The Best Neurodiversity-Affirming Approach
When Teaching Your Autistic Students

young child with headphones on is playing with colorful building blocks at a desk

Understanding how different minds work can really make a big difference in helping autistic students do well in school.

If you’re a special education teacher and you’ve heard about neurodiversity, this article is here to help you bring it into your classroom. We’ll talk about tips on how to be neurodiversity-affirming when teaching your autistic students to help them thrive in school!

As an educator, practicing a neurodiversity-affirming approach is not about adding more weight to your workload. Instead, it’s an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of autism and neurodiversity.

What Is Neurodiversity?

In your classroom, diversity isn’t just about cultural backgrounds – it extends to the unique ways your students process information.

Neurodiversity is about recognizing and understanding that people’s brains work in different ways. It’s the idea that neurological differences, such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and others, are natural variations of the brain. They’re not disorders that need to be fixed.

Being neurodivergent means having learning differences, but it doesn’t affect how smart your students are. It just means that learning may happen in ways that are different from what we consider “typical” in traditional education.

Paper silhouettes of heads with colorful gears in the brain area symbolizing neurodiversity

What Does It Mean to Be Neurodiversity-Affirming?

Accepting neurodiversity means acknowledging and celebrating the differences that make each student an individual, particularly those who fall under the neurodivergent umbrella, such as autistic students.

Picture your classroom as a community where each student brings their own set of skills and strengths to the table. A neurodiversity-affirming approach is the key to not just understanding these differences but also valuing them. It’s about creating an environment that doesn’t just accommodate but actively celebrates diverse learning styles.

Consider, for example, a neurodivergent who might be both autistic and dyslexic, with specific sensory or fine motor needs. Tailoring your support, providing the right resources, or even approaching the learning process differently can make a big difference.

Forget about the notion of “special needs” as a separate category. Instead, think of your students as people with unique and specific needs and different ways of learning. It’s not about fitting your students into categories; it’s about meeting them where they are and giving them the support they need.

How to Be Neurodiversity-Affirming
When Teaching Your Autistic Student

It’s nice to learn about the effect of a neurodiversity-affirming approach in the classroom. But how can we practice this? Here are some tips and important considerations.

#1 Teach Others About Autism

Educating others about autism is the first step in fostering a neurodiversity-affirming environment. You can help share the idea that everyone’s brain works in unique ways, and that’s something to be accepted.

By spreading awareness about autism as part of neurodiversity, you create a classroom where everyone feels accepted and valued. It also helps break down any misconceptions about autism.

Here’s something to help you with that first step! It’s an Autism Acceptance Awareness Bundle of lessons, activities, and posters that you can edit and print.

#2 Reframe How You Think About Autism

When you think and teach about autism, try shifting your perspective. Instead of seeing autism as something that needs fixing, recognize it as a unique way of experiencing the world. Understand that different does not mean inferior, and question what other people usually think is “normal” behavior.

For example, instead of viewing your student’s stimming as disruptive, see it as a coping mechanism that helps regulate their sensory input.

As you teach your students, change your focus. Instead of teaching them to act “neurotypical,” help them to live independently with joy and productivity, just like anyone else.

#3 Be Open to Re-learning

Part of reframing how we think about autism is learning new information. The oldest person with diagnosed autism just recently passed away! That means what we think we know about autism is still in its infancy, and is constantly evolving.

The previous information that researchers and experts have gathered may not apply to the new generation. That’s why we as teachers should be willing to expand our understanding of autism so we can unlearn outdated information.

By acknowledging that what you think you know is just a snapshot in time, you empower yourself to be a neurodiversity-affirming teacher.

#4 Update the Language You Use

As a teacher, the words you use when teaching your autistic students matter. So, it’s important to be mindful of how we talk TO your students and ABOUT your students.

Talk about your students positively and respectfully. Use correct terminologies, avoid negative labels, like “low-functioning” or “high-functioning,” and steer clear of ableist language.

These steps can make a big impact and encourage a shift toward a neurodiversity-affirming approach.

#5 Listen and Learn from People With Lived Experience

What better way to learn than from those with lived experience? Follow a variety of accounts on social media that talk about autism and neurodivergence. Seek blogs written by people with a variety of neurotypes.

Most of all, engage in open communication with your students. Listen to their experiences, preferences, and concerns.

Once we know more from the lived experience lens, we have broader ideas to bring to the table. We can collaborate with students in ways that are more accommodating to their needs than if we strictly learn from textbooks and so-called experts.

#6 Change Harmful Practices

Another neurodiversity-affirming approach is to identify and eliminate practices that may harm your neurodivergent students. One of those harmful practices is Applied Behavioral Analysis or ABA.

ABA is one of the most common types of intervention for autism. However, it has faced criticism for being potentially harmful to autistic students. Why? Because it focuses on changing behaviors, on making a neurodivergent person act neurotypical. So instead of helping the students, some even reported negative experiences, feeling pressured to mask their true selves and conform to neurotypical expectations.

However, this concern extends beyond ABA because various therapies can also be ineffective and dangerous. So, the focus should be on thoroughly examining these methods, not just the label they carry.

Additionally, it’s important to evaluate the experience of each autistic person with a particular intervention.

And what can you do about this as a teacher? You can adopt a more inclusive and supportive approach by embracing neurodiversity. This involves recognizing and appreciating the unique strengths and challenges of your students and not forcing them to act “normal.”

#7 Be Flexible and Adapt

Understand that every autistic student is one of a kind, and their needs may change over time. That’s why you need to be flexible and adaptable in your approach.

It means being open to change and ready to support each student in the best way possible.

For example, some days a student might need a bit more time on an assignment, or they might do better with visual aids. Being flexible lets you tweak your teaching methods and classroom setup based on what each student needs.

This way, your classroom becomes a place where everyone can learn and feel comfortable, no matter how their brain works!

So, there you have it! Embracing neurodiversity in the classroom is not just about accommodating differences but celebrating them. By adopting neurodiversity-affirming practices when teaching your autistic students, you can create an environment where your students feel valued, understood, and empowered to succeed.