Supporting autistic learners is my passion and it is incredibly important as an SLP and an ABA provider to understand and be responsive to the needs and wants of all individuals, especially autistic learners. After many years of working with students with autism in all age groups, I have been able to determine some of the best and worst plans of action for supporting autistic learners. Also, through interviews with several adult professionals with autism on my podcast, The Autism Outreach Podcast, I have learned so much about different opportunities for supporting all autistic learners. There are definitely 5 super powerful DON’TS when it comes to supporting autistic learners.
- Using the term autistic is usually preferred by most in the community, but it is important to ASK preference. Each individual with autism is different. The spectrum is broad and each person will have their own way of identifying themselves. Communication is varied for individuals with autism and it is so crucial to remember each person has their own preference and own way of learning best. Currently professionals are using the label person with autism, but in my podcast with Dr. Kerry Magro, he expressed that he prefers autistic individuals. It is of utmost importance to ask out of respect for your students giving them the power behind their identity. If you are interested in hearing more from Dr. Kerry Magro, check out the podcast #43, From Nonspeaking to Professional Speaker-Dr. Kerry Magro’s Autism Communication Journey.
- Do Not Use the Term Red Flags. The term red flags is inherently negative. It means something is wrong. Having autism means a child will have different strengths, and different needs than other children, but it is not some “bad” thing that has happened. There is nothing worse than a parent hearing “red flags” when it comes to their children, no matter the outcome. Instead of saying “red flags,” why not just say indicators, or characteristics and show respect for neurodivergent children. We must appreciate neurodiversity and by using a term that is so incredibly negative, like red flags, we are not showing how much we care and support our autistic learners.
- Avoid Functioning Labels. Labels like high functioning or low functioning are detrimental to individuals. They are not clear or helpful to supporting autistic learners. Instead we can say high support needs or low support needs. Remember autism is an extremely broad spectrum. There is not a one-size fits all approach to ensuring autistic learners are provided with the support that they personally need. Stephen Shore’s quote , “if you’ve met one person with one autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” It is so powerful to remember that autism, and how it affects individuals, is truly different for each person.
- Do Not Set Goals for Eye Contact. Yes, eye contact is important in conversations or in school, but for autistic learners it may actually be causing a great deal of anxiety and discomfort. Eye contact can actually be overwhelming for children with autism and a child with autism may not glean any social cues from eye contact. That is not our goal. Autistic learners can still engage in conversations without eye contact. Individuals with autism can engage in an activity, doodle, or play while having a conversation without eye contact at all and still be present in the conversation. Pushing goals that individual students are not going to benefit from are only going to hurt them. Looking for a more specific conversation around this? Check out the Autism Outreach Podcast #58 with Jared Stewart. He talks about his experience in school and the inaccessible social demands, bullying, and how it affected him. Jared has a success story, but we need to be mindful of our students with autism when they are young and support their growth. Eye contact goals are not one of the goals individuals with autism need.
- Be Very Careful When Setting Goals for Social Skills. Social skills are going to vary tremendously. Sometimes social skills are missed for girls with autism. This is because of “traditional” female activities of gender norms. When girls are consistently and repetitively playing with their dolls, it is deemed appropriate within the roles of society, but this could be disguising an autism diagnosis. It is so important to remember this when setting goals for social skills because all children want to be part of a group. We have to remember that just because some students internalize the pain of being left out, they are still left out and feeling ostracized. To learn more about this topic, specifically girls with autism and the social skills, tune into the Autism Outreach Podcast #51 with Robin Rosigno of AuTEACH. Robin Roscigno is the founder of AuTEACH, former teacher pursuing her PhD, and autistic mother to her autistic daughter. Robin continues to discuss social skills and reminds us that we should take a whole school approach and teach social skills to all students, not just neurodivergent students. The social skills vary between the groups and it is a huge opportunity to build empathy on both sides.
When it comes to supporting autistic learners, we must know the best strategies, the best communication styles, the best way to write IEP goals, but we also must know what we shouldn’t be doing when supporting individuals with autism. It is so important as providers that we navigate a path for our students with their best outcomes in sight. Remember these 5 things NOT to do when supporting autistic learners the next time you are planning around your autistic learners!