Ever since adolescence, I’ve wanted to spend my life building people. Whether in terms of confidence, intellect, life skills, or all the other ways a person can be built up, I’ve wanted to be the kind of person who makes others stronger.
Teaching hasn’t always felt like the right place for me to do that, but it’s probably where I’ve done the most good. I’ve enjoyed plenty of opportunities to help and guide young people to become their best selves, although sometimes I’ve had to reconcile my idealism with a system that assesses us solely on how well we can put facts into students’ brains – preferably in ways that could be expressed on an exam paper. (Special education, it has to be said, has suited my personality so much better. And not just because I’m autistic myself.)
If you want to work with autistic students and truly be a positive influence for them, there are ample opportunities to do so in teaching. The trick is to find a school where the welfare of the students truly does come first, rather than a school that simply writes “the welfare of our students is paramount” in the school policy, while sending fines to parents of children with anxiety-fuelled school refusal (and yes, I have seen this happen).
My own experience of teaching autistic students does range a fair bit – from special needs tuition (mathematics, creative writing and general mentoring), mainstream primary teaching, private maths tuition and chess lessons, to being lead writer on a creative writing course for autistic students, as well as the Skype consultations I now provide through Autistic Not Weird. I even do staff training in schools, when there’s not a pandemic keeping everyone busy. [All links on Autistic Not Weird open in new tabs so they won’t interrupt your reading.]
But with all that said, I refuse to call myself an expert. And my professional advice to you is to be wary of anyone who does claim to be “an expert on autistic people”. (I’m autistic myself and I’m only an expert on myself, although I do have some in-depth knowledge of those who trust me enough to let me into their world.)
So when I offer you tips that I’ve learned through both personal and professional experience, bear in mind that because it comes from a range of settings, it would be wise to adapt anything you read to suit your own context. You know your school and your students, and I don’t.
[Important disclaimer: there will be no reference in this article to any of my current students, or to my current school, or any former students of mine who are still under the age of eighteen. This is to avoid any conflict of interest between my teaching life and my advocacy through Autistic Not Weird.]
[Oh, and another disclaimer: no doubt there’ll be people who read the title and say “they’re not ‘autistic students’- they’re ‘students with autism’!” And I get it: I was once told by the system to think that way too. But I need to tell you that person-first language (e.g. “person with autism” is an outdated concept, following the emerging consensus that an overwhelming majority of us prefer identity-first language (i.e. “autistic person”). The National Autistic Society has switched to identity-first language, as has NHS England. Autistic-led organisations, of course, never had to switch in the first place. Further reading here.]
Anyway, off we go.
1. Your autistic students are individuals, not walking stereotypes.
If you’re giving serious thought to working with autistic students, you probably know this already. But it must be said first.
Because I’m going to begin with an embarrassing story of how I learned this lesson.
It was summer 2009, and I was given a teaching placement in a special school. I had only ever known two autistic children (to my knowledge), and I was six months away from learning about my own autism. Long story short, despite being autistic myself I was clueless about autism.
I was working in a class of teenagers aged 14-16, all of whom had substantial support needs and academic learning difficulties. One day we were lining up for assembly, but one boy (I’ll pretend his name was Daniel) was still sat at his desk. I went up to him and said – slowly, so he could understand and process my words,
“Daniel, it’s time to line up”.
He didn’t move, so I repeated the sentence again. For a second time he didn’t move; he just stayed where he was and put his fingers in his ears.
Already sensing it was a battle I wouldn’t win, I went to the class teacher and asked (and honestly, it’s embarrassing to look back on):
“Why isn’t Daniel moving? I thought autistic people understood everything you say, even if they don’t talk?”
The teacher gave the predictable response.
“Oh he understands every word you’re saying. He’s not moving because he’s a sixteen-year-old lad who doesn’t want to do what he’s told.”
I couldn’t believe it didn’t occur to me before it was pointed out. I came to realise the mistake that I was making – I was defining my students by their diagnoses, and treating their personalities as extra factors… rather than just getting to know the student like I’d always done in mainstream school placements.
Given that this happened twelve years ago, I don’t mind people knowing. Learn from my ancient mistakes, everyone. Your students’ autism may be a huge part of their identity, but their individuality comes first.
2. Know what you’re trying to achieve (and it’s NOT “removing their autism”).
In nearly six years of autism advocacy, the quote of mine that’s been furthest around the internet is this one:
This philosophy is at the centre at the work I do (and what everyone should do) when working with autistic students. The goal isn’t to change their neurology, or destroy who they are to build a more normal and boring person. It’s to help them to play to their strengths whilst addressing any weaknesses (or as we say in teaching, “areas for development”), whilst creating an environment that allows the student to see their identity in the most positive way possible.
Seriously, think about that last sentence. If you went day-to-day trying to change an autistic student into a non-autistic one, would that be allowing them to play to their strengths? Would it actually address their weaknesses? Would their self-perception of their autistic identity be a healthy one or a damaging one?
If you truly want to help an autistic person become the best autistic person they can be, meet them where they are. It is the foundation of all teaching, and this principle doesn’t change just because the student is autistic.
On a similar topic, I also encourage you to have a professional distrust of ABA (Applied Behavioural Analysis), and any other interventions which seek to change a child’s “autistic behaviours” whilst ignoring their actual needs. For example: if an autistic child flaps their hands as a sign of distress, and an intervention provider makes them stop flapping their hands, the end result is a distressed child who can’t communicate their stress.
Compliance therapy is a big and dangerous thing, often entering schools under the disguise of professional qualifications and fancypants terminology. But as an educational professional with a commitment to safeguarding children’s wellbeing, you should professionally object to any intervention where the objective is to “make the child stop flapping their hands”, rather than “discern what is distressing the child and help them develop coping strategies”.
(Oh, and speaking of safeguarding – often the result of compliance therapy is that vulnerable children obey everything an adult tells them to do, even if it makes them deeply uncomfortable. If that gives you the chills, it should.)
3. Recognise the importance of school policy (but don’t be afraid to give feedback about it).
When people in general talk about school policy (or company policy, or policy in general), it’s usually in a negative way, or referring to them as obstacles. I don’t like this attitude. School policies are supposed to be your friend, and if they’re set up with the people’s needs truly in mind, they can be enormously useful.
The schools I’ve worked in have often made a big deal about “a consistent staff approach” across the school. And I see their point: if some teachers have one set of rules and others have another set, it can be confusing and anxiety-inducing for an autistic child who never quite knows where they stand. (For me as a child, it was difficult enough to learn one set of largely unspoken rules, let alone learn the minutiae of every single teacher’s own personal set of expectations.)
This is one of many areas where school policy can be important. Consistency matters. And this applies everywhere: can you imagine if a school didn’t have a proper safeguarding policy, and simply told its staff to just generally do what they personally felt to be right? What if its health and safety policy was vague about what to do in a fire? What if schools didn’t have anti-bullying policies (pretending for a moment that most schools actually stick to them)?
Following school policy is vital for the children’s best interests (and your own as a professional). At the same time though, they are not beyond question. Whereas you can’t violate school policy because you have personal disagreements with it, you can (and should) highlight areas where you believe them to not be working in the students’ best interests.
For example, if the school’s behaviour policy is proving to be an antagonising factor for the students (I’ve seen students absconding before, not out of common misbehaviour but because of stress/overwhelm caused by behaviour policies that didn’t consider their emotional needs), then this should be addressed and the policy adapted.
4. Flexibility should be your middle name (not literally).
You know that stereotype that says autistic people can’t stand change? Well to an extent it is true – things are calmer and less anxiety-inducing when they’re predictable (and if something’s fun for us once, it’s often fun for the thousandth time too!) – but don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ll be repeating the same school day all year, Groundhog Day style.
Your students will be in different moods depending on the day (you know, like humans in general!). Sometimes they’ll walk in wanting to geek out with you about their biggest interest. Sometimes they’ll walk in wanting to be left alone.
Sometimes your best-planned lessons will “fail”, despite your teaching being excellent, because the students will find it too difficult to engage that day. Sometimes the opposite will happen. So be prepared to be flexible with your teaching approach.
Obviously, special education is so much better at doing this than mainstream. In my experience, mainstream schools are often pressured into doing things in one set way in order to comply with inflexible standards, while the prevailing attitude in special schools is “if it works for the student, then it works for the student”.
What this means in a practical sense is this: if your lesson plan totally derails but your students gain something (and if you can evidence it, of course), then that’s a win. I once started teaching a maths lesson to a stressed student who couldn’t access the learning that morning, and it turned into a lesson about logic problems involving a chessboard. I may not have strictly followed the curriculum, but I could provide evidence that the students’ problem-solving skills had developed during the lesson.
5. Have an uncompromising, relentless belief in your students’ ability to succeed – even if eventually.
Yes, it’s another obvious one. But read this bullet-point anyway.
Teachers are humans: and it’s one thing to say how much you believe in your students when everything’s going fine (or even in a job interview), but another to stand by it when your lessons turn to crap and nobody engages.
But stand by your belief in your students under all circumstances. Believe me, they can sense whether or not you think they’re capable. (The ones with anxiety will often think you don’t believe in them even if you do, because prior experience has encouraged them to think that way. See point #10 for how I try to avoid this happening with me.)
Because if your belief in your students falters, you end up with negative self-fulfilling prophecies. You end up being reluctant to teach certain topics to your students because of a subconscious assumption that they won’t understand it.
Well, of course they won’t understand it… if it’s never taught to them.
6. If you work in special education, don’t replicate mainstream. It defeats the point.
There’s a damaging assumption about special education that we don’t confront enough: that if someone is in special education, it must be because they “failed” mainstream.
Which, if I may say so, is a load of bollocks. (But if we’re playing the blame game, I’ll happily make the case that mainstream failed them, not the other way round.)
Special education isn’t a watered-down version of mainstream. It exists to meet the particular needs of particular students, who cannot generally be provided for within the mainstream system. So if you’re a teacher with mainstream experience making a jump into special education (like I was), don’t rely on what you know from mainstream teaching and assume it’ll work in special education too. Anything you bring in from your prior experience will need adapting. (And a few years later, with your next set of students, it’ll need adapting again. Because it’s special education. It must be personalised.)
7. Your students’ trauma will be hidden. Except, of course, when it’s not.
I don’t remember where I heard this quote about anger, meltdowns, overwhelm etc, but it’s stuck with me.
“If you think someone has gone straight from 0-60 without any warning, you’ve missed how long they’ve been at 59.”
Autistic people can be absolute experts at masking. At doing what they’re told and pretending that nothing feels wrong. Acting as if nothing’s making them anxious while they’re panicking on the inside.
Why? Because we know we’ll be judged less if we don’t stand out: a lesson learned in early childhood by those whose natural behaviours are “corrected” by adults who can’t empathise with them.
So how can you tell if a student is secretly at 59? Well, here are two strategies.
Spot patterns. If all their meltdowns just happen to take place before a sports lesson, or at 11:45ish and they’ve not had breakfast, or about ten minutes after someone talks about dogs, then spot what the pattern is and take steps to make accommodations.
Create an environment where the student knows they can tell you their vulnerabilities without being judged or corrected. That way, the student might just tell you what makes them afraid.
Once you know their triggers, have a discussion with them at a time when they feel comfortable enough to have one. Make it clear to them that if they’re allowed to communicate their needs when their anxiety is bubbling, and they won’t be judged for feelings that are beyond their control.
Which leads nicely into my next point:
8. Ask students for their feedback, and believe them.
Autistic students, like humans in general, feel valued when they are listened to. I know, big surprise.
But for some reason, a prevailing attitude in society is that people with disabilities (or even differences) don’t quite know what’s best for themselves, and that it’s ok to override their autonomy.
It’s disgusting, but it happens. Some teaching staff will ignore a student’s wishes while telling themselves it’s “for the greater good of the student”, when in reality it’s just more convenient for the rest of the class.
So yes, actually have a discussion with the student, and ask them the following:
What makes you comfortable in school?
What makes you uncomfortable in school?
What helps when you feel stressed?
What do you enjoy?
Is there anything I can change about the way I teach that would help you to learn?
Is there anything you would want us to change about the school if we could?
And after that, actually do something that demonstrates that you have listened and valued their feedback. It’s a simple strategy, and in line with general human decency, but it will mean a hell of a lot to the student.
9. Communication is everything.
Yes, this is true in basically every profession, and in every type of personal relationship too. But there are extra reasons why it’s so important regarding vulnerable students.
Despite how well I’ve always got to know my students, I have never known everything about them. And my own perspective, like everyone’s, is open to bias (by default, we always believe we’re right). Discussing the students’ needs with other staff members means seeking other people’s perspectives on how best to help them. It’s better to approach a situation with everyone’s expertise than just your own.
And of course, safeguarding is a big thing. Legally there are aspects of this which must be shared, but I advise that you don’t wait until a sensitive situation occurs before seeking the advice of senior staff.
(At the same time, of course, information governance is an important thing. Don’t just spread information around about the students without thinking about why you’re doing so.)
And finally, communication involves the students’ families too. The young people at school may act very differently to the young person at home. With this in mind, sharing perspectives is hugely useful – and students do so much better when the home team and the school team are pulling in the same direction.
Also, including the parents will increase their faith in your school. Because sadly, the education system often treats parents like crap. Many of the parents I’ve worked with have been bruised by a system where it’s cheaper to blame the parents than accommodate the child. I’ve known parents who are literally frightened of talking to school staff, due to a history of previous schools judging them or their vulnerable child, disbelieving them or holding their words against them (and their own school lives may have been awful too).
So yes, keep families involved for the obvious reason – to enable you to provide more accurately for their child – but also as a way of saying that you plan to work with them and not against them.
10. Actually tell the students you care about them.
It’s surprising how many teachers don’t do this. I think a lot of us are nervous about being seen as ‘unprofessional’ by expressing our feelings.
But do you know what’s actually unprofessional? Withholding opportunities to foster a student’s social and emotional wellbeing by enabling them to see themselves as valued.
So, how do you get the balance right? On the one hand: autistic children, bullied children, vulnerable children… they need to know without doubt that they are cared about. On the other, you don’t want to present yourself in a way that leads them to see you as a “social friend” rather than an older role model in a professional context.
(To put it another way: I would readily take a bullet to the chest for the students I work with. But I would not invite them to my birthday party. Because the best thing I can do for them is be the man they need me to be: a consistent, reliable and caring professional who’s a stable and grounding positive influence.)
But I can assure you, there are ways of maintaining a professional teacher-student relationship without forbidding your students from knowing how much you value them as people. And personally, I’ve always been very direct: if a student has made me proud, I will tell them unambiguously that I’m proud of them. If I see an attitude in them that I like, e.g. caring for others, diligence even when struggling, casual bravery (and wow, I love seeing my students being brave), I will very directly point out that I’m pleased with them – in a way that fits in with their comfort zones of course, and in a manner they find encouraging rather than embarrassing.
I do this for three reasons:
I’m autistic. I communicate directly.
They’re autistic. Little vague hints that I’m kind-of-sort-of a bit pleased with them won’t be interpreted as meaningfully as I’d want.
Some of the autistic children you work with may have spent their formative years being downtrodden, insulted and made to feel worthless… and the people who said those things to them will have been very direct about it. If you want to supplant students’ negative thoughts with positive ones, then be as direct and specific as those who wronged them.
11. Different schools suit different teachers.
I’ve worked in mainstream and special schools that were wonderful, and I’ve spent time in mainstream and special schools that sucked. Want to know what the distinguishing factors were?
The good schools knew who I was. They knew my strengths, they knew what motivated me, and had the wisdom to know that teachers – like students – work harder and work better when they’re doing something they love.
The bad schools expected us to adapt 100% to the vision of senior management, rather than seeing what skillset lay among their staff and adapting their approach to allow us opportunities to do what we’re good at. Kind of like commanding a bunch of mathematicians to be plumbers, and wondering why they can’t fix pipes using a protractor and a compass.
Finding a teaching post isn’t just about finding a school that will employ you. There needs to be a culture in the school that you feel comfortable with, senior staff you feel supported by, and a school ethos that matches your own.
12. And finally… develop your own coping strategies.
When we work with autistic students, we often encourage them to find strategies to look after their own wellbeing. But we often forget to consider our own.
I recently told an audience;
“If you’re not worrying about your students on the drive home, you’re not doing your job right”.
It was a very tongue-in-cheek way of saying that our job is so important that we can’t pretend we can forget about it the moment we walk out the door. But at the same time, the compassion we feel for our students, if left unchecked, can lead to issues for ourselves.
I’m under no illusions about how emotionally connected I am to my work. I have a long history of lying awake at 2am hoping my kids will be alright when they become adults. This is just a natural consequence of caring; it only becomes problematic when we don’t have healthy ways of addressing how we feel. Personally I’ve always had strong relationships with senior staff (and typically worked in schools where senior staff are approachable) as well as having private therapy to explore my mental adventures as well. This works for me.
Despite this article being mostly about my teaching, it’s only one of my jobs (I’m also a blogger, speaker, novelist and creative writing tutor – who needs one job when you can have five?). Running Autistic Not Weird and its Facebook community of 130,000 [at time of writing, January 2021] also takes its share of my energy. And I came to realise how vulnerable I was a few years ago – when a follower sent me a video of a man killing himself, as “punishment” for me not responding to her email for three days (those three days being December 26, 27 and 28).
Since then, I’ve kept thinking of – and reflecting on, and evolving – strategies to make sure that I’m doing ok. Your mental workload is unlikely to get ‘easier’ as time goes by, but as you explore what works for you, you’ll find ways of making it feel easier.
And these strategies must be entirely personal to you. What works for me works for me, whether it’s playing videogames into the early hours at weekends, or hugging the people I love… or something more professional. Because like I said, I also receive private therapy… funded by my awesome Patreon supporters.
See your students’ individuality, instead of seeing a diagnosis and looking no further.
Understand that your autistic students need to become the best autistic people they can be, not second-rate non-autistic people.
Understand the value and importance of school policy, whilst knowing it can be changed if needed.
Be relentlessly and uncompromisingly flexible in all you do.
Have relentless and uncompromising faith in your students.
Special education isn’t “below-par mainstream”, it’s special education. So don’t replicate mainstream schooling.
Your students’ vulnerabilities won’t always be visible.
Ask students for their opinions, and take them seriously.
Communication means everything when looking after a child’s best interests.
Let the students know, directly, how much they are cared about and believed in.
Find the right school for you as a teacher and as a person.
Develop methods to look after your own wellbeing too.
Underdogs, a near-future dystopia series where the heroes are teenagers with special needs, is a character-driven war story which pitches twelve people against an army of millions, balancing intense action with a deeply developed neurodiverse cast.
Chris Bonnello is a national and international autism speaker, available to lead talks and training sessions from the perspective of an autistic former teacher. For further information please click here (opens in new window). Autistic Not Weird on Facebook