More Viral Politics: Teaching Students with Autism is Not Much Different than Teaching the Neurotypical

via Tenured Radical, who kvetches about the problems of teaching students with autism. I was shocked to see that someone as intelligent as TR repeated erroneous claims about autism and vaccines (see the CDC website for accurate information).  What was even more disturbing, though, was her rather dismissive attitude towards students with autism.  From the main article:

“What seems not debatable is that our sense of fairness, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is way ahead of any conversation about what it will mean for young people who need a great deal of support to realize their human potential to attend college.  It seems certain is that increasing numbers of children on the autism spectrum — many of whom have unusual abilities — will go to college. As USA Today reported three years ago, they are already in our classrooms.  This is happening in a context in which there is little to no attention being paid to giving full-time faculty the training to teach students who have a wide range of capacities when it comes to what counts for normal classroom discipline:  sitting still for an hour and taking notes, being in crowded rooms where they risk being bumped and touched, overcoming obsessive behavior to get to class or hand in a paper on time, working in small groups with other students, or being in large classes with crowds of strangers.  It is also happening in a context in which being full-time faculty is becoming anomalous, and the financial “flexibility” of running higher education on per-course labor makes it unlikely that the vast majority of faculty will be eligible, or open to making unpaid time available, for the training that would make their classrooms accessible to autistic students. The challenges are somewhat different from the vast category of “learning disabilities” for which responsible colleges and universities provide learning centers to provide the support that makes what we euphemistically call “accommodation” useful.”

First, I’ll say that I’ve had several students with Asperger’s (aka Aspies) in my classes.  In general, they have been among the best students I’ve had.  In my experience the “obsessiveness” means that Aspies are more diligent about understanding assignments and meeting deadlines.  Yes some like to hog the conversation, but so do quite a few neurotypical students.  I’ve had plenty of neurotypicals fail to pay attention, sit still, or hand work in on time.

In the comments section, Elizabeth Switaj wrote:

“Yes, training and having the time to implement training is important, but if faculty are going to learn to support autistic students, a good first step would be to listen to autistic undergraduates themselves and to put the needs they express first instead of responding primarily to the perspective of the neurotypical parents of autistic children. The perspective of autistic undergraduates, which seems to me to be the most important on the subject, is entirely missing from this post.

One of the fundamental tenets of the disability rights movement is “nothing about us without us”–and this is no less important when it comes to autistic people (and I’m sorry but a single secondhand statement from an unnamed teenager really isn’t sufficient).”

I couldn’t say this better myself.  Unfortunately, TR didn’t get it. She said, ” And back to the “nothing without us” principle of political organizing: it’s incredibly attractive, ethical and powerful. But although bringing disabled people together as an identity group is important in terms of theory and social movement, there should be concern about the similarity that mandates, and silencing, within the group, in the name of empowerment for all. This is the lesson of other social movements. ASD children *can’t* speak for themselves, mostly because they are children, but for other reasons too. Without a movement largely driven by parents up to this point, which may evolve as ASD kids come together as adults in future decades, there would be no attention to this issue at all, vaccinations or no vaccinations.”

First, those of us in history of childhood and youth have pointed out time and time again that children CAN speak for themselves and we as adults should listen  More importantly, there IS an autism rights movement led by and for persons with autism.   Seriously, would TR have said that GLBT children and youth need parents to speak for them?  I doubt it.  So why not acknowledge the rights of persons with autism to speak and organize for themselves?

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1 Comment

  1. I didn’t get a sense that TR was dismissive in her attitude about students on the spectrum. (I didn’t admire her off-the-cuff comment invoking vaccines, mind you, but that wasn’t the main point.) I thought she was raising an important issue with her colleagues about awareness of accommodating ASD students.

    I think that the vast majority of academics out there aren’t aware about anything but the most ‘high-functioning’ of ASD individuals in academia. Many remain resistant to the idea of accommodation for all sorts of bone-headed reasons. If I hear one more complaint about ‘compromising the course’ through accommodation, my head will explode!

    If we are serious about understanding students on the spectrum, we need to talk to them: of course! We also need to inform ourselves on pedagogy: that’s some of what I tried to share in my links. If all an academic knows about autism is the story of Temple Grandin along with bits and pieces of current pop culture or news, they’re not going to have nearly enough information about how to helpfully accommodate non-NT students. We’re academics and professional educators: turning to the literature as well as to our peers is a helpful part of a holistic approach to adapting the course for student needs.

    I hope that when our youngest daughter finishes high school, she has a chance to pursue her education but given how her autism manifests, that’s a tall order. At least I can make sure that my own classroom is adaptable as well as welcoming and that my colleagues are as informed as possible about non-NT issues so that when there’s a student in need, they’ll have the tools to understand and listen. As an academic and a parent to someone who’s on the spectrum, I feel that I’ve a useful perspective to offer and I’m saddened if it seems that I was silencing ASD students in the process.

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