Reflecting on a Critical Pedagogy for Social Interaction between Autists and Educators
By Raymond N. Peart, Autism Coordinator, Disability Services
Strengthening Transitions for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder is a three-year pilot project represented through the collaboration between York University, Seneca College, the Toronto District School Board, the York Catholic District School Board (YCDSB), and the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development (formerly MTCU). Our goal is to support students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD/Asperger’s) transition from high school into a post-secondary school program of their choice. The Strengthening Transitions model provides integrative support services throughout the full calendar year, beginning in high school and ending after the first few months of a post-secondary academic program. As the pilot comes to an end, we work toward developing an infrastructure that made programs available through the pilot sustainable and active beyond the life of the three year term.
I set out to write an informative “guide” on how to work with students on the autism spectrum or the more commonly used term Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). My hope was that such a document would be useful to support instructors on how to work with students with ASD. By now, it is a foregone conclusion that committed, compassionate and informed educators are integral to relevant and successful teaching and learning.
Yet upon reflection, I questioned the utility of designing such a document. Is the construction of a guide the appropriate starting point in an endeavour to serve effectively the population of students with whom I have come to develop a close association? In my mind, there was something absent, artificial and insincere about such a strategy.
Here is my rationale…
Long before I knew what autism was, I was working with students with ASD as a tutor in Disability Services, and I was working with them successfully. What is to be gained from that experience and knowledge is that people are not the labels we feel compelled to attribute to them. I personally experience the consequences of such tactics daily, but on some fundamental level, we all do.
I carry both a guilt and concern that there is so much more to be done in my role as Autism Coordinator within Disability Services and the ongoing question: what else can we do to improve things? These feelings continue to push me toward a hope and belief that York will achieve what we set out to do in our pilot project, Strengthening Transitions for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Instead of a structured guide, I have provided a short list of suggestions below on how to perhaps think about your interaction with students with ASD:
- Know your student first rather than their diagnosis
- Try to understand ASD, at least in its broad context, by asking people who have experience working with autists. They can and are willing to support you.
- Don’t feign a perfect attitude toward inclusiveness. Reconcile with your personal bias to avoid negatively discriminating behaviour. What makes critical pedagogy successful is understanding that there are no fixed set of solutions to the challenges that students with ASD experience in their lifetime.
- Consistency and structure matter. This applies both to your classroom routine but also your interaction with your students.
- If students are forthcoming about their diagnoses and are receptive to talking about their needs, don’t be afraid to ask meaningful questions to get a better sense of their needs, strengths and areas of opportunities. However, if a student does not disclose, you can still ask students about what has worked for them in the past related to successful classroom interaction and learning and what functioned as barriers for them in their learning. Never ask students to disclose their diagnoses if they haven’t done so. Privacy and rights are key.
- Beyond understanding the characteristics and behaviours that students with ASD exhibit, much of the ways Disability Services supports this population of students is to encourage a Universal Teaching Design Model in the classroom, which permits supporting other types of students at the same time
These six factors emerge from a student success and student focused framework.
With the immense spotlight that has focused on autism over the past ten years in Ontario, and the priority that we continue to give to it, opportunity exists to grow these frameworks and the perspectives that enter and come to structure them.
But as a personal reflection, I often wonder if autists are looking at us non-autists through a clearer lens than we have cast on them and are bemused by our confusion and ponder how one day we might be better supported in transitioning from our current selves.
*The term autist is borrowed from Stuart Murray’s text Autism, in which he uses the term as a signifier for recognizing the relationship between autism and the person. Autist does not give priority to the disorder over the individual nor does it eschew the disorder from the individual. It is designed to identify the unique faculty of people with autism spectrum disorder and recognize this population of people as whole citizens.
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