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Opinion: embrace difference in autistic children (and adults)

I can’t imagine much joy in a cookie cutter world where everyone is exactly the same. There would be no surprises and no hidden gems. Difference is comprised of defining features in physical, linguistic, cultural and other characteristics of people.

I like to think of autism as a culture, with it then being able to be celebrated as a cultural expression. Yes, there are difficulties in being autistic: I would happily give away trying to sleep if I could. However, there are also many positive aspects to being autistic. Seeing the details of things is fascinating and can bring great joy. The social justice drive can be harnessed for the benefit of classmates and the wider community.

Difference in autism is not just about the diagnostic criteria. There are some fundamental differences that have an impact on preschools and classrooms but are not well known, such as autistic children’s understanding of time. For most people, time can move slower or faster depending on what is happening, but for many autistic people, the present can feel as if it lasts forever. Understanding that difference explains why a student does not want to get off the computer; because they are worried that they will never be back on the computer again.

Another fundamental difference is in the rigidity of thought. This black and white thinking style can get children, young people and adults into a lot of trouble, but can also explain a lot. With rigidity of thought comes difficulty generalising, but also a delight in those a-ha experiential moments; when you suddenly realise something. I recall, with delight, the moment I realised that the white stuff falling from the sky was the same sparkly white cold stuff from the mountain the year before: snow.

An additional, common difficulty for teachers is that autistic learners can behave incongruously. For example, they might shout, “it’s too noisy!”. Educators should embrace these sensory differences. One person’s reality is as valid as another person’s. Also, the shouting can be an attempt to mask sounds that typical children and teachers can ignore, by filtering and prioritising sensory input. For autistic people with super-sensitive hearing, every noise bombards us, all the time.

One of the most powerful ways to teach autistic students learners is to embrace their passions and interests. This allows teachers to harness a positive aspect of autism: the ability to hyper-focus. When hyper-focused, a child is engaged, and therefore driven to learn more. All children have strengths and support needs. Autism, however, appears more complicated, as every child’s autism is expressed and impacts them differently. Good teaching for autistic children provides engaging activities to develop them, whilst minimising distress and anxiety.

Dr Emma Goodall is the senior autism adviser at the Department for Education and Child Development in South Australia. She is also autistic, and is proud to refer to herself as such. Also, like many autistic people, she rejects the disorder part of the autism spectrum disorder handle, as she’s highly ordered. 

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