Walk into many SpEd classrooms, and you’ll see complete ignorance of neurodiversity and the social model of disability. Students with conflicting sensory needs and accommodations are squished together with no access to cave, campfire, or watering hole zones. This sensory environment feeds the overwhelm -> meltdown -> burnoutcycle. Feedback loops cascade. Mind blind neurotypical adults shout across the room, feeding the overwhelm. They ratchet compliance, feeding the overwhelm. They treat meltdowns as attention-seeking “fits”, feeding the overwhelm. They not only fail to presume competence, they speak about kids as if they aren’t even there, feeding the overwhelm. Everything you can do wrong is done.
The most important thing to understand about autism in a classroom context is sensory overwhelm. Education doesn’t. ABA and behaviorism don’t. We navigate systems stacked against us to get access to what amounts to dog training—that dog trainers know better than to use—and a segregated “special” track through our systems that has made no perceivable effort to connect with the communities it serves.
The specialists that serve this “special” track aren’t specialized in the lives and needs of neurodivergent and disabled people; they’re specialized in compliance, manipulation, and the deficit and medical models. They can’t even bring themselves to use our language or educate parents about our existence.
Scientists are increasingly recognizing a moral imperative to collaborate with the communities they study, and the practical benefits that result. Autism researchers are joining this movement, partnering with people on the spectrum and their families to better address their priorities.
Sensory overwhelm is a marquee feature of my life. Autistic perception can be a high fidelity flood in an intense world. “Autistic perception is the direct perception of the forming of experience. This has effects: activities which require parsing (crossing the street, finding the path in the forest) can be much more difficult. But there is no question that autistic perception experiences richness in a way the more neurotypically inclined perception rarely does.“
“Noncompliance is a social skill“. “Prioritize teaching noncompliance and autonomy to your kids. Prioritize agency.” “Many behavior therapies are compliance-based. Compliance is not a survival skill. It makes us vulnerable.” “It’s of crucial importance that behavior based compliance training not be central to the way we parent, teach, or offer therapy to autistic children. Because of the way it leaves them vulnerable to harm, not only as children, but for the rest of their lives.” Disabled kids “are driven to comply, and comply, and comply. It strips them of agency. It puts them at risk for abuse.” “The most important thing a developmentally disabled child needs to learn is how to say “no.” If they only learn one thing, let it be that.” “When an autistic teen without a standard means of expressive communication suddenly sits down and refuses to do something he’s done day after day, this is self-advocacy … When an autistic person who has been told both overtly and otherwise that she has no future and no personhood reacts by attempting in any way possible to attack the place in which she’s been imprisoned and the people who keep her there, this is self-advocacy … When people generally said to be incapable of communication find ways of making clear what they do and don’t want through means other than words, this is self-advocacy.” “We don’t believe that conventional communication should be the prerequisite for your loved one having their communication honored.“
There is another insidious but serious consequence of being labelled (as having or being) “special needs”. The label carries with it the implication that a person with “special needs” can only have their needs met by “special” help or “specially-trained” people – by “specialists”. That implication is particularly powerful and damaging in our mainstream schooling systems – it is a barrier to mainstream schools, administrators and teachers feeling responsible, empowered or skilled to embrace and practice inclusive education in regular classrooms, and accordingly perpetuates attitudinal resistance to realising the human right to inclusive education under Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.