1. Yes, yes, yes. Presuming competence is so important! It’s one of the first things we’re taught as speech therapists. So many of the kids I’ve worked with are capable of a lot more than people assume, they just needed the best way for them to show that!

    And the bullying thing is very true as well. I and my brother both had bullies who would push us to the breaking point of our patience, and when my brother hit a boy who had hit him first – and had been tormenting him for months – it was my brother who was presumed to be responsible. Luckily our mum took his side, but still.

    Keep up the good work, Quincy!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. You are absolutely fantastic! When my son gets a bit older I will make sure he is introduced to your blog. Thank you for taking the time to write all these articles, they are invaluable to parents of differently wired kids.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I loved everything you wrote, especially providing space in the back of the classroom to accommodate the needs of pacing. My child is only 5 years old, and he walks or paces a lot. I will make sure he can have a sit in the back, if he needs that. Thank you for sharing your experiences and tips for parents who have children with special needs.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. My 13 year old son finds break times difficult at school. The expectation that teachers think all kids enjoy socialising with their friends outside is something I’d like to address with them. I know my son would prefer a quiet space to regulate after a morning of academics, sensory overload etc. I’m wondering if this is something that you think would have helped you too. I’m happy that I found your blog, with honest experiences that will help me help my son. I have another question about going out and holidays which I will sit another time. Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

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