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. Hi, I am a teacher, and I am autistic. I am new to public education in the realm of elementary school. I have 15 years of experience as a preschool teacher, but I recently changed careers because I wanted to teach elementary-aged students. Can we take a minute to talk about inclusion for autistic educators?
For my entire adult life, I have always worked alone. I liked it that way. I built this fantastic preschool program and operated the program in a way that suited my needs and the needs of the families I served. I had many students on the spectrum over the years, and I have always created an inclusive learning environment for my tiny students and their families. Accommodations for diverse learners became second nature in my preschool. I would put my student’s needs first and create a learning space where every student could thrive.
How I Got Here
As a very young child, I was bullied. I was an outcast. People thought I was weird. I was sexually, physically, and emotionally abused at home. I was struggling to cope. My clothes were dirty, my hair was uncombed, and I never cared if my clothes matched or if I was even wearing matching shoes.
School was not a safe place for me, either. Schools did not create an inclusive environment for children with trauma or neurodiversity. I would spend all day at school confused about my interactions with peers and my teachers and then go home to a genuinely monstrous father. My life was hell.
It was not always this way, though. In fact, in high school, you would probably call me a social butterfly. It was easier then. I was young; I was a good student, the boys liked me, the girls thought I was funny, and it was easier to make friends. I found it easier to fit in with everyone.
After adulthood, I got married relatively young and started a family. Friendships became a mystery again. I lost touch with my high school and childhood friends, except for a social media presence. Life became about my child and my family.
I struggled with relationships, but I always thought this was related to my childhood trauma and my inability to fully trust men. I always chalked all my unconventional ways up to my childhood experiences and trauma.
Eventually, I opened a preschool to help support my family. The preschool was successful, and I made amazing relationships with my clients, but we were never friends. Besides one dear friend who was once a neighbor of mine, I have lived a life of solitude, and I always longed for friends, but I just never knew how to make them.
Late Autism Diagnosis
Finally, in 2018, I began to work toward a master’s degree and a teaching license. I worked in a few schools but never on a team. I would attempt to make friends and never truly understood the ritual of starting a relationship. I would overshare or not realize someone wanted to be friends and appear cold.
This year, everything made sense. I became a classroom teacher, and I now work on a team of four. I have struggled to understand every nuance of relating to other people. I have done a terrible job; I have cried on many occasions thinking everyone hated me and not understanding why I am weird. I finally decided to do some research.
This is what led me to autism. I even brought it up to some people, and I was told, “no, you could not possibly be autistic.” I even had a few coworkers ask me, “if you are autistic, what will you do with the information? What would this do for you?”
Despite this, I decided to pursue a diagnosis anyway. The way I thought about it, if this is my childhood trauma, maybe I can seek counseling and learn ways to cope. If this is autism, perhaps I can explore how this changes my daily life and if there is a way to learn social skills and monitor my sensory issues to live in peace within myself.
Last week, I was told that I am autistic. Suddenly, every thought and every feeling I have ever had made complete and total sense.
Inclusion for Autistic Kids
Today’s schools are not like the school I went to as a child. The classrooms are made up of lots of children with diverse learning needs. Neurodiverse children are in regular classes and are given support in the many areas where they struggle.
Teachers model social situations and help students assist with navigating confusing interactions for neurodiverse students. The environment is supportive and inclusive. At least this is true for the children.
Inclusion for Autistic Educators
Can we talk about inclusion for autistic educators, though? Yes, we exist. While it may be easier to help students navigate classroom social exchanges, we still have our own struggles.
I find myself sharing too much. I often overestimate how close I am with a person, and I assume they were my friend when they spoke to me one time. I walk up to groups, and I do not know how to contribute to the conversation, but I try. They look around at each other and exchange looks, and I do not know what the looks mean. They go out with each other, and I am not usually invited. I see teachers gathering in a classroom during the planning and having a friendly chat, so I try to join in. I typically end up making my coworkers very uncomfortable, and I leave these exchanges feeling confused and more isolated.
Of course, it is not my coworkers’ fault. I do not blame them at all. When I explained to them that I am on the spectrum, they do not know how to respond, but I can see them trying to be kind.
On the other hand, I have minor issues making a space for myself in my workplace. The lights in the classroom give me a headache, so I keep them off and use lamps instead. I find myself feeling frustrated when our custodial staff turns my lights on to clean and leave them on when I have explained about my eyes. Then, I feel guilty for asking this of them because it is not that big a deal, right? Well, to me, it is.
The more I try, the more awkward it gets, and the more I feel isolated at work.
How Can We Create a More Inclusive Environment for Educators?
- Listen to Their Needs– When you discover that a coworker or employee is autistic, it is important to ask them about their specific needs. I’m not too fond of bright lights, I do not like to be touched, and I want extra space between myself and another person. If I knew this about one of my coworkers and we were going to hold a meeting in my room, I would turn my lights off or down, and I would make sure to provide seating that will allow my coworker plenty of comfortable space.
- Try Not to Be offended– Sometimes, neurodiverse people need isolation. Try not to take it personally if we go into our classroom or office and shut the door. We spend our entire day being bombarded with sensory overload, and it is very draining. I teach third grade, and my students can be pretty loud. I need to close my door and quiet my mind.
- Try to Include Them– While we sometimes wish to be alone, we also get very lonely. If you can think of a nice thing to say or want to check in on your quirky coworker, say hi and ask them how they are! They will not be shy if they do not wish to share.
- Do Not Be Afraid to Tell Them if They Hurt You– Sometimes, we are unintentionally blunt. Sometimes people think we are rude. However, we are not always aware of this. We also appreciate straightforwardness from others. If your neurodiverse coworker hurt you with their bluntness, tell them. You can be assured that they will feel terrible to know they hurt you, and they will make every effort never to do it again.
- Focus on Their Strengths- While neurodiverse people may not be great at socializing, we have many strengths and can add so much value to a team. We love putting our skills to good use!
- Remember, They Are the Autism Expert- Try not to assume. The only autistic experts are autistic people. Even as a newly diagnosed autistic person, I can tell you more about what it’s like to be autistic than anyone who has a doctorate in the field of autism. Why? I may have a new diagnosis, but I have been autistic my entire life. So please remember that we are the experts. We know what we need, and we know what we are capable of accomplishing.
- Offer Support When You Can- If you see a coworker struggling somehow, ask how you can support them. Sometimes neurodiverse people need support in translating social exchanges. Sometimes, I have to consult with my coworker to see if I misunderstood a social interaction in a meeting. Often, it is difficult for us to navigate complex social situations without assistance.
- Do Not Make Assumptions- Every Neurodiverse person is different. We have different personalities, different interests, different abilities, and we struggle with different things. Do not make any assumptions. If you met one autistic person or if you have an autistic child, please do not assume you know everyone on the spectrum.
- Do Not Say, “You Don’t Look Autistic”- Please do not do this in 2021. No one looks autistic. While we are at it, please don’t say, “well, if you are, you’re high functioning.” Autism is not on a scale from high functioning to low functioning. You may look at someone and think that they socialize perfectly fine, they handle stress just fine, they do not seem to have any autistic traits. You do not know the internal struggles of any neurodiverse person. Many of us mask to appear like everyone else. Comments like “you must be high functioning” are part of the reason why we feel the need to mask. Functioning labels create a space for discrimination. Stop doing this.
There are many ways to support neurodiverse people. Examine your attitude about autism and autistic people. Support your coworkers and work to make the working environment more inclusive. When in doubt, just be kind and understanding.