By Lauren Melissa Ellzey
It would be hard to find an educator or in-school practitioner who doesn’t believe in the concept of inclusive education. Most schools champion the principle of Least Restrictive Environment. However, in practice, these principles often unravel. For Autistic learners in particular, the move from self-contained classroom to general education setting can be like jumping out of the pan and into the fire.
First, before I offer my thoughts about Autism Spectrum Disorder/Disability, ableism, and educational inclusion, I would like to share my personal context. I am a late-diagnosed Autistic woman; I do not see my Autism as a disorder but, like many other Autistics, see it as a neurological difference and a disability; I have worked in the education field for the last ten years; and I am also continuously learning about Autism in the rapidly-changing field of Autism research.
And so, to the educators and in-school practitioners, I ask you to pause. Sometimes, as educators, therapists, and practitioners, we become solutions-oriented because we genuinely want to support children and young adults. After all, we are educated on these topics, so we may feel pressure to have the answers and to have them immediately.
Yet, according to Autistics themselves, professional and well-educated answers may not provide real solutions. With the advent of the internet, Autistics with a variety of support needs have rallied together in community. The testimonies of #ActuallyAutistic self-advocates speak out against the mainstream stereotypes and lauded practices that have been perpetuating harm.
The thing about Autism research is this: So much information is outdated, misguided, and ableist. Ableism, much like racism, is not about individuals. Ableism against Autistics is not about whether or not non-autistics love Autistics and see them as "just like everyone else." Ableism against Autistics stems from systemic oppression.
This means that well-intentioned practitioners are often using harmful practices because the systems and practices themselves are founded upon ableist research. These educators and practitioners wind up implementing rigid and confusing checklists for interactions that, in reality, are dynamic, like making friends or following the rules all the time at school. There are behavior modification practices that offer Autistic learners rewards for halting self-regulatory stimming activities.
However, I believe that so many of you already see the harm in many of these practices or know that the research is written upon a harmful foundation. So then, let's pause. Let's consider mindsets. Consider whether our inclusive practices are actually perceived as inclusive to those you are trying to include. In other words, ask Autistic, lived-experience experts how they feel about your practice. Listen to what we need from you. Listen to what has hurt us.
While Least Restrictive Environments are a goal to strive toward, it’s a practice that requires careful intentionality, consistent supports, and a deep understanding of disability from all adults in a classroom. The classroom must become a place that is centered around disability supports that all students can benefit from through Universal Design. Otherwise, the students' learning is restricted by an ill-prepared Least Restrictive Environment.
I have encountered practitioners who are overjoyed to see Autistics "behaving more like their neurotypical peers." Is that truly something to celebrate? Is our goal to teach Autistics to mask or camouflage? Because Autistics will always be Autistic. Each time I am praised for not being Autistic, I learn that people will like me when I'm not acting like the real me. Many of the Autistic children and teens we work with are being taught that schools are where we learn how to mask.
So, please pause and consider: How will these children, who are taught that acceptance is earned by self-denial, feel about themselves once they are adults? While it is not an easy thing to hear and it's no one's individual fault, the suicide rate for Autistics is at least three times higher than the general population, with Autistics that are often labeled as "high-functioning" being at an even higher risk.
Pausing takes work. It requires stepping out of what we know and into what we don’t yet know. To foster authentic Autistic inclusion in the classroom, we can begin by learning from Autistic self-advocates, be it on social media or through organizations like ASAN. Educators can seek out and request professional development about Autism that is facilitated and created by Autistics. We can research the differences between the medical model and the social model of disability, and nondisabled and non-autistic practitioners can take a deep breath if caught in a moment of “I know better than them.”
So, let's pause. Let's consider what Autistic-centered functioning and support could really look like. Instead of fixing Autism, how can we foster Autism acceptance?
Lauren Melissa Ellzey (she/her), Autienelle, is an autistic self-advocate, educator, author, and social justice activist. Through writing and presenting, she engages across lines of difference, highlighting the inequitable systems that oppress queer, BIPOC, and disabled folks. Learn more about Lauren Melissa and her work here.