Updated: Jun 22, 2021
Early in my journey to becoming a special education teacher, I was a behavior therapist for young autistic children (3-4 years old). There were not too many jobs for Psychology majors right out of college, and at the time, I was unaware of the problematic nature of using ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) principles to change behavior.
I certainly was no strict behaviorist, but after learning the Skinnerian paradigm for learning, I realized I had a knack for not only teaching children rote tasks but for encouraging their communication skills.
For instance, one young boy I worked with would sit with me at his kitchen table with a puzzle of an image of an elephant. As we alternated placing the pieces to complete the puzzle, I would hesitate just a second before I would put mine down and ask my young counterpart a question. “What animal is this?” And I would wait until he said “elephant,” sometimes even giving him the first letter sound – “eh” – as a prompt.
But this wasn’t the end of my story working with autistic individuals. After having near-zero exposure to people on the autism spectrum, I quickly acquainted myself with the families that I worked with and read as much of the available literature on autism as possible.
Within a few years, I went back to school not to become a counselor (like I thought I would), but to become a special education teacher, which I would be for 16 years. And my understanding of autism and people on the autism spectrum evolved, slowly but consistently.
When I first joined the field of special education, I thought autism was something that I needed to fight against, make less severe, or eradicate. What I realized, far too late, was that autistic people had been around throughout history and that, as Steve Silberman puts it in his TED Talk the Forgotten History of Autism, Leo Kanner’s theory that autism was rare was just a wrong as Andrew Wakefield’s blame of the rise in autism diagnoses on vaccines.
I started reading and listening to speaking and nonspeaking autistics, which brought a new understanding that autistic people were not broken but just different. And while there are certainly challenges for people on the autism spectrum, many of those challenges are made worse by a world that does not accept differences.
Decades of autism awareness campaigns have created visibility for autistic people, but it can create more opportunities for misunderstanding and resentment if there is no acceptance. Educators have a unique opportunity to not just bring awareness to their classroom and school but acceptance of autistic individuals.
So, before you “light it up blue” for autism, here are five ways you can educate yourself on what autistic people have to say about themselves.
1) Autism Acceptance Month is 10 years old! Read the statement from the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN), a nonprofit run by and for autistics: Acceptance is an Action: ASAN Statement on 10th Anniversary of AAM.
Autism Acceptance Month was created by and for the autistic community to change the conversation around autism, shifting it away from stigmatizing “autism awareness” language that presents autism as a threat to be countered with vigilance… autism acceptance emphasizes that autistic people belong — that we deserve welcoming communities, inclusive schools and workplaces, and equal opportunities
2) Read this article from ASAN about using identity-first language by Lydia Brown, an autistic disability rights activist: Identity-First Language
Autistic people, generally, prefer identity-first language (autistic people) over person-first language (people with autism). Autism is not a disease and it is not something that can be separated from a person; for many autistic people, being autistic is a core part of their identities.
This toolkit is designed to be a beginning resource for people who want to learn more about nonspeaking autistic people, methods of communication other than speech, disability representation in media, autistic meltdowns, trauma-informed care for autistic people, restraint and seclusion and their alternatives, and how to best support nonspeaking autistic people and survivors of restraint and seclusion.
4) Learn about 3 autistic disability rights activists to amplify in your classroom (from PBS SoCal).
In the education world, we often hear and use words like “inclusive” and “accessible” without much proof that steps to create classrooms and communities centered on disability justice are being taken. One prominent example is the lack of disabled representation when it comes to the revolutionaries and change-makers we teach our kids about in school. You can begin to support disabled students in feeling validated, seen and heard by amplifying the voices of autistic activists in your classroom
5) Watch LISTEN, a short film produced by Communication First that was made as a reaction to the film “Music” by Sia, who the nonspeaking autistic community felt left them out of conversations and planning for the film.
Tim Villegas is the Director of Communications for MCIE, Editor-in-Chief of Think Inclusive, and the host of the Think Inclusive Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @TheRealTimVegas.