Autism: Different—Not Less!

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April is National Autism Awareness Month in the US. Since the 1970s, this month has helped educate the public about autism and related issues. Visit the Autism Society’s website to learn more about autism and how you can promote autism awareness.

Not long ago, I had the opportunity to hear animal scientist and autism advocate Dr. Temple Grandin at an event sponsored by the Autism Society of Southeastern Wisconsin. Her topic: Different . . . Not Less: Successful Employment for Adults With Autism. She shared suggestions, based on her experiences and insight, for those who support people with autism.

She advocated for inclusive classrooms, noting that successful employment requires the ability to navigate an inclusive employment landscape. She encouraged educators and parents to “stretch” children with autism when they are young. She advised placing them in situations where they have to develop social skills, like shaking hands, taking turns, having a conversation . . . but without any surprises!

Abilities Versus Disabilities
One of Dr. Grandin’s employment suggestions really resonated with me. She explained how she learned that she had to “sell her work, not herself.” She had to move potential employers beyond looking at who she appeared to be and make sure that they could see what she was able to do.

Great advice for the job seeker, but is there also a lesson in her words on the value of being nonjudgmental? How often are all of us guilty of judging a person on first impressions? How often do we educators make assumptions about a student based on a label? Does our objectivity suffer in the face of information in the student’s file—or in conversation in the teachers’ lounge? Are we so focused on identifying and remediating deficiencies that we fail to see the child’s strengths? Does the shadow of our perception of a child’s limitations obscure the light of what that child can do?

Are You a Strengths Finder?
Has your school moved from autism awareness to autism acceptance? How do you find and nurture strengths in all of your students? How do you recognize and develop talent in all? What tips do you have for others on fostering a successful inclusive classroom? How do you create a climate of acceptance, where different doesn’t mean less?

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About the Author

“With empathy and caring as our guiding values, we can never compromise treating others with respect and dignity.”