How Can Autism Acceptance Make More Inclusive Schools?


Autism Acceptance Month 2017

By Kit Mead
MCIE Communications Specialist

Note: the term “autistic students” is used here rather than “students with autism” out of respect for the preference that I have as well as many others in the autistic community. As this flyer on Identity-First Language [PDF] states, “Although some disability communities choose to refer to themselves with person-first language (e.g. “person with an intellectual disability,”) many in the Autistic community join the majority of the Deaf and Blind communities in our embrace of identity-first language.”

April is Autism Acceptance Month, which some people also know as Autism Awareness Month. We are using “Acceptance” as the preferred terminology of autistic self-advocacy organizations and other autistic people. Autistic people are part of the disability community, and therefore benefit from inclusion – just as we know inclusive education to be beneficial for all students – like this young learner’s story. But how can autism acceptance help schools be more inclusive? 

Let’s define autism acceptance. According to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network’s website Autism Acceptance Month, and the site flyer Why Acceptance [PDF]?: “Autism acceptance means embracing and valuing autistic people as autistic people instead of being afraid of us, having low expectations, or trying to find a way to make us not autistic.” Acceptance means doing things to make the world, including schools, more inclusive and easier to navigate for autistic people and reducing the barriers that both children and adults face in their lives. 

So how can you use autism acceptance to make more inclusive schools? Here are two big ways.  

Teach peers to socially include their autistic classmates

A 2015 study discovered that students with disabilities generally had fewer friends, less perceived acceptance by peers, and increased feelings of isolation. One possible solution for autistic students is found in a 2011 study funded by the National Institutes of Health. It found that “Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)… may be more likely to improve their social skills if their typically developing peers are taught how to interact with them than if only the children with ASD are taught such skills.” It further noted that “At follow-up, children with ASD from the peer-mediated groups continued to show increased social connections.”

When an autistic student has more social connections, it seems likely that they would be able to participate more in classroom projects and other peer-to-peer activities. All children deserve to feel and be included, and exclusion has negative effects on any student’s mental state. Socially included students, it can be surmised, will feel more adjusted, less isolated, and more accepted. You can teach autistic students’ peers to respect and accept them, no matter if they have different learning needs and ways of interacting with the world. One method would be to treat students equitably. Autistic students’ peers will learn from how you treat autistic students. The following section is also a factor.

Autistic students’ needs are likely different, but you should presume competence

Peers will notice how you treat autistic students (and other students) and the autistic students will also notice. Presuming competence means expecting the best out of every student, and assuming that they are competent even if they don’t show traditional ways of communicating and learning. It means  expecting them to do well – instead of assuming they will be limited because they have a disability.

As an educator, Cheryl Jorgensen notes on the SWIFT Talk blog: “For them, and for me, it’s the ‘least dangerous assumption’ I can make about any student or any person.” If you don’t accept and presume your autistic students are competent, they will know and it will negatively affect their performance.

Autistic students may need supports, accommodations, and different instructional methods to achieve. While it might take more effort or modified instruction, they can learn and deserve to do so alongside their peers. Students pick up on expectations, and will perform better if they are expected to do well. The alternative means setting them up to fail. Therefore, presuming competence is a vital tool in teaching autistic students, in including them, and in accepting them as different but equally valuable learners.

Resources for Self-Advocates, Autism Acceptance, Inclusion, and Supporting Autistic People

MCIE is a proud sponsor of the Autism Acceptance Month website.