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Why We Need Schools That Better Support Kids on the Autism Spectrum

I still feel a deep ache in my stomach when I think about school meetings. Ugh. As the mother of a son who was diagnosed on the autism spectrum at the age of 4, memories of walking into school meetings to discuss my son’s issues and challenges at school, to adjust his individual education plan (IEP), still fill me with an uncomfortable sense of dread and helplessness. As an occupational therapist who has provided school based consultation services, I should have been an insider of sorts — but I never felt that way. Every one of those meetings felt like an uphill battle against an education system that struggled to understand how to enable my son to thrive.

Despite the barriers encountered within the education system, I am filled with gratitude that my son had several talented and caring teachers that did their best to recognize and celebrate his unique skills. For example, identifying in grade four his aptitude for appreciating sarcasm and nurturing my son’s interest in creative writing in high school. The challenges were usually not with the teachers — the challenges were systemic and largely related to the leadership, attitude and culture within our educational system.

Dire Predictions and Stomach Aches

Why did my stomach ache? I felt desperate all of the time. I knew my son was different and that he learned differently, and I recognized that this was a problem. A big problem. I could also see this enormous light in him, staggering potential. It felt like a David and Goliath situation, mother’s intuition versus institutionalized, educational bureaucracy. The schools that my son attended simply did not know how to recognize or work with a different kind of intelligence. They wanted to give him easier work, put him in less academically demanding classrooms, or move him to a self-contained special needs class where the educational expectations would be modified, and his opportunities upon graduation perhaps fewer.

In Steve Silberman’s book, “Neurotribes,” he writes, “One of the hardest things about having a child with autism, parents told me, was struggling to maintain hope in the face of dire predictions from doctors, school administrators, and other professionals who were supposed to be on their side.”

So heart wrenchingly true.

The Essential Autistic Brain

The message I received from professionals and school administrators, was to prepare for the gap between my son and his same aged peers to widen further with each passing year. It felt like low expectations were robbing my son’s future.

As a result of my personal experiences, I believe that a dramatic paradigm shift is needed. The idea that neurological differences such as autism and ADHD are normal variations (neurodiversity) in the human genome, is a position that is increasingly supported by science. People with autism do not need to be fixed, they are wired differently. Our society needs to figure out how to properly support persons on the spectrum, and access their uniquely powerful skills and aptitudes.

Autistic brains are inundated with sensory input, and they are prone to sensory overload. Therefore, learning new skills can be challenging and there can be debilitating barriers in daily life. On the positive side, individuals with autism are detail oriented and demonstrate a bottom up approach to thinking. Bottom up reasoning is inductive (think Sherlock Holmes). It involves taking in all of the details and building the bits and pieces into something that makes sense. Top down thinkers (most people) employ inference and lean on established belief systems, which is beneficial in urgent situations when a decision must be made quickly. Bottom up thinking takes longer, but it is essential for innovation, for creating ideas outside of existing paradigms. Bottom up thinking results in “eureka” moments.

So how do we, as Silberman puts it, “learn to think more intelligently about people who think differently”? I believe that an important component is changing the culture and attitudes around neurodiversity in our education system. Research demonstrates that teachers’ expectations of students matters. The leadership within our educational institutions could model a more positive and hopeful attitude towards neurodiversity and its advantages and contributions. Sensory based programming and sensory friendly school classrooms and spaces are crucial. Understanding and enabling the learning style of individuals on the spectrum should be considered an important and valuable investment. The unique and essential autistic brain, with the right support, has the capacity to astonish.

Nikki Reavie O.T. Reg. (Ont.) is an Occupational Therapist working in private practice at Sensory Based Solutions, in Burlington, Ontario.